Glacier Researcher Receives Major National Geographic Award

M Jackson (source: Annie Agnone).

M Jackson has recently completed her Ph.D. at the department of geography at the University of Oregon, based on her research on cultural perceptions of glacier retreat in Iceland. She has held U.S. Fulbright Scholarships in Iceland and Turkey, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia. Her book While Glaciers Slept draws together family narratives of loss and death with environmental narratives of climate change, linking together mourning and courage, devastation and hope. She is one of the authors of a widely-recognized article on feminist perspectives in glaciology.

Jackson has led National Geographic Student Expeditions programs in Alaska and Iceland. She received recognition earlier this year as a 2017 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She described this award and the events surrounding it in an interview with GlacierHub.

GH:  Could you please tell us one or two of the most memorable points of your time with the other NatGeo explorers?

M Jackson and other Emerging Explorers, at National Geographic Explorers Festival 2017 (source: National Geographic).

MJ: One of my favorite moments was on the third or fourth day of the National Geographic’s Explorer’s Festival, when I slipped into a small side room in the middle of the day just to take a breath amidst the many activities and events. So I walked into this room, saw a small chair, and I sat down, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. And when I opened my eyes, sitting directly across from me was Sylvia Earle (aka Her Deepness, or The Sturgeon General). [Earle is a leading marine biologist, and was the first female chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.] She was looking directly at me and smiling. And she said, “Hi M!” And for me, this was pretty incredible. Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, has long been a hero of mine due both to her decades of incredible work and because she’s been such a pioneer and advocate for women in science. And for her to know me, and be so gracious with her time and supportive of my work— this was a very important moment for me.

A second moment that stands out was the first day, meeting the other 2017 Explorers. These were men and women from across the globe, all leaders in diverse fields, all gathered together in this place to talk about the work they love to do and genuinely interested in each other! And sitting there, listening to conversations about Zika, the Okavango, dinosaur fossils, glaciers, indigenous genome sequencing, participatory mapping in Chad, bomb-sniffing rats, jaguars, Gorongosa National Park [in the Great Rift Valley in Mozambique], orangutan dental health, photographing hummingbirds, and underwater robots, it was amazing to understand the similarities of all these different research foci and the potential for collaboration.


GH:  What were one or two of the surprises about your position as a NatGeo explorer?

M Jackson at Evolving Planet panel at Emerging Explorers Festival (source: National Geographic).

MJ: The surprise about being a 2017 NGS Explorer is the emphasis on collaboration. Across the board, throughout the symposium, whether Marina Elliot was talking about finding fossils within Rising Star [Cave] in South Africa, Tierney Thys was discussing bringing nature into jails, Neil DeGrasse Tyson was talking about how he became an explorer, Anand Varma telling us how he photographed parasites, or Adjany Costa describing how she walked 1,000 miles from the Okavango Delta in Botswana to the river’s headwaters, every one of these Explorers accomplished what they did through collaboration with other researchers, explorers, local people, and immense networks of supportive people. Accordingly, the emphasis as an Explorer is to collaborate— every person I talked with told me about the work they did and actively stretched to see where our work overlapped, what collaborative potential existed. None of us can do the work we do without the support of huge constellations of people and institutions.


GH: You have written very thoughtfully about the limits of the idea of exploration, and the masculine bias contained within it. As a feminist, what is your reaction to having the title of “explorer” bestowed on you?

M Jackson on sea ice in Iceland (source: Jill Schneider).

MJ: In times past, to be an “Explorer,” a person was traditionally a privileged male. There are obvious exceptions, but this was the general trend. Today, having the title of “Explorer” bestowed upon me alongside a group of diverse people (including other women and indigenous peoples) suggests that the idea of who can be an explorer, and how exploration is defined, has changed significantly and upended traditional conceptualizations of “explore.” This heartens and excites me. Look at the group of people named 2017 Explorers! Ideas about exploration are shifting, and more diverse peoples from across the human spectrum are challenging what exploration means.  More people, more voices, more views, more ideas, more diversity—all exploring this business of being human today. I am incredibly honored, and motivated, to represent and express what modern exploration means, and what an Explorer looks like in today’s context.


GH: You visited glaciers some years ago in the Kaçkar Mountains in Turkey, so different from Iceland. What connections do you see between those earlier experiences and your more recent work in Iceland?

M Jackson [left] and Sigrún Sveinbjörnsdóttir [right] at Hón, Iceland (source: Instagram).
MJ: Whether I’m with glaciers in, for example, northern Turkey, Alaska, Iceland, or Canada, I find that local people tend to create fascinating relationships with ice, relations that are incredibly important to examine in today’s Anthropocene. If we can make sense of the multitudes of ways people and ice relate, and how climate change contours those modern relations, I think we can really move the needle in how we understand how people everywhere relate to their own local changing environments.


GH: You are an American, and Nat Geo is an American organization. But glaciers are found around the world, and glacier retreat is a global process. Do you see any specifically American elements in your work in Iceland, or in your connection to NatGeo?

M Jackson during field work in Iceland (source: James Bernal).

MJ: I am an American, and if anything, being an American in the field in other countries seems to open more conversations about climate change. The climate change/science/culture wars in America are well known internationally, and I find that people from diverse geographies often want to talk with me about what is happening in America and American politics. For example, when an academic article I co-authored about a feminist approach to glaciology was misrepresented in the American media in 2016, and I was subsequently harassed online by climate deniers, many colleagues I was working with in Iceland struggled to understand how such things could occur. How could publishing academic work result in sexualized and highly gendered harassment? I find that talking through both my own experiences and American climate change politics generally opens up into insightful conversations about climate change experiences, engagements, and reactions within the various countries and communities I work within.


GH: In your NatGeo talk, you said, “Glaciers are part of who I am.” This experience of feeling an intermingling between yourself and the natural world is different from some other notions of exploration, in which the explorer encounters the natural world as Other. Has exploration been changing? 

M Jackson during field work in Iceland (source: James Bernal).

MJ: I impact what I research, and what I research impacts me. I’ve explored glaciers for decades, and who I am today is shaped by the experiences I’ve had with ice across the planet. To me, it is natural that glaciers inform who I am. While sometimes in science the researcher disappears from the research process, I think researchers and explorers are human beings first, participating in multitudes of lived, human experiences alongside what they study— be it glaciers in the Arctic or molecules in a lab. I try to be as open about that process as possible.

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