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Megan Lenss studies sea ice algae at both poles
Fulbright researcher from Cedar Rapids now living in Norway
CEDAR RAPIDS — Sea ice algae feed the krill, which feed the fish, which feed the whales. So what happens if the algae bloom too early or too late, leaving baby krill without a food source?
These are the questions Megan Lenss, a Cedar Rapids Xavier and University of Iowa graduate, is studying as part of a Fulbright Study/Research Arts grant in oceanography in Norway this year. She and other researchers do this work as Arctic sea ice shrinks because of climate change.
“In the Arctic, the changes are devastating,” Lenss said. “Even the younger researchers in their 30s, when they were my age, they were choosing ice floes that were not too thick because taking a 5-meter ice core is not fun. Where now we’re looking for an ice floe that is big enough to put your boat into.”
Lenss, 23, was in Cedar Rapids for the holidays to visit with her father, Marty, who is director of The Eastern Iowa Airport, mother, Shona, and brother, Connor.
Lenss came to science later than some students. She went to the UI as a Presidential Scholar planning to study English and then marketing. But a series of Earth and Environmental Sciences courses taught by Kate Tierney and her husband, Brad Cramer, changed Lenss’s mind.
“I don’t think I would have ever thought I could do science until they were like ‘It’s in you’,” Lenss said. “I feel so grateful for those people in my life.”
Science isn’t always easy. Right now, Lenss is learning how to code because coding language allows scientists to more easily share their data and workflow with other scientists and the public.
“It might as well be Mandarin or Arabic. It’s just miserable,” she laughed.
But learning these skills allows Lenss to interpret developments in the natural world and convey them to the public and to policymakers. “I’m lucky enough to learn the language that the Earth has given us to communicate with it,” she said.
Trips to both poles
Lenss, who received a bachelor of science in geoscience from the UI in 2021, now lives in Tromsø, Norway, and works in collaboration with the Norwegian Polar Institute and the University of Tromsø.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program accepts only about 20 percent of applications for grants to study, conduct research or teach English abroad for a year.
Last summer, Lenss visited the central Arctic on a five-week research trip to gather sea ice samples — while trying to avoid polar bears. The animals are curious and won’t hesitate to chomp an expensive scientific instrument, so a safety team watches for bears and sounds a horn or fires a flare to keep them away.
“We want them (bears) to have a negative interaction with us,” Lenss said.
On Jan. 10, Lenss will board a container ship at Cape Town, South Africa, for a five-week research cruise to the waters off the coast of Antarctica. The voyage is a joint mission to resupply the research station and take water samples.
Learning another language
Lenss plans to finish her master’s degree in spring 2024 and then begin a Ph.D. program. In the meantime, she loves Tromsø, a city of more than 70,000 above the Arctic Circle famed as a place for viewing the Northern Lights.
Norwegians put spikes on the tires of their cars and bikes to get around in the winter, but it’s also a great place to enjoy winter sports like cross-country skiing, which Lenss also did as a high schooler in Cedar Rapids.
“The style of politeness in Scandinavia is different from ours. They give each other more space,” Lenss said. “I blend in really well, people always assume I’m Norwegian until I’m like “How are you?” I was doing way too much eye contact on public transit.“
Lenss is learning to speak Norwegian, which is a challenge because there are so many regional dialects.
“When you’re speaking another language you give up part of your personality,” Lenss said. “Everyone is making that sacrifice for me all the time right now. I’m so excited to get to know my friends again in Norwegian.”
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