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A ‘surreal’ Arctic celebration for graduating seniors

Carolina Nobre
Cost Guard officers, Prof Arrigo, and two graduates on deck.
The official graduation photo: Healy Executive Officer, Commander Greg Stanclik; Prof. Kevin Arrigo, the Donald and Donald M. Steel Professor of Earth Sciences and the Victoria and Roger Sant Co-Director of the Earth Systems Program; Erin Dillon; Caroline Ferguson; and Healy Commanding Officer, Captain John Reeves.
Stanford School Of Earth Sciences

Kevin Arrigo is the chief scientist of SUBICE, a research cruise investigating large under-ice algae blooms in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea. Two members of Arrigo’s Arctic research team – Caroline Ferguson and Erin Dillon – are graduating seniors. Since they will miss Stanford’s commencement on June 15, Arrigo, the crew and staff held a special ceremony for the students on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

On a bright, frigid Tuesday afternoon, two Stanford seniors who will miss this weekend’s graduation festivities were honored in a commencement ceremony aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a polar icebreaker currently located in the Arctic Ocean, some 3,400 miles from the university’s California 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, the Donald and Donald M. Steel 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 prevents Dillon and Ferguson from graduating with their peers at Stanford on Sunday, June 15. 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.”

At 2:30 pm local time on Tuesday, June 10, Dillon and Ferguson were honored for their impending graduation in a ceremony attended by the Healy officers, the Coast Guard crew standing in formation, as well as scientific researchers and staff [View photos].  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 Captain 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 B.S. in Biology and a B.A. 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 M.S. 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 travelling.

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

Ker Than is associate director of communications for the School of Earth Sciences.