Today is the first week of spring, which means that it is Polar Week! It’s also the day on which locations along the Arctic Circle experience exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Running from 17-23 March, Polar Week celebrates and promotes science at the poles through a variety of activities held online and around the world.

In celebration of Polar Week (for which I’m overseeing social media outreach for the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists over on Twitter and Instagram – go check it out!), what follows is a brief recap of my circuitous route to the wild and wondrous world of Arctic research. I spend a lot of time talking about the Arctic, but a lot of folks might wonder why I’m even talking about the region when I’m not from there. It’s a fair question, so below is an attempt to answer that question.

From the Golden State to the Last Frontier

People often ask me how I came to study the Arctic when I live in Hong Kong, or when I’m from California. “You don’t enjoy warm weather?” they wonder, scratching their heads. I do, actually prefer when it’s hot and sunny out, but that doesn’t prevent me from appreciating the Arctic’s extremes.  In fact, I’d argue that I might treasure them all the more so because most of the year, I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt without much excuse for wearing Icelandic wool sweaters or sub-zero boots. (My hometown of San Francisco also served as a gateway for gold miners and whalers headed up to the North American Arctic in the late 19th and 20th centuries – but that story’s been recounted in a previous blog post).

How exactly I ended up amassing a collection of Arctic-rated gear is a question that requires rewinding about fifteen years. Back in high school, I became interested in learning more about my Scandinavian heritage on my father’s side. This led me to start studying Swedish, a side hobby that intensified upon learning that a schoolmate who would quickly become my best friend (Takeshi Kaji, now Director of the Arctic Circle), was coincidentally also studying a language descended from the Vikings.

Scandinavian skies

Flying over the Greenland Ice Sheet for the first time in June 2007.

Eventually, my interest in Swedish led me to study it in Sweden during my first summer in college. On the flight over from the U.S., I saw three glaciers tumbling in slow-motion into one, a frozen waterfall in triplicate. Even from my window seat, the Arctic’s mind-blowing landscapes were already pulling me in.

A six-week crash course at Lund University paved the way for an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo the following summer, where I became intrigued by the quickly shifting geopolitics of the Arctic (while also discovering that Norwegian waffles are superior to Swedish pancakes). That year, in July 2008, I helped organize a visit by a delegation from the U.S. Geological Survey to the International Geological Union, where they announced the now-famous Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal. Their estimates of 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic drew international media attention – and it also spurred me to want to learn more about whether these resources would spark conflict.

Upon my return UCLA in my junior year, I started researching the Arctic. In my senior year, I enrolled in a capstone project under the supervision of Professor Laurence Smith, who has published groundbreaking research on the hydrology of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and Dr. Scott Stephenson, who has carried out influential work on Arctic shipping. At the same time, I started keeping a blog on the Arctic for the Foreign Policy Association, a position I arrived at after being the only applicant (!).

When I graduated from university, I kept blogging while I worked a full-time job. While I wanted to experience life outside of academia, I knew I’d also want to return to graduate school one day. Blogging was a good means of staying on top of Arctic current affairs while honing my writing skills.

Cambridge calling

Fast forward two years, and an acceptance to the MPhil in Polar Studies at the University of Cambridge along with a generous fellowship from the Gates Cambridge Foundation led me to pack up my bags and move across the Atlantic. I spent one year writing an MPhil thesis under the supervision of Dr. Michael Bravo at the Scott Polar Research Institute on Asian activities and interests in the Arctic, a topic that emerged out of two blog posts I wrote covering South Korea’s polar pursuits.

As much as I cherished my time at Cambridge, I decided to return to UCLA to undertake a PhD in Geography. Compared to British programs, which are largely research-based, American PhD programs also included coursework and teaching components while allowing students more than three years to complete the degree. Since I wanted to learn Russian and remote sensing, I felt the American system was the right choice for me.

California 2.0

I returned to California to start my PhD by way of New Delhi, India, where I presented my MPhil research at a workshop on Asia and the Arctic. This indirect routing was the first of many trips I’d make around the world to study and share my work on globalization and infrastructure development in the circumpolar north. I carried out my PhD under Professors John Agnew and Laurence Smith, who provided years of encouragement and advice. During my PhD, with the support of my advisors and organizations like the National Science Foundation and the PhD Network in Arctic Extractive Industries, I was able to travel widely across the Arctic, from Greenland to Alaska, and carry out research in Canada’s Northwest Territories and the Russian Far East.

Now on top of the Greenland Ice Sheet, with our helicopter pilot and my advisor, Dr. Laurence Smith, changing clothes, as it was much warmer than we had anticipated.

The long and winding Silk Road

Ultimately, after a brief stint as a visiting PhD student at the University of Vienna, where I worked with Professor Peter Schweitzer’s research group, I found myself moving once more – this time to the University of Hong Kong to start a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages and Cultures. The position advertised was for studying the “Asian Urban Silk Road.” While these terms might seem a stretch for someone focused mainly on the Arctic, as I’ve tried to show through my research, issues like the rise of Asia, urbanization, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative are increasingly affecting the world’s northernmost region.

My paths to academia and to the Arctic via Asia have been circuitous, but I’d venture that everyone’s journeys to their current destination have been. They only ever make sense in hindsight, when we build up a narrative to explain our life’s story so far to ourselves. Despite all the cross-country and cross-planetary moves, the things that have remained constant in my life are my interest in the Arctic and the incredible community of friends, researchers, and northern residents that has supported me throughout – especially my best friend Takeshi. Those languorous Sunday afternoons in high school spent watching Ingmar Bergman films have now turned into catch-ups at conferences around the world where he works to advance Arctic dialogue.

So if people wonder how I wound up in Asia studying the Arctic from my hometown of California, I suppose the long story short of it is that it takes two.

Categories: Travel & Photo


Far from north: Polar studies from below the Arctic Circle

  1. Mia, This is a fascinating story of a single-minded walkabout moved by curiosity and risk. You know of course my admiration for your Cryopolitcal posts which are beyond useful and will be hopefully sustained. Reading this overview, however, I wonder what’s next? Perhaps an academic post will satisfy, but I suspect that may be too sedentary and delimited for what is clearly a body and mind needing to be in movement. There is so much work to be done in and for the Arctic. And I despair at the present direction, even erosion of accomplishment to date. How to address that quandary? As for Takeshi, no one made me more welcome when I first approached the Arctic Circle several years ago; a good guy, in an important place; you both make me hopeful. PN

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your kind words and continued readership. Who knows what the future will bring, but yes, hopefully the hard work done by all to achieve a peaceful Arctic is maintained rather than eroded.

      Best wishes,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.