While a normal day in the office for most folks looks…well—normal, it’s anything but for Dr. Alia Khan, a scientist who has dedicated her career to understanding how the melting of snow and ice affects our way of life.
A passion for understanding how glaciers and snow impact downstream communities, crossed with Alia’s love for snowboarding, dovetailed into a career in the cryosphere—the frozen parts of our planet. These days, a day in the office for her might involve a ride or two in a plane, boat, or helicopter; a long hike in the snow while watching out for polar bears; or sleeping in a tent on melting ice.
Alia spoke with Nongirly about how writing brought her clarity on her passion, how she found the right mentor, and the importance of being confident and speaking your voice.
You’re a “cryospheric scientist”, meaning you study Earth’s frozen areas. How’d you get into that?
When I was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I had gotten a travel scholarship through the university to go to South Asia. I did some undergraduate research in Cambodia, and then I spent some time hiking in the Himalayas; this scholarship allowed you to pursue some [personal] interests. And while I was there, I just fell in love with glaciers and snow in the Himalayas, and the communities that are downstream of that. I became really interested in how those communities are impacted by the glaciers and snow upstream.
I’d also, along the way, fallen in love with snowboarding. And these two interests came together nicely—between my recreational interests in snow, and my scientific interests in terms of trying to understand things like climate change, and impacts on snow and ice melt, and how those affect communities downstream.
So how did you get from “interested in these topics” to Dr. Alia Khan, professor and researcher?
I really wanted to figure out a way to study [this subject], but it’s not super straightforward; there are only so many funded opportunities and things like that to pursue research on these topics. But I was really fortunate to get a fellowship through the National Science Foundation (NSF), which gave me a lot of freedom and flexibility to pursue a kind of self-directed research. That came through just as I had already accepted a graduate position at University of Colorado-Boulder (CU Boulder). I was going to work on impacts of a warming climate on algal growth in lakes and reservoirs in Colorado, and how that affects drinking water treatment.
So that was what I studied for my master’s, but along the way there, I had applied for this NSF fellowship separately and then found out I got that just before I started at CU Boulder. So I was able to defer that while I did my master’s, and spent some time thinking about what I really wanted to pursue for my PhD. And then that came together nicely for my PhD, because I had the funding, and I had contacts in place through CU Boulder to really pursue [my interests]. And, a very supportive graduate advisor—that was important to that step as well.
…My interest in studying human impacts in the cryosphere was born through my interest and love for snow—recreation and snow science and the beauty of glaciers, and wanting to protect them as a resource… I wanted to find a way to study something where I felt like I was making a difference, and a way I found to tie my interests together—in human impacts and the cryosphere—was through the study of black carbon. That comes from the incomplete combustion of wildfires and fossil fuels. I felt like this was a way for me to study how humans are impacting things like snow and ice melt in far-off regions of the planet.
It’s likely “field” work in the cryosphere is hard for people to visualize. Can you walk us through what a typical field excursion might look like?
So say for [work in] Antarctica, where I did my graduate research, we would fly through New Zealand, and then to McMurdo station [in Antarctica]. And then from there, we’d take a helicopter out to the McMurdo dry valleys and then be based at a little hut. Then we’d hike out to our field sites from the hut or potentially take a helicopter. Now, more of my research is along the Antarctic Peninsula, and this is more ship-based. So we’ll take a ship from Punta Arenas [in Chile] and then cross the Drake Passage. Then, we end up along the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and then we’ll traverse the peninsula and take small boats [called Zodiacs] to the shore, and conduct our research by foot. And then, [we] get back on the Zodiac and then back on the ship. Or, if we are working in Greenland, we would fly to Greenland, and then take a helicopter on to the ice sheet, and bring all of our camp, and set up our tents, and be based there for about a month…just camping on the ice sheet. Which is interesting, because setting up a tent on ice that’s melting has its own challenges, but then we do research from there.
Getting there sounds complicated. What might a typical research day look like, then?
A couple of years ago I was out with the Korean Polar Research Institute, studying sea ice in the Arctic. They have an amazing ship [called an] icebreaker that rams itself into the sea ice and kind of parks in the sea ice. And then we would walk out and collect measurements.
I collected measurements of albedo—how much light is reflected from the surface [which is important to assess because it can impact how snow and ice melt at the poles]. Then I collect a snow sample, which I have to keep frozen, which is really important. That is transported back to the U.S., where then I analyze it for chemical components, like black carbon. Also, when we’re out in the field, we measure the depth of the sea ice, the depth of the snow on top of the sea ice, and the size of the snow grains. All these different factors impact how much light is reflected from the surface.
