Some people just know how to get away.
For two weeks in July, during a period of record heat in New England, Clark University undergraduate Sophie Spiliotopoulos ’20 was cruising the arctic waters along the northern and western shores of Alaska.
The ship was not a luxury liner, however, but the Sir Wilfrid Laurier, an 83 meters-long (about three-quarters of a football field) Canadian Coast Guard light icebreaker and buoy tender. Nor was Spiliotopoulos, a geography/French double major, spending her days admiring the view from a deck chair while writing “wish you were here” postcards. Instead, under the guidance of her adviser, associate professor of geography Karen Frey, and working alongside Clark doctoral students Luisa Young and Clare Gaffey, she assisted in the collection and filtering of more than 800 samples of ocean water from five of the eight Distributed Biological Observatory (DBO) sites across the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Spiliotopoulos, who has worked since her sophomore year as a paid research assistant in Frey’s Polar Science Research Lab, is the first Clark undergraduate to accompany Frey on an ocean expedition.
According to Spiliotopoulos, the DBO sites visited by Frey and her colleagues since 2013 are flagged as hot spots for high levels of biodiversity and change. The data collected from this trip will inform a number of research projects.
The impact of climate change made The Laurier’s capacity as an icebreaker seem almost redundant, even though the journey crossed the Arctic Circle.
“Even ten years ago sea ice in that area, at that time of year, was normal,” says Spiliotopoulos. “I was able to see the real effects of climate change that we discuss in class so often, like a complete lack of sea ice and major die-offs of marine species.”
Spiliotopoulos will incorporate her findings and observations into her senior honors thesis. She cites the Arctic excursion as a seminal experience.
“I not only spent time in a beautiful place that is rapidly changing, but was able to make connections and learn how I can turn my academic interests into a career in the field,” she says. “The intensity of the work created a bond between the scientists, and it was amazing to be part of such an incredible group from such different academic backgrounds.”
A first-year intensive course, The Arctic in the Anthropocene, taught by Frey, piqued Spiliotopoulos’ interested in geography and arctic system science. A later course in landscape ecology taught by Professor John Rogan gave her an opportunity to work with the Wildlife Conservation Society where she helped to model grassland degradation in the Patagonia region of South America, habitat for the guanaco, a llama-like animal.
“That was where I started to understand how I could translate what I was doing in the classroom to the real world and real projects,” she says.
Spiliotopoulos has undertaken other challenges beyond the classroom. In 2017, she was an environmental compliance intern at the Smithsonian Institution, where she helped ensure all of the Smithsonian’s facilities complied with the environmental rules and regulations of Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
Last summer, Spiliotopoulos interned at the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Climate Vulnerability Assessment in Silver Spring, Md., creating species narratives for 14 different stocks of marine mammals found in the Pacific Arctic.
After completing Clark’s accelerated master’s degree program in geographic information science, Spiliotopoulos plans to apply her mapping technology expertise to a career in either arctic science or disaster management and prevention.