Biological Oceanographer, Polar Ecologist & Scientific Educator Allison Fong talks about her experiences conducting fieldwork in some of the most extreme and remote environments on Earth.
Allison Fong is a polar ecologist and microbial oceanographer who specializes in the roles of microbes in biogeochemistry and marine ecology. She served on the Board of Directors of the Association of the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO) from 2011 to 2014 during her graduate studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa. She works for ASLO as a member of the Education and Outreach Committee, where she directs the ASLO Storyteller Series. From 2016 to 2018, she was a member of the International Arctic Science Committee’s (IASC) Marine Working Group. She is currently a researcher at the Alfred-Wegener Institute (Germany) and the MOSAiC Project’s Ecosystem Team Co-coordinator (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate). During her career, she has sailed offshore on research vessels for more than 500 days and spent more than 9 months in the central Arctic leading Team ECO to collect the heartbeat of Arctic life. She has studied microbes in waters off the coast of Rapa Nui as well as microbes encased in remote Arctic sea ice. Allison has dedicated her career to service and community involvement. She regularly engages with a wide range of audiences through talks, from high school maths students to undergraduates, and was invited to give a virtual talk at the California Academy of Sciences Night School event. Allison was featured on ABC News Voices Series: Women and Climate Change (April 2021). She was also featured in GEO Magazine (December 2020) and CBS News (November 2020) discussing her passion, the value of science, and the importance of taking action to combat climate change.
This interview originally appeared in Planet China Vol 15, March 2023
What inspired and motivated you to go into the field of science? What made you excited to become a biological oceanographer and sea ice ecologist?
I have been fortunate enough to have always lived close to the ocean, never more than 30 minutes away. Growing up in Rhode Island, I was only 15 minutes away from a salty shoreline. I was just 10 minutes away from the sea when I went to Hawaii for graduate school. My proximity to the ocean had a significant influence on my career choices. As a child, my family would go to the beach for leisure, and I became attached to the idea of living near the ocean. I was also curious about science and how things work, especially in the environment. So, when it came time to decide what to pursue, marine science was my natural choice. I began studying marine biology in college, but I realized that I was interested in how different components of systems work together and interact, which led me to oceanography. I focused on biological oceanography, specifically studying microorganisms and their carbon and nitrogen transformations. After completing my PhD, I took a position at the Alfred Wegener Institute, where I could study microorganisms in different environments, such as the Arctic. What I meant to say is that I’m interested in studying microorganisms in the ocean and their roles in carbon and nitrogen transformations. This can be done in any ocean environment, not just the subtropics of the Pacific Ocean. I find it fascinating to study these same questions in completely different environments, such as the Arctic. Sea ice is a unique and remarkable habitat in the world’s oceans. It is composed of liquid water that freezes and separates the atmosphere from the rest of the ocean, and it changes over time, along with the organisms that live and associate with it. This cycle begins and ends every year, making it a captivating area of study. I consider myself fortunate that my career and passion for being near the sea have coincided. I’ve always been curious about the natural world, and studying the ocean is an excellent way to explore it. The ocean is vast, yet we can be very close to it, resulting in a constant back-and-forth between feeling connected to it as humans, while also perceiving it as something alien.
Allison Fong is MOSAiC Ecosystem Co-Coordinator for Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research
What were the main challenges at the beginning of your professional career?
