Fighting Fire with Science

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One MSU grad student’s contribution to the war on global warming

With Earth Day right around the corner, now is the perfect time of year to shine a light on those in our community who have devoted their lives to better understanding the physical world so that the rest of us might learn how to protect it. 

Graduate student Raven Mitchell is 22 years old and currently going for her Master of Science in the Michigan State University (MSU) geography program. Her educational journey began at Northern Michigan University (NMU), where she earned a degree in earth science. 

While at NMU, Mitchell switched majors from environmental science to earth science in order to ensure she would be more a part of the hands-on research. She eventually made the choice to further her studies in graduate school. 

“Pursuing my master’s at MSU is allowing me to get the work done that I’ve always believed in.” said Mitchell. “That never would’ve happened if I had gone the more commercial route of environmental science. I’ve never thought of myself as the face of this cause, or even that good at communicating why this is important, but I like being a part of the work.”

Aside from the promise of direct participation in scientific research, Mitchell has expressed her contentment with the geography department and its all-encompassing ether. 

“The culture at MSU is very open and welcoming,” said Mitchell. “I really like how interdisciplinary the program is and getting to converge with so many different perspectives. Students in the program come from areas all over the world, and it’s a very refreshing atmosphere to learn and work within.”

“Mitchell’s main thesis is based in trying to quantify the role of flowing water in the formation of large staircase-type landforms called cryoplanation terraces, commonly found in periglacial regions in Atlin, British Columbia. She is also working on a project in conjunction with her master’s thesis called the Circumpolar Active Layer Monitoring Program (CALM).This interest in Arctic research was first sparked when Raven was introduced to her now academic advisor, Dr. Frederick Nelson who is a prominent Arctic scientist and has helped to shepherd her master’s thesis work. CALM has been measuring the changing thickness of permafrost levels for over 25 years now and has around 200 sites across the Antarctica and Arctic regions where researchers are observing this thaw.”

“Permafrost is any type of ground that has been frozen continuously for a minimum of two years, and it has an upper layer called the active layer which thaws seasonally,” said Mitchell. “Every August, we record the depth of this layer and, in response to rising global temperatures, the extent of active layer thickness is increasing in Alaska. Permafrost is a reservoir of greenhouse gases, and the degradation of it increases the potential for previously frozen gases to be released into the atmosphere.” 

Aside from the major release of global warming gases, permafrost thaw may also lead to the crumbling of infrastructure, altered natural landscapes and the potential release of ancient microbial diseases. So having an up-to-date sense of global warming’s effects in these areas can be extremely vital information for those living in these communities.

Permafrost is widespread mainly in the arctic regions, including both Canada and Alaska, where Mitchell has spent many hours of field work research. These regions are highly sensitive to the effects of global warming. This is particularly frightening in places like Alaska, where nearly 85 percent of the state sits on a layer of permafrost.

When asked of what inspires her to continue this research, Mitchell stressed the urgency of prioritizing the sciences despite an adversarial political climate in the United States today. 

“There are a lot of people who hold power in this country and have the resources to bring about vital environmental revolution, but they still remain skeptics of climate change, and this is a major problem,” said Mitchell.

It is this motivation that encourages Mitchell to keep herself from sitting on the sidelines of environmentalism. While many people make small lifestyle changes, like opting out of straws in our drinks or setting up compost bins in our homes, Mitchell continues to take the road less researched.

“I was not really brought up in the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ renaissance,” said Mitchell. “I was just brought up around science, and I’ve learned to go that route if I want to see results in the world.”

Mitchell credits her partner in field research, Kelsey Nyland, as being highly influential on her; as she continues to navigate her future in a field where she’s often an underrepresented figure. 

“The field of physical geography is very dominated by white men, and it’s powerful to have had a female mentor as an example to look to through this experience,” said Mitchell. “She is a very strong-willed and hardworking person who’s devoted her life to working long hours in tough climates. She’s taught me that it takes a hard-ass to stick out a life in earth science; you have to be really devoted to the work.”

Mitchell intends to expand on her mentor’s research once Nyland leaves MSU and accepts a postdoctoral position at George Washington University at the end of this semester. The pair has clocked hundreds of research hours collectively. Unfortunately, their work can often be left up to the fate of tempestuous skies. Still, in rain or shine, field work season remains Mitchell’s favorite part of this research. 

“Enduring the bad-weather days can be discouraging in moments, but I get to spend three months out of the entire year doing what I love. I’m not sure I would cherish the experience as much if I weren’t going all in on it during the summer; it is so much more immersive that way.”

In more ways than just academic, Mitchell can reflect on her long days of fieldwork and admit that she’s been highly affected by these excursions.

“Before all of the field work experiences, I was not that great with change. I’ve always liked a strict schedule, but I had to get flexible and learn to be accommodating in any situation. I know I’m a better person for that now.”

After earning her master’s, Mitchell hopes to go for her doctorate, and eventually dreams of teaching at a university as an ultimate goal. Currently, Mitchell is getting her first teaching experience as she’s taken on the role of TA for a remote sensing course at MSU, which deals with the logistics of drones and aerial imagery in physical geography. Nonetheless, wherever she ends up career-wise, Mitchell promises to stay alert in her intake of news to remain a diligent ally in the ongoing quest for scientific integrity. 

“I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the physical world, but my time in college has taught me to question any information I’m fed. I don’t just subscribe to anything; I’ve learned to inquire about where any research comes from and look deeper to find the truth.”