Science journalist Helen Fields gave a lecture in Thomas Steitz Hall of Science on Thursday, April 26th in honor of Earth Week.
Fields’ lecture, titled “Science, Journalism, and Knitting on Ice: My Six-Week Adventure in the Bering Sea,” chronicled the time she spent on the Healy, a U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker. The Healy carried a plethora of scientists, members of the Coast Guard, and members of the media team, including Fields.
This lecture was part of the many Earth Week activities on campus, most of which were sponsored by Lawrence’s on-campus environmental awareness organization, Greenfire. Fields joined photographer James Balog and Greenfire co-founder Jay Roberts as one of many guests invited to come to campus to increase awareness and provide environmental education to the university and the Appleton community.
Fields explained to her audience that she spent much time writing about the scientific research conducted on the ice breaker. This research varied from studies on the physical properties of ice to the analysis of conditions underneath the ice, such as oxygen levels and “marine snow,” which is a type of organic matter that falls from the lowest layer of ice to the bottom of the ocean, bringing energy from sunlight to organisms that live in total darkness below the surface.
“The point of this cruise was to understand the entire Bering Sea ecosystem, which it turns out you cannot do in six weeks,” Fields said during her lecture, eliciting laughs from the audience.
According to Fields, there are fishing industries that rely on the Bering Sea’s ecosystems, and this was one of the motivating factors behind the study of the Bering Sea. Said Fields, “So you’ve got this entire ecosystem: you’ve got the water, you’ve got the phytoplankton that are synthesizing, and you’ve got bigger things eating them…eventually you get to fish, and eventually you get to people. [The goal was] just to understand how all of these things relate to each other. And also, what happens if it changes? What happens if the climate warms? As the water changes, as the air changes, what does that mean for these fisheries and the people who are making their living on them?”
A freelance journalist, Fields reported on the research on the Healy for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Polar Discovery website. Fields’ daily articles provided a resource not just for those interested in environmental science in a polar region, but also for the families of the scientists, who would often go for long periods of time without hearing about the work being done by their loved ones out at sea.
Fields also described her own experiences as a journalist and as a person living on a ship for six weeks at the lecture. She discussed how living on a ship with few distractions when she wasn’t writing or exploring out on the ice left a lot of free time, and she was able to spend plenty of time pursuing one of her favorite hobbies: knitting. Fields appealed to the lifestyle of many college students with her tips for knitting on the cheap.
“Cashmere usually costs a lot, but if you buy a cashmere sweater at a thrift store and unravel it, you get a bunch of yarn for just five dollars,” she excitedly informed the spectators.
For Martha Allen ’14, Field’s lecture was an inspiring one. “What was really exciting about it is that I could see myself completely doing something like that,” said Allen. “Just the idea of taking journalism to a science field and making a huge trip out of it and going to the Arctic and having new experiences, that would be really neat.”
Fields, who was a biology major at Carleton College in Minnesota, has written for National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, and ScienceNOW, among other publications. Her website, including a short blog post about her lecture at Lawrence, can be found at heyhelen.com.