VCU students to participate in Arctic summer research cruise

Ship breaking ice in arctic waters.
The Swedish icebreaker Oden traversed over 2,000-nautical miles across the Northwestern Passage during the 2019 expedition. (Photo courtesy of Lars Lehnert)

Three Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduate students will set sail this week as part of a National Science Foundation-supported research expedition studying the Arctic Ocean’s impact toward life on Earth.

Ericka Schulze, Mirella Shaban and Tristan Rivera, joined by VCU associate professor Linda Fernandez, Ph.D., will take part in the Northwest Passage Project voyage set to depart from the Thule Air Base in Thule, Greenland, on Thursday onboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden returning Aug. 4 after a 2,000-nautical-mile journey.

Led by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography's Inner Space Center, researchers and students from various universities and research centers will collect water, ice and air samples to gain a clearer picture of how climate change is affecting the Canadian Arctic Archipelago’s ecosystem and how that informs understanding of changes worldwide. VCU is one of eight U.S. universities participating on the trip.

Fernandez, who studies environmental economics at VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies and is serving as a faculty coordinator for the trip, said VCU’s participation is “the ideal type of NSF research for fundamental understanding of dynamic changes in a lesser-known region of the world.” Schulze, Shaban and Rivera — all Center for Environmental Studies students — will participate in an independent study during the fall semester under Fernandez’s guidance to synthesize their findings for presentation.

Shaban, who will be participating in the physical oceanography group, said taking part in this unique adventure and representing VCU is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I am most looking forward to seeing the beautiful Arctic and conducting research in one of the most remote and variable environments in the world with a plethora of research and data to be collected in,” she said.

Shaban credits her previous research experience at VCU, including an independent study of low-density polyethylene substitutes such as yucca and bamboo fibers, as preparing her for the unpredictability of field research.

One important aspect of the expedition is the planned interactive elements geared toward informing the public, Fernandez said. Facebook Live broadcasts on July 20, 25 and 30 will be streamed from the Oden, the first ever attempted from the Northwest Passage. Viewers will be able to get real-time status updates and analysis of research activities directly from scientists and students. Throughout the trip, additional live broadcasts will be screened at participating science centers and museums across the United States, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Students, including those from VCU, will be blogging their experience with posts on the Northwest Passage Project website.

Beyond the live broadcasts, Emmy Award-winning director David Clark will film the trip for a two-hour television documentary, “Frozen Obsession,” to be broadcast in 2020. Fernandez said the film would be screened at VCU next spring.

For more information on the Northwestern Passage Project expedition, visit https://northwestpassageproject.org/.