An expert in understanding the weird and wonderful world of marine creatures that live deep under the Arctic ice.
What do you do when you need a boat to load scientific equipment into and you are in the Eastern Arctic, thousands of kilometers away from the nearest boat store? For Kathy Conlan, a marine biologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, the answer was to ask an Inuit elder if she could borrow his boat.
The elder agreed, and a friendship between Conlan and the old man formed. “After that, I used to drop by and visit whenever I could,” said Conlan. “He made me an ulu, a symbol of the North West Territories that was used traditionally for skinning animals. It was a big surprise completely out of the blue.”
But, as someone who has worked in the far-North for over a decade, Conlan is used to the warm reception and welcome of the Northern people.
Conlan has been studying marine life on the bottom of the Arctic ocean for many years. But, in addition to conducting research, she is an educator for the North.
Conlan participates in government programs that utilize the expertise of scientists passing through the Arctic to teach science to teachers and to school children in Northern communities. As well, she has participated in the Students on Ice program, which takes high school aged children on cruise ships around the Antarctic and Arctic. “The founding idea was that if youth knew about the Arctic and Antarctica they would protect and stand up for it against any exploitation that might occur in the future,” said Conlan. “In essence, we were creating a bunch of ambassadors.”
Conlan has also communicated her science to the Innu and Inuit people who live where she researches. In February 2007, she and ten other science colleagues traveled from village to village explaining their research studies and findings. “The people were very welcoming and always put up with our heavy science presentations usually lasting 3.5 hours,” said Conlan. “They understood our work and were very concerned also. They felt it was essential that they were involved and to make sure their concerns were heard.”
One of Conlan’s favourite parts of her job is deepsea diving. According to Conlan, the diving in Antarctica is better than in the Arctic because the water is too murky with sediment from the Mackenzie river. Plus, because the ice is always shifting in the Arctic and weather conditions have to be just right, there is no time for fun dives and often you will dive twice in a day, which is “very cold and not as pleasant.”
When diving Conlan also takes fantastic underwater images that were turned into the children’s book Under the Ice in 2002. That book won the prestigious Science in Society prize for a children’s book handed out by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.
Conlan didn’t have any experience with the ocean growing up, until a trip out to the West coast when she was 16 or so. "I was really taken with the ocean and marine life at that point, and that trip really solidified my interest in going into biology."