Identifying as a woman and a scientist is essential, and we are grateful for the women who paved the way for gender equality in science. While progress has been made, there is still work to be done. But there are still systemic biases in every field against women. In ocean sciences, that’s getting better every day with some of the challenges. Regardless of one’s identity, finishing university does not necessarily prepare individuals with enough knowledge on how to succeed, graduate school and become equals in their profession. It can be really tough. In the American system, students are required to complete coursework to develop their fundamental knowledge base while simultaneously proving to their supervisors and committee that they possess unique, innovative ideas that can advance their field. Simultaneously, you must possess extensive knowledge of existing information and utilize that knowledge to propose new ideas that can contribute to the field’s progress. I think that challenge is both exciting, and also very hard. Students start questioning, “Do I really know enough?” “Do I have sufficient knowledge about this topic to propose new ideas?” “Will I come across as unintelligent in front of my peers?” This is because perhaps they think other students know something that they do not. It can be quite challenging at the start of one’s career. I think another thing is that sometimes people, especially in my field, in the work that I do, don’t necessarily recognize how physically and psychologically demanding it’s going to be. During my time in the field, I spent many months away from shore with limited communication. It was an isolating experience, even though I had a community to work with. Being on a ship meant that you always are in a work environment, and occasionally, you may find some quiet time to have for yourself. However, at the end of the day, we are on a floating platform designed for work, unlike an office where people work for eight or ten hours and leave to unwind and see their loved ones. On a ship, the workload can be psychologically taxing, and there are no clear boundaries between work and personal life. The intensity of work on a ship is extremely demanding. Many individuals, particularly those early in their career, may not fully understand the importance of addressing this challenge. It’s crucial to consider whether you are comfortable living and working in such a way, as you cannot easily detach from the task at hand. Another early challenge is learning to cope with the uncertainty and failure that comes with conducting experiments. It’s something that is not often discussed, but in reality, scientific breakthroughs are often preceded by numerous failed attempts and years of trial and error. While we tend to focus on the successes, it’s important to acknowledge and embrace the inevitable failures that are part of the scientific process. There’s a lot of demanding, redundant, and tedious work that you have to face. You need to decide whether you’re going to persist in your pursuit of knowledge or give up. It’s something that isn’t often discussed – the need to become accustomed to experiments not succeeding. However, it depends on how you approach it. Even if things don’t work out, there’s always something to be learned that can help you try again with new insights, potentially increasing your chances of success. When students feel discouraged because their experiment didn’t go as planned, I ask them, “What did you find?” Even if it didn’t go as expected, something still happened. And what happened is new information. There is always a way of looking at it. Is not really about failure. So much as this is unexpected.
What are your main responsibilities now as a scientist?
In the last seven years, my main responsibility has been in scientific research coordination. I’m the MOSAiC ecosystems coordinator. MOSAiC is a multidisciplinary project on studying Arctic climate. My team is the ecosystem team. We’re one of five teams and I have been responsible for facilitating and coordinating the different aspects of ecosystem science and making sure that each person’s projects could be accomplished and I collect scientific samples from myself. We investigate a wide range of subjects, from viruses inhabiting ocean and sea ice to fish, encompassing all components of the food chain. Moreover, we examine how the ecosystem manages the carbon cycle. This is significant in relation to climate. Surprisingly, much of my work in the last seven or eight years has been about the people who work in science and making sure that we, as a team, can do the best, most effective science together in the context of MOSAiC. I spend a lot of time with people, which is not what I expected. Being a scientist myself, I find it beneficial to collaborate with other scientists as it allows me to better comprehend their thought processes. I understand why, they might be a little bit shy about certain things. So that’s always a benefit.
Did you discover something that surprised you? What is the most interesting thing you have discovered through your research? Have you ever seen anything that’s changed your perspective?
There are several things. I think that one of the best things about being a scientist is actually being surprised. There are very few things that are surprising, but in my field of work, because it’s so hard to get to the polar regions, when you’re there, you’re just soaking it all in with all of your senses. I found that it was really interesting, that our ideas of when the ocean is productive are actually very limited in terms of what the reality is. What we observed is that things are growing sooner than we expected. And that has huge implications for the Arctic food web. But it also has huge implications for how we understand the role of ecosystem functions controlling carbon, and climate and the Arctic. And that was shocking, because most people think, in the polar night, when there are no lights, the sunlight is gone, that the organisms that need sunlight are basically dormant, that they’re quiet, that they’re not doing anything. What we found is that, even with the smallest amount of light, returning in the springtime to the high Arctic, those organisms are ready to utilise it, single photons, they’re ready with all of their photosynthetic machinery to turn on and start producing oxygen and utilising carbon dioxide. That is this paradigm shift in how we think about when things begin to grow. That’s really cool and surprising. My colleagues are working on that right now. Another aspect to consider is the presence of certain upper ocean features that we observe during the summertime. These features create a stratification of the water which can have an impact on the way organisms thrive in the ecosystem. Like they exist in different portions, and they can grow maybe more efficiently in those environments than if they were completely mixed. Viewing that with your own eyes, and getting to make some measurements, changed how we think about the evolution of things in the ocean, in the sense of evolution of properties of organisms in the ocean over a season. Not evolution as genetic evolution, but as munity evolution. You may think about the sea and the ocean being completely homogenous and well mixed, although we may make calculations based on organisms, the truth is that they exist within the structure of the ocean, which is constantly evolving in both time and space. As it changes, you may or may not see it, because when you’re there for a week or two, you get a snapshot. And then you try from that snapshot to create the full movie. But you can’t really do that because there might be all these different things happening that you didn’t get in your snapshot. I think that the beauty of MOSAiC is that we were there for the movie. We were there to see scene to scene back to back how things were changing in time and space. And it’s just when you’re not dealing with snapshots, but you’re dealing with this continuous movie that’s playing before you. It gives you a whole new view on how the world works. So in general, that was really eye opening.
