© Angela Hessenius, Sitka Tribe of Alaska

Alaska programme launches research careers from home shores

13 July 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: A New Deal for the Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Southeast Alaska is a coastal archipelago—far removed from the world’s large biomedical research labs. But as Ellen Chenoweth writes, it is a place where Indigenous culture, fishing economies and subsistence activities highlight the connections between human and environmental health.

Margaret Peterson grew up in Sitka, Alaska, an island community of about 8,500 people. She vividly recalls late-night trips to the beaches with her family to collect clams when she was young enough to worry that the large sea stars exposed by the low tide might attack her. This year, during her senior year in high school, she was among the first group of students to explore these same beaches as part of an educational research initiative called Rural Alaska Students in One-Health Research, better known as RASOR. RASOR is a unique collaboration between the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka campus, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the Sitka Sound Science Center, a non-profit field station. It is centred on the concept of “one health,” which emphasises holistic research that considers the indivisible ties between human, animal and environmental health.

Funded by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health in the United States, RASOR engages Southeast Alaska high school students in remote communities in research that monitors the shellfish from their local beaches for the presence of paralytic toxins. Generated by certain types of plankton, these toxins can concentrate in many of the shellfish that are core components of local subsistence diets. Paralytic shellfish poisoning, which results from acute overexposure to these toxins, was recently designated as Alaska’s top zoonotic (passed from an animal or insect to a human) disease threat.

Proving that science can support culture

RASOR students gathered last fall for Sitka Whalefest, a marine science festival managed by the Sitka Sound Science Center. During the week-long event, students connected with their regional RASOR peers at cultural, outdoor and training workshops. They met college students taking the next steps in their research careers and ocean scientists on the cutting edge of marine research. Then they travelled home to begin their own studies in the field.

Thanks to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s work to develop the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research network, we are able to connect students across six communities with local mentors. The network connects tribal environmental researchers in communities across the state who monitor their beaches for the presence of harmful plankton and send shellfish samples to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab for testing. The mentors assess students’ interests and guide them toward projects that are locally and culturally relevant.

This year, students chose to test previously unmonitored beaches, examine how environmental variables relate to toxin levels, and track toxin levels through the food chain. Their field experiences were supported by rigorous academic coursework at the University of Alaska Southeast. Through highly personalised distance delivery, students engaged in discussions about the role of science in society, the importance of diverse perspectives, and strategies for college success. They presented their results digitally to an audience of researchers and community members.

Together, this programme and our students are demonstrating how science can support both cultural and individual identities.

For Margaret, that meant teaming up with her collaborators to present scientific research that demonstrated promising growth and survival among blue mussels kept in a monitoring cage. Their research was also the subject of her first article in the local newspaper where she works. She has since earned a scholarship to study marine science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

But perhaps the most intriguing and inspiring aspect of Margaret’s participation in RASOR is that she and her fellow researchers completed their work while living and contributing to the small communities that helped form their unique perspectives as rural Alaskan scientists.

ELLEN CHENOWETH is a cetacean biologist, affiliate professor of biology, and research advising and mentoring professional in the Biomedical Learning and Student Training Program at the University of Alaska Southeast and University of Alaska Fairbanks.