Jasmine Gil: ‘Science is my life’

Finding a tussock in a partially drained lake, removed by a muskox who used the area as a sanctuary to cool down from the summer heat. Photo by Heidi Steltzer/Polaris Project/Woods Hole Research Institute

by Kathleen McCoy

One year after completing her degree in natural sciences at UAA, Jasmine Gil stands at a crossroads. What comes next?

The signpost in one direction reads medicine. Back when she started college in Sitka, she worked as a certified nursing assistant in geriatrics. Her father, born in Mexico but transplanted to Bethel where he met and married her mother, always worked in hospitals. He thinks of them as secure, always offering solid work and good pay. She wants those things, too.

The signpost in the other direction reads research scientist. After graduation, Gil parlayed her degree into a number of unpaid research assistantships, where her travel and lodging were covered as she aided researchers in songbird or marine mammal studies in Southeast Alaska.

Last fall, she applied for an intriguing opportunity that took her back to Bethel, where she had lived with her family until age 10. In January, she learned she’d been accepted for summer work in the Polaris Project, NSF-funded climate research operating out of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

The Polaris Project studies how permafrost carbon is affected by warming temperatures, tundra fires, changing river conditions and rising sea levels. After eight years working in northeast Siberia, the project shifted focus to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where severe fires burned in 2015.

With her rural experience and academics, Gil made a strong candidate. After months of web meetings and a trip to Woods Hole for logistics training, Gil spent two weeks camping at Kuka Creek, about halfway between Bethel and St. Marys. She gathered data on her own research question — the drying and greening up of ponds and lakes on the tundra — before returning to Woods Hole to process her data. Score a big victory on the road to life as a research scientist.

But Gil still finds herself sitting at a crossroads. Paying for graduate school is one hurdle. She’s currently applying for a season working as a lab assistant in Antarctica. Another hurdle is finding a program where she can blend generations of indigenous knowledge with the science she loves.

What she learned at Kuka Creek

Gil spent her first few days in the field surveying the land and thinking about what research she could pursue that would be useful to residents of the Y-K Delta.

“What I noticed from the topo maps and satellite images that we had, there were a lot of drained lakes,” Gil said. “These are ephemeral ponds, and it’s expected that they will drain out.”

But the sheer numbers of them, plus her knowledge of the lifecycle of salmon, made her worry.

“The people that live here have been subsisting on salmon for thousands of years. It’s an integral part of their diet. I was told growing up that fish swim up rivers and channels during the spawning seasons. They inhabit ponds and lakes. Where will they hang out if these habitats go away? Their populations will be impacted.”

Gil trekked out every field day as early as 6 a.m. “I needed sunlight for my instruments. Some days I’d walk six miles in the tundra, sometimes three miles.” The 12-hour field days were exhausting but rewarding, tugging her along the career path to research.

In hip boots often knee deep in water, Gil would measure how quickly the draining ponds greened up, and what soil conditions remained as the water disappeared. “I would try to find different states of development, to figure out how these lakes drain,” she said.

Gil also gathered willow samples to age them, a way that her work could extend beyond the Polar Project and into graduate school. She could try to use willow aging to predict pond drainage — something she says has not been done before. It could be the work of a doctoral thesis.

Right now, she’s searching for a program that might have funding for this work. Even if she heads out of state, she wants her field work to be in Alaska.

‘Science is my life’

“I really do believe in place-based education systems,” Gil said. “Science is my life. To live out here you need to know things. You need to be able to read the land and feel the changes. I call it a quiet voice. To really hear it and understand your sense of place and where you are…You really need to clear your mind to hear it.”

She would love to influence science education to foster more of this appreciation of place-based knowledge. “We have centuries of data and summaries,” she says, speaking of the Yupik people.

Often, the ideas she was studying in the classroom resonated with stories her own mother had told her about nature, stories about transformation, how one animal becomes another, and how they can be interchangeable. “That could be evolution,” she says.

Another example is the notion of an ecosystem’s carrying capacity. “The Yupik people already knew that. They knew how much to take, what was viable, what was the age and sex of the animal so that next year they can get the same catch. They already knew all about ‘carrying capacity,’” she said.

Gil is just feeling her way when it comes to linking her Yupik place-based knowledge with important environmental research. For her the urgency of climate change and the pending impact on northern coastal peoples is reason enough to persist in the work. She’s even considering applying for her own NSF funding and if successful, bringing that to an academic department where her work can be supervised.

Two perspectives

Gil moves easily between her Alaska Native and Mexican heritage. She’s lived both in Bethel and in Alamos, her dad’s hometown in the Mexican state of Sonora. His is a family of farmers; he started his career as an agricultural scientist.

For her part, Gil is as comfortable fishing for salmon or foraging for berries on the tundra as cultivating a backyard vegetable garden, filled with tomatoes and limes.

“[Limes] grow right outside the kitchen window [in Mexico],” she said. “When we want to eat tacos or pazole or menudo…we just reach out and grab one.”

On any given day, the family dinner table may feature Mexican dishes, with a jar of seal oil or dried fish in the mix. “My dad loves Native foods,” she said. “My mom gets packages from our extended family and he’s the one who opens them and starts cooking.”

So the two worlds blend seamlessly for her.

Sitting out on the tundra day after day this past June, Gil felt her Native roots.

“For me, it was kind of bittersweet. I was coming back home and memories were coming back to me. I wasn’t thinking about them consciously, but every now and then, a smell or a movement or a sound would trigger it. I’d be back with memories of my family out picking berries or hunting or fishing. It was so vivid. It gave me chills.”

How she reconciles her passion for place-based scientific research and her wish and need for a solid future — one her dad can endorse — are stories yet to unfold.