What are the challenges facing sea ice conservation nowadays? Can you tell us something about it?
The interesting thing about sea ice that’s different from glacier ice or on Greenland and Antarctica. Ice sheets are what will contribute to sea level change, because that’s snow and ice that’s deposited on a terrestrial surface, that then melts and adds water to the ocean. So sea ice is made from seawater. Its melting doesn’t change sea level. Having a significant amount of ice at the North Pole and the South Pole affects the functioning of our climate: the greater the amount of ice present, the colder the air that can be maintained at the poles. That helps stabilise the rest of the atmospheric processes in the mid latitudes, at least in the northern hemisphere, where most of the human population lives. That’s the place where we grow food. Trying to think about sea ice conservation it’s multifaceted. One there is the issue of ice in general, and the loss of sea ice year to year is predominantly caused by global warming. We know that there are large human factors that are contributing to the warming of the earth, our industrial way of life, the burning of fossil fuels, that’s the way in which we’re warming the planet. And that has implications for the amount of sea ice that can grow each year. Why does sea ice melt faster? To conserve ice, from that standpoint, means that we really need to take stock of systematically changing the way in which we interact with our environment, switching away from fossil fuels, becoming more sustainable in everything that we do, from food production, to transportation to industry, becoming less extractive with our ways of life. That’s one thing as I said, seaice is a habitat for organisms. There are organisms that we know that depend on sea ice. In the media, you often see images of polar bears in sea ice habitat hunting for their food. The direct connection is that a reduction in sea ice leads to a decrease in the habitat available for polar bears and seals. On the other hand, sea ice is all these little photosynthesizing cells. These are like the rain forests of the sea. They’re just like trees in the rainforest, they photosynthesize, they use co2, they create oxygen. If we don’t have sea ice, those communities no longer have a habitat to do that work. So how do you deal with that? We have to make sure that that habitat exists. And if that habitat of sea ice is being lost, because of warming, then we’re back to those systemic issues of how do we change the human interaction in the way of life of this industrial life with what’s needed. There are things that as individuals we can be conscientious of. We can be more aware where the food comes from, how we move in the world, whether we’re using outsourcing, do we need to drive? Can we use transport? Should we cycle? also the materials that we use … It seems overwhelming as an individual that what choices you make, actually have an impact. But they kind of do, like your behaviours are not just your behaviour. They’re also viewed by your family, by your partner. If you’re a teacher, they’re viewed by your students, if you’re a professor or mentor, those are viewed by the people that you train. Ultimately, we also have a voice in the world and how we think that things should be done. Becoming active in civics in government and becoming a voice for doing things differently, that can be really powerful. I think, ice conservation and conservation in general means not just actively making choices personally, about how you live, but also recognizing that there’s power in your voice, and what you can do with that, how you can communicate what you think it is important and valuable to take stock of. The further I get in my career, the more I recognize how important it is that as a scientist, society looks at us for answers. You make these measurements, you have this data, you’ve come to this conclusion. Now, what are you going to do about it? When we’re trained as scientists, we’re just trying to ask the questions, make the observations, make the measurements and produce the data. We’re very rarely asked, the step after that, what we do about it? That’s not usually something that we’re trained to solve. But I think my generation of scientists is definitely being asked:, What do we do about it? Now that you have all of this data that tells us that we’re doing this to the world? What do we do about it? And I think that’s the challenge is finding a way to communicate and understand. “Okay, we have lots of data. Data is important, and we need it. But how do we transform that data into something that’s actionable? How do we transform it into something that we can apply to our lives? How do we reach people in a way that makes them feel and think and know that those actions matter? “
What I was thinking is that we have this data, but despite the scientific evidence, climate change denial is still very common. What do you think prevents some people from acknowledging global warming is real?
