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Fulbright award primes alum for polar bears, aquatic studies

By

Margaret Coulombe

For ASU alumna Michelle McCrackin, her Fulbright-funded field work started with a flight to a research station at Ny Ålesund in Norway’s arctic archipelago of Svalbard (Spitsbergen). There, under a midnight sun, she learned to fire a rifle, to set up an arctic camp and to collect water samples that would add fuel to her doctoral degree.

McCrackin applied for her Fulbright as a doctoral student in the laboratory of James Elser, Regents’ and Parents Association Professor in the School of Life Sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She was interested in the microbiological processes in lakes that receive nitrogen (N) pollution in rainfall, including the phenomena of “denitrification,” a process in which bacteria use nitrate for respiration in same way that we use oxygen, converting that nitrate-N to N2 gas and returning it to the atmosphere. These denitrifiers are a kind of microscoping “clean-up crew” for nitrogen pollutants.

Norway is attractive, but not just for its glaciers, fjords and mountains. It also harbors a large number of pristine lakes, some which, nevertheless, receive pollution spawned in distant industrial regions of Europe. While McCrackin had studied lakes in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Norway offered a mother lode of lakes.

A 40-minute flight to her field site from Longyearbyen, Norway, placed her with a unique community of scientists from Norway, China, South Korea, India, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, Austria, and France, to name a few. With a team of five researchers, she collected water samples from two lakes on nearby islands. As these sites fell well outside the immediate vicinity of the research station, she was required to complete rifle training to protect against polar bears.

“The instructor was surprised to learn that I had never fired a weapon before,” McCrackin said. “He felt sure that all Americans owned guns.”

Armed, dangerous and now able to hit “the broad side of a barn,” a typical day for McCrackin meant donning a bright orange survival suit and boarding a small open motor boat. Once on an island, team members then hiked to two lakes, each carrying 10-25 kilos of gear, including an inflatable boat. Near Lake Hajeren, McCrackin’s group came across rusty barrels and other debris left by the Germans during World War II, rubbish now protected as cultural heritage in Svalbard. Visits to the second lake, Blokkvatnet, involved overnight camping and midnight sampling.

“It was a strange experience to be collecting samples at 11 p.m. and setting up camp at 4 a.m.,” McCrackin said. “Fortunately we were able to work without any polar bear encounters!”

Hard to believe that such an artic journey had its beginnings rooted at the Grand Canyon National Park.

It was there that McCrackin, at the time a finance manager for a large technology company in Chandler, Ariz., had a chance encounter with a wildlife biologist who was observing condors. As the ranger explained how she was using radio telemetry equipment to monitor captive-born birds that had been released into the wild, McCrackin said that she was struck by her enthusiasm and how passionately she spoke about her role in managing the reintroduced condors.

Long after she was home and back to work in finance, McCrackin couldn’t get that wildlife biologist out of her mind. “I envied how much she enjoyed her work,” McCrackin said.

As a result, she left business behind to pursue science. She took undergraduate biology courses at ASU and she learned about elemental cycles like those of nitrogen and phosphorus. This interest deepened during her undergraduate research studies with Nancy Grimm, a professor in the School of Life Sciences and researcher in the Global Institute of Sustainability. Grimm was studying the effects of atmospheric nitrogen pollution on soils around Phoenix.

Ultimately, her research experiences led McCrackin to pursue her doctoral degree in the lab of Elser, himself a Fulbright Scholar to Norway in 2003.

Of her Norwegian Fulbright experience, McCrackin said that she was particularly drawn to the Fulbright program because it was founded on the principle of promoting peace and mutual understanding through educational exchanges and offered her an opportunity to work with Norwegian researchers who are at the forefront of research into the effects of acid rain and nitrogen pollution.

The Fulbright study also contributed in significant material ways to the development of her career. In addition to the sampling of 28 lakes near Egersund, Lillehammer, and Ringebu, she also worked with researchers at the Universitetet i Oslo (UiO) and Universitetet for Miljø-og Biovitenskap (Norwegian University of Life Sciences). Because of specialized equipment and training there, McCrackin was able to add an additional chapter to her dissertation, which she defended on Oct. 19, an opportunity that would not have been available in the United States. One publication has come out about her work, published in the journal Ecology, with two more in review. Without her Fulbright experience, McCrackin might have also missed out on an unrealized interest; one revealed through interactions with researchers whose studies with lakes offered large datasets, and jump-started an interest in "big picture" issues and working with models.

"Michelle was a great Fulbright ambassador. She's not only an outstanding scholar and scientist, she has a great, positive and open attitude towards others, really curious and eager to learn more about other countries, and making friends for ASU and for our country,” Elser said. “She really loved Norway and Norway was good to her!"

McCrackin starts a postdoctoral fellowship on Nov. 1 with the National Research Council Research Associateship program with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); a position that will allow her to combine her field expertise from ASU and Norway with modeling to understand sources, sinks, and transformations of nitrogen in the landscape as part of the EPA’s Ecosystem Services Research Program.