Erin Gleason

Graduate student Erin Gleason, from the UAF chemistry and biochemistry department, looks at a schedule to see which of her friends are presenting posters on their research at the conference.

SAN FRANCISCO — More than a hundred professors, researchers and students from the University of Alaska flew into San Francisco last week for what scientist Anupma Prakash describes as a very large family reunion.

“It’s like being with 20,000 cousins,” said Prakash, the associate dean of the College of Natural Science and Mathematics. 

That’s about how many scientists and professionals from around the world attended the week-long annual American Geophysical Union conference in sunny California. Rather than catching up on family matters and life changes (although a little of that goes on too), they catch up on geophysics, which is the science of how the Earth and its surrounding environment works.

Topics range from outer space to the center of the Earth with UAF expertise spanning the gamut. Many UAF scientists share research on arctic issues like climate change and the melting of glaciers and permafrost.

Prakash shared a new method that she and former UAF postdoctoral student Christian Haselwimmer developed to quantify the amount of glacial ice available to Harbor Seals. The seals float on ice chunks that fall from glaciers spilling into the sea, but many glaciers in Alaska are melting and scientists need a way to monitor impacts to the seals’ habitat.

Hers was just one of about 150 talks and posters that UAF researchers presented at the conference.

UAF geophysicist David Stone said the university’s presence at the conference has grown since he first attended it in 1968. He accompanied just a couple dozen UAF scientists during his first year, but said the conference was especially important to them because, “back in those days, TV and news came a day late, and we were so isolated. Coming to these meetings was the one time of year to catch up with the rest of the world.”

While Alaska’s access to news has improved, Stone said there’s nothing like meeting colleagues in person. The formal conversations about science at the conference become more light-hearted as scientists migrate to local eateries. Friendships and trust build there and form the fluid in which ideas can flow freely.

“It’s about getting hold of new ideas so you can apply them to your own work and comment on other researcher’s work to help them along,“ he said.

Chemistry graduate student Erin Gleason said the conference also provided her with a much needed ego boost.

“As a graduate student, you definitely start to have your doubts about how scientifically valid your project is, and how useful your project is,” she said. “It’s really encouraging to have people from outside UAF look at your work and give it affirmation.”

Gleason’s project looks at how salt reacts with ice over a variety of temperatures. It’s part of a larger project where scientists study how salt from the Arctic Ocean and its sea ice releases gas each spring that depletes the ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere.

She said the conference, with its jam-packed schedule, is overwhelming, exciting and exhausting.

“If you’re going to take advantage of good science, you really need to be dialed into the conference,” she said.

Considering that everybody looks a little tired by the end of the day, you could say Gleason’s philosophy must run in the family.

Meghan Murphy is the public information officer and recruitment coordinator for the University of Alaska’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.