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I live in the United States, and we have our fair amount of climate deniers, warming deniers at all levels of society, even running the country. That’s shocking. There’s a few things that I think. I’m here and I’m talking from the perspective of a person who knows that is extremely privileged, I grew up in America, in a middle class environment, I had access to education, and resources for my learning. So that’s the best disclaimer. But my thought is, and I always ask, are we doing a good job of educating our people, our children, those who are responsible for making decisions for voting for all of these things? Are we doing a good job of educating them about their role in our world, in an environment and how we interact with our world? What implications that has? So one is the education for critical thinking, and critical decision making. And my argument would be that we’re not doing a good job, we’re definitely not doing a good job of that in the United States. I can’t speak for other places. What I’m saying is not that we need to generate and educate more scientists. What we need to do is take a much wider perspective, and educate the whole population to be more aware and conscientious of how facts and information works. That’s one way I think that we need to dispel misinformation is to get people to learn in ways of how they differentiate between things that are based on data and facts versus things that are just opinions. The other thing is that we need people who come from a critical thinking background, and it doesn’t have to be scientist, but to have that type of knowledge, who feel that they have a role that they can play in government, that they feel that they could, actually invoke change at the levels where policy is driven. And I think, having people in positions of power to do that, whether you’re working at your local neighbourhood, community, city level, or all the way up to your country’s parliament level. It’s needed at all levels, that type of leadership, that type of rational thinking, rational debate is necessary in all of the forums where we’re talking about, not just environmental justice, but we’re talking about social justice. These things are all connected, and the fact that we don’t see them holistically, that the welfare of our communities is directly tied to the welfare and well being of our environment in which we live. This dissonance, this disconnection is part of the reason why I think people deny it, because they think it’s not their problem. “Oh, the water that comes out of my faucet is clean. So it’s fine. It’s not my problem if the water you’re drinking is not healthy”, even though the reason it’s toxic is because of a mine that was upstream mining heavy metals for four decades, so that all of us could have cell phones. So that’s the other thing people deny, because it’s not happening to them. A lot of Americans can deny it, because we’re not the ones who are suffering from great amounts of flooding and the loss of home and the loss of livelihood and the loss of life. But as soon as you see these extreme events where people are dying, because they’re under 12 feet of snow, and there’s avalanches, and there’s a loss of roads, and people are freezing to death. And there’s power outages, now you hear: “Oh, Americans, you are suffering from climate change.” Since these are not inter annual variability changes, these are changes that are caused by our impact as humans on the earth, and how it’s changing weather. And that’s something that is a reality that is hitting more people. This reality has been happening to more than half the world’s population for decades. This is just a very lopsided view from a development person, like a developed world’s person. I think climate denial is partially about education. It’s also partially about how we communicate about these things. People do not want more bad news. Unfortunately, the stories that we have in the news about our climate and our environment, and the future is pretty abysmal. It’s not pretty bad. It’s very bad. People who live a life of like 60 to 70 years are thinking: “Oh, that’s not my problem, I’m going to be here for 20 or 30, or 40 more years, and what they’re talking about sea level rise in 100 years, and that’s not going to affect me”. So the stories that we tell about climate, and about our environment, and our relation to our environment, and the role that we play, has to appeal to the human spirit of what it means to be connected. I think a lot of our climate stories are not about how we’re connected and how we need to reconnect with those things. It’s always about what destruction that we have caused, what impending doom there is, and how we, as a little single human being, can really do nothing to stop it. Changing the perspective and appealing to people as human beings, about climate, about environment, about sustainability, that needs to happen, because we’re not reaching people in the ways that we’re telling stories, we’re not engaging in the beauty and the curiosity of how our world works, of what we can do, of why we should be still fascinated by how amazing it is people are fascinated with space. And I ask them, like, Why? Why do you like space? There’s like nothing there. There’s no living things there. There are no rainforests, there’s no ocean that we know of right now. And so far, we haven’t found anything living. It’s interesting that people are fascinated about space. We put billions, if not trillions, at least in the United States. I wonder, if we had just a fraction of that money going towards earth sciences towards ocean exploration and things like that, what an amazing amount of discoveries we could make? Because it’s just this really strange juxtaposition that you can get people excited about something that is full of nothing. And yet we have a hard time getting people excited about where they live. So I feel that’s about the narrative. That has a lot to do with how we talk about science, talk about our environment, and about our relation to the environment. Those are the few things that I think we can do in terms of climate deniers. It’s an uphill battle. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against space. But, compared like, when you look at the budget, it’s outrageous. Compared to Earth Sciences. People think it’s a solution that will live on Mars, or the moon or something. That’s not a solution, if you think of Earth as having all of the resources, and trying to replicate that on a rock somewhere else. That’s gonna be hard.
What is the best lesson you have learned from the ocean?
I think from a philosophical standpoint, the best lesson I’ve learned from the ocean is you can never be certain about what you think, you know. You always, even when you think you know what you know, always have to be tinged with a bit of recognition that there is always going to be things you don’t know. And I feel like that’s a lesson from the ocean because it’s so vast. And it’s so under explored, that everything we know about it. I mean, that’s why oceanography is exciting to me is that we are in a position where we can be making new discoveries every day. Because what we think we know about the ocean as we learn more, and we spend more time studying it, looking at it, making measurements, it surprises us, it’s changing the way we view it. So I think it’s about being open and curious about the world. And the ocean is a great teacher of that. And your curiosity can be infinite.
Photos courtesy of Allison Fong, Photo © Lianna Nixon