Exploring Alaska, the Last Frontier

by Carol Lee — Marketing

For Anna-Marie Kokx '10, a great day at the office includes hiking a glacier, exploring a national park, and keeping an eye out for moose and bear. Anna-Marie's 2009 summer internship gave her exactly that opportunity.

A senior biology major, Anna-Marie worked with the Forest Soils Laboratory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She assisted a team of researchers in the Long-Term Ecological Research program. They monitored environmental conditions in control and variable plots, procured and analyzed organic matter samples, and maintained the research plots. "Each week," she said, "we would hike out to our sites, or take a boat along the Tanana River to an island where we had a plot and measured oxygen and carbon dioxide concentration on each plant specimen to see what was growing and producing CO2." Their work is helping researchers learn more about unique natural properties of forests in the Arctic Circle. Research findings will assist firefighters, loggers, and the USDA Forest Service and also determine possible effects of climate change on fragile northern forests.

While in Fairbanks, Anna-Marie took a weekend elective course at the University of Alaska, in which she learned about plant species that appear only in the northern parts of Alaska, Russia, and Scandinavia. Anna-Marie saw the effects of Alaska's unique climate on plant growth. "The growing season is comparatively short," she said. "It was interesting to see how various species like arctic willow, poppy, and blueberry had adapted."

Internships are a great way for students to gain professional experience in their field of study. Dr. John Silvius, senior professor of biological science at Cedarville, agrees. "Internships where students work alongside researchers in field or laboratory settings give them a tremendous advantage," he explained. "The result is sometimes a better sense of the particular vocation they would like to pursue, sometimes an open door to a graduate program, and usually an important experience to include on their resumé."

Cedarville alumni have gone on to prestigious graduate programs in environmental science, as well as medical and veterinary schools. Others have chosen career paths as naturalists, science teachers, and researchers. Anna-Marie has her sights set on veterinary school after she graduates in December.

Anna-Marie has found that her fieldwork brings to life the research she studies in class. She has a heightened appreciation for the amount of background work that goes into research as well as the uncontrollable factors that can affect its outcomes. "I also found new appreciation for what we have at Cedarville," she said. "Even if we may not have the resources of larger schools, our faculty members are very strong. They always find ways to bring more to the classroom."

Because she worked four 10-hour days each week, Anna-Marie had long weekends free to explore Denali National Park and the towns near Fairbanks. "Even though Alaska is part of the United States, it has its own unique culture," she said. "It was interesting to see how people live. The summer season is so short, they only have a brief window of time all year to build or maintain their towns. The rest of the year, everything is covered in snow and ice."

Another natural phenomenon earned Alaska the nickname "Land of the Midnight Sun." Because of its proximity to the North Pole, the sun never completely sets in the summertime. "It doesn't even get dusk," Anna-Marie said. "It's more like twilight in the middle of the night. That makes it hard to sleep, and people are out and about at 3:00 a.m. If you travel north of Fairbanks, you can see the sun dip below the horizon and then come right back up."

The abundance of summer sunlight creates a short, but robust, growing season for Alaska's plant life. Anna-Marie's internship exposed her to new plant species and others that were familiar but different because of unique environmental factors. She was able to use a plant press at the University of Alaska to dry and preserve dozens of plant specimens that she brought back to be catalogued in Cedarville's herbarium.

Faculty use the herbarium collection in lab teaching to supplement live specimens or to demonstrate a plant species outside of its season of bloom. Dr. Silvius shared that herbarium collections grow more valuable as they grow and age. A friend of Cedarville recently donated a collection of Illinois tall-grass prairie plant species that dates back to 1892. "Each entry in our collection has preserved flowers, pollen, and vegetative form," he said. "These can be used in comparative studies with live plants growing in the exact habitat where the specimen is recorded as having been collected."

Anna-Marie's internship in Alaska was a great personal and professional opportunity, and the unique specimens she brought back will benefit other students for years to come. Dr. Silvius would like to increase the herbarium collection by adding specimens representing the flowering plants, ferns, and mosses. If you would like to donate plant specimens to the Cedarville herbarium, contact Dr. John Silvius at silviusj@cedarville.edu or 937-766-7948.