And then, because we’re in polar bear territory, we also have somebody that’s watching for polar bears and has a gun for a worst-case scenario. They enable us to work more freely on the sea ice and to not have to worry about bears.
Was there someone who you looked up to and/or supported you in your career growth?
I’d say there are a variety of mentors in my life, such as friends and family that are supportive, that you can talk to and bounce ideas off of. But one of the best pieces of advice I got when I was applying to grad school was from a prospective graduate advisor. He told me: pick a graduate advisor who you want to emulate and choose them as your advisor, because that will really benefit you as you go through that process. And that was really useful advice.
He was an older white male, and I realized I would really like a female advisor who has a family and has figured out how to balance her professional life with family life. Then, I sought out a female graduate advisor who I really connected with. And she’s been a strong mentor in my professional life for over a decade now!
Something that’s really important for me in terms of developing professional relationships is the ease of being able to talk to someone and to work with them, and also to come out of meetings feeling excited and energized—as opposed to drained and exhausted. Even now when we meet, I always come out of it feeling really empowered and excited about what I’m working on. And I think that’s really important in terms of choosing mentors and finding people to work with, is that you want them to help support you.
What has your experience been like as a woman working in the sciences—a traditionally male-dominated field?
I think one of the challenges with being a polar field scientist is that often you’re sent to remote regions of the cryosphere as one of [the few] or the only female in a small group. And especially as a graduate student, there’s pretty minimal training prior to sending students in the field… The first time I went to Antarctica with a small group, there were three of us at a field camp; two were male and then myself, and two of us were students. The older male was our sort of our team lead, and I think that person probably didn’t have much training other than the fact that they had spent more time going to this particular field location. But maybe they didn’t have training on how to lead a group… Because I think I did sometimes feel minimalized when I would try to vocalize opinions. That was my first year as a grad student in the field, but as I became more of a senior grad student, I felt much more empowered, mostly because I had more experience of my own in these locations.
I might approach these situations differently… As I start to have my own graduate students and prepare to send them out, that’s something that I’m really taking seriously—is to talk with them about that. To make sure that they feel like they have a voice when they go out in groups, especially when maybe the person that has the most experience is an older male and it might feel harder to voice your opinion. I think for my own group, we’ll make sure that whoever’s appointed as the team leader has some training and background on how to make sure that every voice is heard.
This [experience] was now 10 years ago. So I think there are strides in the community to address these issues—like initiatives and much more awareness over training, and talking about things like sexual harassment and what that looks like, and things like that, in the field. You know, there’s this sort of mentality that I think can be hard to get away from, that it’s kind of the old boys club kind of a thing. But it’s nice to see more women in positions to be able to manage projects that send students out in the field. So I think that’s also another component of a wave of change in the field.
What important lessons have you learned that you wish you’d known when you started this work?
I think it’s just important to follow your passion, right? I knew I wanted to do something related to research and academia, but I wasn’t quite sure which topic. In undergrad, I was really drawn to climate and health, coming out of a School of Public Health, and I would get really excited to apply for small research grants and travel opportunities. Over time, I found I just kept writing applications that were steering me towards the cryosphere and what climate change meant for snow and ice melt. So I think I found that a very useful exercise for myself—to just write things down, and the more I would write, the more I would hone in on what my passion was, like what I was most excited about.
So I think that’s my suggestion for other people that like to write. I think that can be a useful exercise to really figure out what you’re most interested in, because you’re not going to spend time writing about something you’re not excited about. I find myself getting sort of addicted to making it the best version possible because it’s something I’m really excited about. Then if it gets funded, then you have this nice little pot of money to explore the topic that you’re really interested in.
You’re a parent of a (very) young woman. How do you think parents can encourage their kids to be their true selves?
My daughter’s only six months old, so I’m still learning and developing as a parent myself. But I think what I hope to instill in her is a strong sense of confidence, so that, especially as she goes through her teenage years and her young adult life, she remembers that her voice is important and it matters, and that she is a strong and capable woman.
I just think about times where it’s easy to have that imposter syndrome, right? Sometimes I will stay silent in a meeting when really I have something to say. So maybe that’s just advice for myself, too: to speak up and remember that my voice matters. I want her to have that confidence, too.