CLAS Acts December 2022

Monthly newsletter of the TT faculty of CLAS

Students in the field in Alaska

A Note from Dean Drake

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.   

~Richard Wilbur


A desperate celebration of an end.
~Chandrama Deshmukh


In the next week, we celebrate the service milestones of our colleagues, finish classes, gather at Fountain Street Church for the GV Arts Holiday Concert ("And on Earth, Peace"), and hold our culminating experiences with students before settling down to grade stacks of papers and exams.  


And throughout this month, we have gathered to restrengthen ties, to say farewell to some graduating seniors and retiring colleagues, and to break bread with those who are newly arrived.  This is definitely the case in the college office.  Susan Weise joined us recently and is providing needed support. Rachel Paris has just joined the CLAS Center for Experiential Learning (CCEL) that we are forming to support our CLAS Voyage.  Her energies will help propel our vision.  Meanwhile, we send our well wishes with Monica Johnstone, our Director of Communications, as she moves into retirement. Among her accomplishments is this very publication which she established in 2007 to tell the stories of our college.


As each term ends, there is always a moment of reflection—the pedagogical experiment that worked well, the inspiring students that made each class worthwhile, the colleague who said something so perfect you wanted to post it on your door.  Perhaps at the root of it, striving together is the source of our joy. 


Now don't laugh, but I want to suggest that faculty governance might also be like that.  We don’t typically think of committee work as sparking joy, but there is real purpose and pleasure when we meet new colleagues, expand our perspectives beyond our units and disciplines, and experience the considerable powers of the faculty joining to reach a goal.  In the new year there will be a faculty governance election.  Consider running.  Consider letting your colleagues already serving know they are appreciated.  Consider telling a colleague that you think they'd be an asset to the important work that is being done.  Across higher ed, faculty governance is not a given.  That it is strong here is worth celebrating.


Wishing you a safe and healthy end of the term and the year,



A Beautifully Complicated Permafrost Field Experience

Soil Scientist Chelsea Duball pops open a map of Alaska, the site of her summer research.  Since joining the Biology Department at GVSU a year ago, she has been busy teaching watershed and soil classes and a natural resources management course dealing with environmental pollution.

She has been able to build on previous collaborations and team up with an ongoing field course presented by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF).  The leadership team approached her based on her expertise and understanding of the work previously conducted by Dr. Chen Lu Ping, who headed the course for about 20 years before retiring.  Chelsea describes Ping as “brilliant.”

The great permafrost-affected sites, Chelsea explains, are important to experience for soil scientists so that they can manage and preserve them, and similar systems, into the future.  The leadership team of the field course decided to continue this valuable experience after Dr. Ping retired in 2015, and Chelsea joined on the soil tour as a graduate student in 2018.

“I was the designated shopper and guidebook editor to pay my way,” Chelsea remembers with a laugh.  “There were about 15 students (graduates and undergraduates) and 3 co-instructors on the research trip, and we were camping most of the time.”  When it came time for the leadership team to consider new co-instructors for the 2022 field trip, Chelsea’s logistical experience was considered a plus.

“It takes a full year of planning with my UAF colleagues. The course is also co-facilitated by a pedologist from Virginia Tech, a permafrost expert from UAF, and the students are from all over.”

Chelsea’s led the students to well-established field sites starting from Anchorage and then due north to Prudhoe Bay (AKA Dead Horse) known for its oil fields (~30 hours roundtrip). 

“Anchorage is the warmup,” Chelsea explains. “The students learn how to do field work and gain some camping skills while at the beautiful Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center (i.e. not bear country). They get to see muskox on a conservation farm and tour a glacier to start them thinking about glacial geology—how they carve the landscape over time.”

Soil science is inherently interdisciplinary.  To solve the puzzle of the landscape, or even the color of the soil, might involve geologists, biologists, chemists, and more.  Chelsea explains that as a soil scientist, a significant part of what she does is to figure out how a soil type came to be where it is. She assures her students that it is not just about digging holes – rather using the soil to solve the landscape puzzle.

Another of the jobs during this field experience is what Chelsea calls “chauffeuring” for 2-8 hours a day driving from location to location.

Along the way, they progressed from sporadic permafrost near Fairbanks to discontinuous permafrost and finally farther north to continuous permafrost in the Arctic Circle.  They dug to see the effect of different degrees of permafrost on soil properties. There is an active layer of soil (freeze-and-thaw affected layer) just above the permafrost.

“We are interested in what is happening below and above and everything in between. It is beautifully complicated. That’s what we want students to know.”

Chelsea sees the relevance of this work locally, too.  “Michigan is glacier-affected too. I’m aware of the privilege involved in participating in field work in Alaska.  I’m glad that we have a picture-sharing system so that I can make use of what we saw in my teaching at GVSU and beyond.  I’m also looking at scholarships and other support systems so that less privileged students can get to these sites, too.”

This year, funds from the John Ball Zoo allowed student Jerra Woznick to take her interest in permafrost-affected soils initiated in Chelsea’s Environmental Pollution class (after seeing a film about impacts in Alaska) and turn that into research on permafrost-affected habitats.

It is not hard to imagine how students get swept up in research enthusiasm. Chelsea has infectious energy and is quick to reach for and explain a metal soil probe in her office. She explains a new project with MSU colleagues on quaking bogs and how they form.

“Floating bogs are global—we have them in Michigan, but you can also find them in places such as Fiji or India—and there are thermokarst [1] ponds across Alaska that are associated with floating bogs. We want to understand how these similar features form in different parts of the world.”

And if you show real interest, Chelsea can easily sweep you up into the three types of gelisols[2]: the cold and waterlogged soils with lots of organic matter, those that look like tie-dye due to the churning of freezing and thawing, and those that have a mixture of organic matter and freeze-thaw impacts. These matter because they require different types of management and dictate where it would be appropriate to build—or not.

The cryoturbation produces a sort of climate change feedback loop which allows students to become soil detectives with a cause.  Students get to use new tools to measure anaerobic processes in soils.  They come to understand the period of time that an area has been waterlogged (after thaw) and just how wet it was.

“It’s a lot of features to take in during two weeks,” Chelsea admits, “so we hone in on the interpretation piece.  I’m really interested in science communication, so we talk a lot about why this matters.  I use a drawing exercise, a creative writing exercise—I ask them to draw a gelisol and describe that soil to a family member—these help students recognize their strengths in interpretation/communication or areas for growth.”

“You can’t master it all, so collaborations are highly valued.  They give you a comprehensive understanding.  It’s a lot of work to put together a successful field course.  I was well supported to take it on and look forward to facilitating future field courses.”



[1] As Wikipedia explains: “irregular surfaces of marshy hollows and small hummocks formed as ice-rich permafrost thaws”.  [The literature obsessed among us might think of the quivering sands in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.~Ed.]

[2] “Soils of very cold climates that contain permafrost within two meters of the surface.”






Page last modified December 16, 2022