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Making research come to life in Siberia

By Mara Kumagai Fink '11
March 15, 2011

Sam Dunn '11 analyzes data at the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy, Russia, during his stint with the Polaris Project last summer. Photo by Chris Linder.

In elementary school, Sam Dunn '11 thought science was nothing more than memorizing plant names and conducting experiments that had one right answer. And he hated it.

Now he's a biology major at St. Olaf who spent last summer studying soil in the Arctic and has spent countless hours researching the production of methane in campus wetlands. His undergraduate research has made him realize that he has a passion for seeing science come to life.

So much so that he has returned to his old middle school to help students see that science is cool. "They say 'I don’t like science or math' because they think it's only what's in the book, like a dead product. But it's a living thing, open to interpretation, and constantly being reassessed," Dunn says.

Dunn lived in the Arctic last summer while he participated in the Polaris Project, a multifaceted program that includes a field course and research experience for undergraduate students from across the country. St. Olaf Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Schade is one of 11 scientists on the Polaris Project team, and he has led several Oles to the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy, Russia, to perform research with the program. While there, Dunn studied the amount of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide production in various soils in the Arctic in an attempt to better understand how the behavior of these soils may change as the climate warms. He plans to return to the Arctic again this summer to continue this research.

"We have altered our planet on a scale that few other organisms have or can, and if we are to continue to do so it is in our best interest to understand as completely as possible what we are really doing when we plant a field, build a shopping mall, heat up the atmosphere, or drill for oil," he says. "The more you know about a system you manipulate, the better you are able to predict the likelihoods of potential outcomes and make good choices."

Studying small, thinking large
Dunn has also collaborated over the past several years with Schade and Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Stephanie Schmidt to carry out biogeochemistry research on the methane production levels of different wetlands across campus. The goal of this work is to try to understand what factors are controlling the production of this gas, and how they change within and between wetlands. He is working on getting his findings published in a journal.

Sam Dunn '11 (center) at work along the Siberian coast. "The more you know about a system you manipulate," he says, "the better you are able to predict the likelihoods of potential outcomes and make good choices." Photo by Max Wilbert.

"Biology is important because we don't really understand how the world works yet at the macro scale. While I study very small things, I'm always thinking on a large scale," Dunn says.

He wants other students to realize that it is possible to do meaningful research at the undergraduate level. He especially enjoys the emphasis that professors at St. Olaf put on learning through research and the fact that they allow students to work largely independently.

"My high school friends who are science majors at other colleges and universities have not had as many research opportunities as I've had," he says. "Research has become a focus here, and going out and doing it is the best way to learn because not only do you learn, but you care."

Balancing his research with a weekly ecology paper discussion group, broomball games, and Cantorei rehearsals, Dunn has a lot going on. He says he couldn't do it without his friends. "It's important to surround yourself with people who are interested and passionate about what they do and people who are supportive of you. If you think you can do it on your own, you'll implode,” he says.

This summer Dunn is heading back to Siberia. He is currently in the running for a Fulbright Fellowship to study climate change mitigation in Barcelona next year, and he's also been interviewing at graduate schools. He hopes eventually to become a professor of ecology and biology at a small college.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or