Two graduating seniors celebrate their commencement on the Arctic Ocean

June 15th, 2014

On a bright, frigid Tuesday afternoon, two Stanford seniors were honored in their own private commencement ceremony aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a polar icebreaker located in the Arctic Ocean, some 3,400 miles from Stanford’s main campus.

For the past several weeks, the students, ERIN DILLON and CAROLINE FERGUSON, have been active members on a scientific research project called SUBICE that is searching for large under-ice algae blooms in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea. The massive blooms, which scientists think have only become possible in recent decades due to thinning ice caused by climate change-driven ocean warming, could have implications for the global carbon cycle.

“We’re here to follow up on a discovery made in 2011 related to blooms of under-ice phytoplankton,” said KEVIN ARRIGO, professor of Earth sciences and the mission’s chief scientist. “That was a very unexpected result and something we didn’t understand very well but turns out is probably very important for the ecosystem. So we decided to come back to study it a little more comprehensively.”

Dillon and Ferguson have been critical members of the SUBICE team, Arrigo said. “They do most of the actual work in terms of processing the seawater samples. It’s a difficult thing to do a research cruise when you’re working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for six weeks on end. They were two that I certainly thought could handle the stress.”

Being in the Arctic prevented Dillon and Ferguson from graduating with their peers at Stanford on Sunday. So Arrigo hatched a plan to honor them before he left on the polar research expedition.

“It’s a really big deal to miss your graduation, and the students are giving up a lot to be a part of this research,” Arrigo said. “I wondered if there were something we could do to help make up for the fact that they’re missing events at home. So I thought we might be able to hold a ceremony on the Healy.”

From left, Cmdr. Greg Stanclik, Healy executive officer; Kevin Arrigo, professor of Earth sciences and co-director of the Earth Systems Program; graduating seniors Erin Dillon and Caroline Ferguson, and Capt. John Reeves, Healy commanding officer. (Photo credit: Carolina Nobre)

From left, Cmdr. Greg Stanclik, Healy executive officer; Kevin Arrigo, professor of Earth sciences and co-director of the Earth Systems Program; graduating seniors Erin Dillon and Caroline Ferguson, and Capt. John Reeves, Healy commanding officer. (Photo credit: Carolina Nobre)

 

Healy officers, with the Coast Guard crew standing in formation, as well as scientific researchers and staff. Arrigo and the students walked out of the icebreaker’s hold dressed in full graduation regalia brought all the way from Stanford. Pinned to their gowns was the Coast Guard Arctic Service Medal, a gold medallion they received for serving more than 21 days above the Arctic Circle.

“Caroline and Erin, we honor you here in the Arctic as you wear the traditional cap and gown commemorating your upcoming graduation,” Arrigo said during his remarks. “To our knowledge, you are the first two people to be so honored in Stanford University’s history.”

Healy Commanding Officer Capt. JOHN REEVES also spoke at the ceremony. “As the grandson of a Stanford alum, and an icebreaker sailor myself, it’s my privilege to bring these two worlds together in a ceremony that is befitting of the occasion and the location,” he said.

Dillon and Ferguson, who will receive a BS in biology and a BA in human biology, respectively, said they were surprised and filled with gratitude by the extraordinary efforts undertaken on their behalf.

“We thought maybe it would be us and Kevin,” said Ferguson, who is continuing work toward a co-terminal master’s degree in Earth systems. “But everyone worked tirelessly to make us feel special. The kitchen got involved and baked a cake, and everyone congratulated us. We also received fake flowers – because flowers don’t grow here – so it’s been really, really special.”

Ferguson said she couldn’t imagine a better or more personal way to celebrate the occasion. “When we received our diploma cases, we opened them to discover a touching letter written by Kevin, which was even more meaningful than an actual diploma,” she said. “I’m sad to be missing Stanford traditions like watching the movie The Graduate and attending the senior dinner on the Quad, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for a hundred commencement ceremonies back on campus.”

Dillon called the experience “surreal” and said she thought it was an appropriate way to mark the end of her undergraduate years. “I have spent a significant chunk of my time at Stanford studying abroad and these experiences have been the defining moments of my time as an undergraduate,” she said, “so it only seems fitting that I graduate in my element doing research and traveling.

“In 10 years, when people ask, ‘What did you do for graduation?’ we’re going to have an incredible story to tell.”

Read the original story on the School of Earth Sciences website.

— BY KER THAN, associate director of communications for the School of Earth Sciences.