How to Get an Office in the Arctic

Three students talk about their professional pathways into Arctic Refuge

Are you looking for a remote and rugged job where the sun never sets and the high Arctic tundra meets the ice floes of the Beaufort Sea? These students made the Arctic Refuge their office for the summer — read more about the pathways that led them north:

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Photo Left: a biologist searches for nests under the midnight sun; Photo Right: ice floats in the calm waters sheltered by a barrier island along the Arctic Ocean.

Jakob

Hometown: Napaskiak, Alaska
Program: Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP)
Level: High school graduate preparing for freshman year
Institution: University of Alaska, Fairbanks

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Jakob Sipary releases a red-throated loon.

Jakob Sipary has big dreams. He just graduated from high school, but has already found his way to one of the most remote bird research locations in Alaska, at the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Beaufort Sea. His current assignment: gently cradling a captured red-throated loon during a procedure to attach a satellite tracking device. Jakob is an intern for the summer with the U.S. Geological Survey, and gets to experience field life alongside professional biologists with USGS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He plans to major in Wildlife Biology and Conservation and gain his professional pilot’s license.

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Jakob Sipary gently cradles a red-throated loon as a USGS biologist fits it with a satellite tracking device.

“I’ve had a passion for that ever since I was a small child. I was six or seven and flew in a little bush plane from Napaskiak to Toksook Bay and the scenery was beautiful. I saw these migrating birds, geese actually, and I told my dad I wanted to become a wildlife biologist.”

He reflects on his time at Arctic: “What I love about doing this kind of work is it doesn’t even feel like a job. It cleanses and refreshes me, calms me down. Connecting with nature, with all these birds and wildlife is just amazing. It’s majestic. I love everything about it.”

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Photo left: Sipary watches a loon nest so he can give the signal when to pull the capture net; Photo right: Sipary with a captured red-throated loon.

The ANSEP program mentors rural Alaska students interested in the STEM fields from middle school through college, providing internship connections and a supportive cohort. Sipary’s month-long program is just one way that students interested in biology can gain critical career field experience in places like Arctic Refuge. He credits the program with helping him reach for his dreams.

“I’m from a small rural village and this gives me a great opportunity to have a feel for the world — I advise any student that comes from a small rural village to take this opportunity because there’s nothing like it, it’s amazing.”

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Photo left: Red-throated loon nest; Photo right: a red-throated loon patrols a small pond.
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Sarah Hoepfner holds a banded semi-palmated sandpiper.

Sarah

Hometown: Cordova, Alaska
Program: Directorate Fellowship Program
Level: Undergraduate Degree
Institution: Humboldt State

Sarah Hoepfner grew up in one of Alaska’s shorebird migration stopover hot-spots, where the Copper River Delta meets Prince William Sound along the southern coast of the state. She remembers watching millions of shorebirds stop briefly in her home during the spring as they re-fueled for the rest of their migration north (you can see it too at the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival).

On the opposite coastline, she now leads a crew of shorebird research interns in the high Arctic, where birds from five different flyways converge to nest and raise their chicks. She volunteered for her first trip to the Arctic three years ago:

“That really got me interested more in the tundra and the Arctic landscape, and all the cool things that happen up here.”

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Photos: Sarah at work in the field.

The following summer, Sarah returned as an intern under the Directorate Fellowship Program and worked with the shorebird research crew at the Canning River Bird Camp. This 11-week program introduces college and graduate students pursuing biology and natural resource management degrees to conservation projects with the Service all over the country.

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The shorebird research crew walks the study area daily to find and monitor nests.

“I was able to come out here and work in the field, and then also spend some time in orientation and in the office learning more about Fish and Wildlife Service projects, and then they have a lot of good opportunities after I graduate for job placement throughout the U.S.”

Sarah presented on her fellowship at the 2019 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, where she was also the recipient of the festival’s Schantz Scholarship. Her experience and dedication to Arctic nesting shorebirds earned her the crew lead position for her second year at the Canning River this summer, just weeks after graduating from college.

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Photos Left: Biologists live and work at the remote Canning River Bird Camp on the north side of the Brooks Range; Right: a pectoral sandpiper in the midnight sun.
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Elyssa Watford handles the long leads of a drop net in preparation to capture a common eider.

Elyssa

Hometown: Seattle, Washington
Program: Biological Technician, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Level: Ph.D Candidate
Institution: University of Alaska, Fairbanks

“I love the remoteness. I really thrive with all of the challenges associated with working on barrier islands along the Arctic coast. Just to access these places we have to put on mustang suits and boat over the Beaufort Sea. Living in the place where I’m working and really immersing myself… I enjoy camping out in the middle of nowhere and forgetting my cell phone exists, and just enjoying the birds around me.”

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Watford (right) and her volunteer research crew stand at the edge of sea ice in the lagoons north of Arctic Refuge.
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Elyssa Watford places an identifying band on a captured female common eider before releasing it back to the nesting area.

“I just wanted to work outside,” Elyssa Watford remembers, “And so when I found environmental biology and wildlife ecology, that was it.”

Now in her second field season for a Ph.D project studying common eiders along the barrier islands of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Watford reflects back on her pathway to the far north.

“Originally I was drawn to alpine and Arctic areas because of some of the questions you can ask around climate change. I wanted to work with alpine specialists like mountain goats or pika, but those jobs are more scarce, so I began working with waterfowl and really fell in love with sea ducks. The breeding season is a time when you can get hands-on with individual birds and ask questions that you can’t quite ask of mammals as easily.”

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Photos Left: a male common eider keeps a close eye on nearby nests; Right: a female eider returns to her nest after capture.

Watford put in her time as a volunteer for US Fish and Wildlife Service on numerous field biology projects, and first came to Alaska as a volunteer for Innoko National Wildlife Refuge in 2013. One project led to another until she made her way to Fairbanks and met the avian biologist for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Chris Latty. Watford’s work with Latty on common eiders and their unique habitat in the Arctic barrier islands and coastal lagoons developed into a Master’s project and then into a Ph.D. Her research now includes her long-time interest in the impacts of climate change:

“Climate change is happening most rapidly and drastically in the Arctic. With this earlier sea-ice melt, we’re going to have a greater extent of open water along the Beaufort Coast. And that combined with the strong winds in this area puts the barrier islands and coastal areas where birds nest at an increased risk of storm surges and flooding.”

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Photos Left: Watford and volunteer prepare to draw a blood sample from a captured common eider; Right: taking measurements on a common eider.
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The research crew walks the length of a barrier island in the Beaufort Sea to search for common eider nests.

Watch Now: Elyssa demonstrates how to get dressed — Arctic coast style.

Field research on the Arctic Ocean has a lot of challenges, including safe travel in small inflatable boats through floating ice. Elyssa demonstrates how to get ready for a day of field work in this timelapse video.

Photos and story by Lisa Hupp, Outreach Specialist.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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