Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

All in the Family

A Toolik scientist brings her children to the field

By Emily Stone 

Sally MacIntyre and her son, Johnny Melack, on Toolik Lake in 2003 when Johnny came to help his mom with her research.

Sally MacIntyre and her son, Johnny Melack, on Toolik Lake in 2003 when Johnny came to help his mom with her research. Photos courtesy Sally MacIntyre

Sally MacIntyre’s research studying the physics and biology of lakes has taken her to some amazing research sites, including Toolik Field Station. But over the years it also meant leaving home — and her two children — for up to a month at a time.

“That’s one of the challenges of being a mom,” she said. “You don’t really ever want to be away from your kids.”

In the back of her mind on these trips, she always thought that it would be great if she could bring her kids with her. She eventually did just that. Her 20-year-old daughter, Megan Melack, spent 10 days this summer working with her at Toolik, just as her son, Johnny Melack, did as an 18-year-old in 2003.

Megan Melack spent 10 days at Toolik Field Station this summer helping her mother, Sally MacIntyre, deploy instruments that measure temperature and turbulence in Toolik Lake below the surface.

Megan Melack spent 10 days at Toolik Field Station this summer helping her mother, Sally MacIntyre, deploy instruments that measure temperature and turbulence in Toolik Lake below the surface.

MacIntyre, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said it was important that she wait until her children were old enough to appreciate Toolik, both the stunning physical beauty of the place and the community of smart, engaged scientists. She wanted Megan and Johnny to have a social life independent from her, “so it becomes their place too, not just that they’re hanging out with mom.”

The strategy clearly worked.

“I can’t even explain how happy I am that I went there,” said Megan, who is a junior at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “I tell people that my soul was revived.”

Megan had been skeptical of the trip, which her mom had been urging her to make for a few years. She worried that as a self-described “girly” Californian, the giant mosquitoes and primitive living arrangements — outhouses and limited showers — wouldn’t suit her. But she quickly learned to deflect the mosquitoes and got used to the camp’s amenities, or lack thereof, and turned her attention to the people and science around her.

The highlight of the trip was a midnight hike with a small group the night before she left. “I can’t imagine doing that anywhere else in the world with such awesome people,” she said.

The science became real to her, too.

“There’s no way you ever truly understand scientific research unless you go out and do it,” she said. And she suddenly understood what her mom had been doing all those years when she headed off into the field.

Megan Melack helps her mother, Sally MacIntyre, deploy instruments in Toolik Lake that read the temperature and turbulence of the water below the surface.

Megan Melack helps her mother, Sally MacIntyre, deploy instruments in Toolik Lake that read the temperature and turbulence of the water below the surface.

“It made me very proud to see all the things she does out there,” Megan said.

MacIntyre studies the turbulence below the surface of Toolik Lake. Arctic lakes are much more turbulent than similarly sized and, in some cases, much larger temperate lakes. That means that more nutrients are mixed from the bottom into the water column above where there is light to support the growth of tiny phytoplankton. The mixing rates are so high because the difference in water temperature from the top of the lake to the bottom isn’t that great. But if the climate were to warm significantly, that difference would increase and it could cut off the underwater churning. Megan and Johnny helped their mom deploy instruments that read the lake’s temperature and turbulence from the top to the bottom as part of MacIntyre’s ongoing research.

Johnny, who was about to start school at the University of California, Davis, the summer he was at Toolik, had always been interested in science. He now works as a mechanical engineer for a company making hydrogen fuel cells in Davis. During a summer break in college he spent part of his time working with the company that builds MacIntyre’s instruments, and he helped build one of hers. He inscribed “To Mom from Johnny” on it.

“It’s totally wonderful,” MacIntyre said. 

Sally MacIntyre studies the turbulence below the surface of Toolik Lake. She's been able to bring both her children to the camp as young adults to help her with her research.

Sally MacIntyre studies the turbulence below the surface of Toolik Lake. She's been able to bring both her children to the camp as young adults to help her with her research.

Megan, who is majoring in psychology, had been thinking about studying a hard science as well, and said her time at Toolik convinced her that she should. She’s planning to add either an environmental studies or biology minor and is thinking about science journalism or environmental policy lobbying as a career. She’d also like to figure out a way to go back to Toolik, perhaps with a project of her own someday.

They worked hard while at Toolik, so it’s no surprise that Johnny and Megan both enjoyed their time off, too.

Johnny spent much of his free time filming a documentary video about the place, hiking, and playing soccer and basketball under the midnight sun. Megan was an ebullient presence at the camp, chatting easily with people at meals and social activities. She and MacIntyre were both enthusiastic participants in the station’s re-enactment of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance shortly after his death.

MacIntyre said she was grateful for the warmth both old-timers and newcomers at the camp showed Johnny and Megan.

“The fact that people at Toolik reached out to my children made their experiences so positive,” she said.

MacIntyre’s research at Toolik is part of the Arctic LTER program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Emily Stone is a freelance writer. She spent a week at Toolik Field Station last summer as an MBL journalism fellow.