Alumni Spotlight: Cassie Gamm

Last week, we caught up with SEFS alumna Cassie Gamm, who graduated as an ESRM major in 2012 and is now in her first year as a master’s student at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She had taken a year off school to research graduate programs, including options in Montana and Colorado, but she had always wanted to live in Alaska. So when she found an exciting opportunity to work with Professor Patrick Sullivan and study ecosystem CO2 exchange in the Arctic—a position fully funded by the National Science Foundation—she jumped at the chance.

Gamm, who grew up near Snohomish, Wash., drove up to Anchorage this past August and spent the fall taking classes. She had never been to Alaska before, and she’s loved exploring the trails that snake throughout the city, as well as the proximity to the mountains.

Cassie Gamm

Cassie Gamm motors back to her field site in Greenland.

At the university, working with the Sullivan Lab in the Environment and Natural Resources Institute, Gamm’s current research focuses on the dynamics of plant respiration in three dominant Arctic species in Southwest Greenland.

In the context of climate change, in particular, she’s investigating how warming temperatures and longer summer growing seasons will impact the ecosystem. Will increased leafy area with expanding shrub growth lead to more photosynthesis, making the region a carbon sink? Or will the thawing permafrost release more carbon than the new greenery will store? Great questions, and they’ve launched her down a new and challenging scientific path.

“Going to UW and the forestry school, we focused on big trees and studying ecosystems on a landscape scale,” says Gamm. “Coming up here to the Arctic, I’m now studying ecology more on a molecular level with respiration and photosynthesis. It’s been a big learning curve, but it’s also been really interesting to study a whole new ecosystem!”

In the Field
As for that new ecosystem, Gamm already completed her first field season in Greenland last summer. The field camp, made up of 8 to 12 researchers in tents, is about a mile from the Greenland ice sheet, and about 20 miles from the nearest town. There’s no running water, and they use water from a nearby lake for drinking and dish washing. The team shares a car to drive into town about once a week to access the Internet, take showers and buy any food they can find. Most of what they eat—lots of pasta and oatmeal, for instance—gets prepped and mailed out in boxes beforehand. And there’s not much locally in the way of fresh produce—maybe a potato or onion every once in a while—so cravings for fruits and veggies can get overwhelming.

“Oh man, it takes a toll on your body,” she says. “We’d talk about making gigantic salads all the time!”

Still, despite the stresses and privations of remote field work on the tundra, Gamm has taken to the research with gusto. “I’d never been to Alaska, let alone the Arctic,” she says, “and it’s awesome!”

Cassie Gamm

Here’s one way you’ll know you’ve arrived in the Arctic: signs alerting you to musk ox!

In fact, in case the Greenland experience sounds equally intriguing to you, Gamm is currently looking for a field assistant to join her out there this coming summer for roughly two months from late May to late August. You have until March 1 to apply, and there are quite a few perks, from the incredible hands-on research experience to getting to live in and explore a stunning Arctic ecosystem. That said, Gamm doesn’t soft-pedal the field conditions and expectations, so make sure to read the official posting and description below as carefully—and honestly—as possible before applying!

Ecosystem Ecology Field Assistant, Southwest Greenland
A field research assistant position is available for the summer of 2014 in Southwest Greenland. The field assistant will be working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to study the differential responses of grasses and shrubs (i.e. cycling of carbon and nitrogen) to a changing climate. The project is a collaborative effort between the University of Alaska Anchorage (Sullivan Lab) and Penn State University (Post and Eissenstat Labs). I am seeking a motivated and enthusiastic student with previous field experience. The research assistant will work one-on-one with me on my project examining both above and belowground carbon fluxes in grasses and shrubs. Duties will include taking accurate baseline measurements such as soil moisture and soil temperature, processing plant samples, data entry and operation of a Picarro isotopic gas analyzer. Experience with gas analysis is not required, but willingness to learn and troubleshoot technical issues is preferred. The field season will run from late May through late August. The fieldwork is based out of a tent camp about 20 miles from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Visits to town, which offers a wide range of amenities, will be made approximately once per week. Due to the remoteness of the tent camp, extensive camping experience and willingness to endure periods of poor weather is required. We are particularly interested in hiring college juniors or seniors who may be interested in pursuing graduate research in Arctic or Boreal ecology.

Travel from upstate New York to Kanger via the Air National Guard will be covered, as well as basic camping gear such as a tent and sleeping pad. The summer will be spent camping with a small group of researchers at a scenic site on the tundra about one mile from the ice sheet. Applicants should be physically fit and willing to learn and work as a team. A weekly stipend will be provided and compensation is dependent on experience level.

Please email a resume and cover letter to Cassie Gamm (cmgamm@alaska.edu). Review of applications will begin March 1 and will continue until the position has been filled.

Photos © Cassie Gamm.

Cassie Gamm

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