Humanity Among the Ice Floes

Head and shoulders photo: Melissa Haeffner traveled to the bottom of the world to study a rarely researched species: female scientists.

Melissa Haeffner traveled to the bottom of the world to study a rarely researched species: female scientists.

As part of the largest all-female scientific expedition to Antarctica, Melissa Haeffner (Sociology ’00, MA ’04) interviewed and photographed her shipmates as they witnessed the impact of climate change on the continent’s unique environment. The three-week expedition in December 2016 involved 76 scientists from around the world, including nine from the United States.

“I tell people that scientists are my species,” says Haeffner, an assistant professor of environmental science and management at Portland State University in Oregon. Her qualitative, interview-based research weaves stories around statistics to illuminate both people and environmental issues. “My life’s work is to insert humanity into science and the human story into places.”

Antarctica’s extreme environment was an ideal location for Haeffner to explore how people’s experiences are affected by the words they have to express them. The scientists—Haeffner included—struggled to describe what they sensed and felt.

“The women in this very strange environment said that the English language lacked words to describe these deep and incredible experiences,” she explains. The implications for society are clear, she says: “When you don’t have the language to articulate ideas, it’s really hard for people to communicate about climate change on a deep level.”

“[Antarctica is] one of the places on Earth where you can see quite a change happen right before your eyes. You cannot deny it,” Haeffner says.

Haeffner says her experiences as a student and an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology prepared her for the circuitous but satisfying journey to her current role. After she left DePaul, she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she began working on water issues in Ghana and earned a master’s degree in urban studies and planning.

“I started making connections between my sociology background from DePaul and natural resource management. That led me to climate change and how cities are going to respond,” she says. She earned a doctorate in ecology from Colorado State University so that she could bridge the gap between the physical and social sciences.

“That was when I really started to understand not only the human environmental connection for my own personal interest, but the need for natural resource managers and engineers to understand how humans behave,” she says. “We know a lot about watersheds, and we know quite a bit about atmospheric science and what we think might happen in terms of climate change. But what we don’t understand very well is how people will adapt or not to that change. That’s something that social science brings to the table.”

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