Troopers make arrest in 1993 Bartlett Hall cold case murder

 

Sophie Sergie. Photo courtesy of Alaska State Troopers.

Alaska State Troopers arrested 44-year-old Steven Harris Downs in Auburn, Maine on Friday for the 1993 murder and sexual assault of Sophie Sergie in a UAF dormitory bathroom.

“This arrest is the culmination of [over 20] years of effort and tenacious attention by this department to solve a horrendous murder,” said Amanda Price, Department of Public Safety Commissioner at a news conference Friday afternoon.  

Downs has been charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault. He will be extradited for prosecution in Alaska.

Steven Harris Downs was arrested Friday, Feb. 15 in Auburn, Maine. Photo courtesy of Androscoggin County Jail.

 

20-year-old Sergie made plans to return home to Pitkas Point after her stay with her friend, Shirley Wasuli, in Fairbanks for an orthodontic appointment. She disappeared after midnight to smoke a cigarette next to the exhaust vent in the tub room off the main bathroom area because it was cold outside. Case investigator Sgt. Jim McCann said Sergie was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

A custodian found Sergie’s body in the second-floor bathtub of UAF’s Bartlett Hall in the early afternoon of April 26, 1993. She lay strewn in a pool of blood, pants at her ankles, with facial stab wounds and the fatal bullet of a .22 caliber in the back of her head. No one recalled hearing the gunshot.

The original News-Miner story on the 1993 murder. Photo courtesy of The Fairbanks Daily News Miner.

At 18, Downs was a UAF student living in Bartlett Hall and working as a university security guard with his roommate, Nicholas Dazar. Dazar was interviewed in 2010 after investigators learned he was fired for possessing a firearm in the dorm. He did not own a .22-caliber revolver at the time he lived in Bartlett Hall, but as he told investigators, his 1993 roommate did. Forensic scientists confirmed the bullet from the crime scene would have been fired from such a gun.

Downs was identified as a suspect in the cold case through the use of genetic genealogy. An investigator for Alaska State Troopers’ Cold Case Investigation Unit decided to try the technique in July 2018, after its use to identify and arrest the suspected Golden State Serial Killer. Blood relatives of suspects are found by comparing DNA collected at crime scenes to that submitted to public genealogy databases. Such DNA technology was not used in Alaska in 1993, rendering the DNA found on Sergie’s body useless for 26 years.

Downs had been working as a registered nurse in Maine and was noted with disciplinary action and unprofessional conduct. In the days leading to his arrest, Downs still denied knowing Sergie and stated he was with his girlfriend most of the night she was killed. He told authorities he “remember[s] the pictures, it’s terrible, poor girl.” He also said if he had known anything he would have come forward immediately. Downs voiced his suspicions of Ft. Wainwright soldiers to troopers “repeatedly” as they were “often in the building.”

With the help of Maine authorities, AST later arrested Downs and he is set to for transfer to Alaska to face justice.

“The impact of [the] murder was felt statewide,” Price said. “The many investigators who have continued to work this case never let the loss of Sophie leave their mind.”

According to AST Director Barry Wilson, “Justice for Sophie is finally within reach.”




Proposed university budget could lead to loss of programs and campuses

On February 13th, Governor Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year went public.  Included in this proposal was a $134 million decrease in the operating budget for the University of Alaska system from the current fiscal year.  This would drop the budget by about 41% from what is currently available, leaving the university with a budget of $193 million.  In an email concerning the proposed budget changes, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen discussed the drastic negative effect they would have on the University of Alaska.

“Cuts at this level cannot simply be managed or accommodated,” stated Johnsen. “If this budget passes the legislature, it will devastate university programs and services, and the negative effects will be felt in communities across the entire state.”

This is far from the first time that the university system has faced budget cuts in recent years.  Johnsen discussed the impact recent cuts have had on the university’s operations during a press conference on February 13th.

“UA has taken cuts four out of the last five years, we’ve laid off over 1,200 faculty and staff, we have cut over 50 academic and degree certificate programs.  We have been forced to raise tuition and we have watched our enrollment decline. So we know how it is, how cuts can be managed, and we know the negative impacts that cuts have on us, on our students, on employers of our students, on communities where our people live, and on our state.” Johnsen said.  “A cut this big, though, can’t simply be managed while maintaining campuses and services and programs across Alaska.”

In the past, the university system has faced multiple removals and combinings of programs.  However, with the amended budget proposed by Governer Dunleavy, university programs might not be the only thing being cut to make ends meet.  Many employees of the university would lose their jobs, enough that entire departments or even campuses would be affected.

“I am confident we’ll need to close campuses if this budget makes it all the way through the legislative process.” stated Johnsen.  “Again, we’ll need to eliminate a lot of programs, we will reduce services, no question about that.”

Elaborating on the magnitude of the cut, Johnsen compared it to the costs of running campuses around the state of Alaska.  “We have thirteen community campuses across the state, that’s only $38 million there.  Closing all of our community campuses is just $38 million, that’s not even a third of what this cut is.  All of UAA is $120 million, so closing the entire UAA campus does not meet this cut.”

“As a result of these proposed budget cuts we are heading into an extremely uncertain time.  There are going to be a lot of discussions, there’s going to be lots of options on the table, there are going to be lists with programs and names, and so a lot of uncertainty going forward.” stated Johnsen, acknowledging the difficult path ahead for the University.

In his closing remarks, Johnsen encouraged cooperation among the members of the University of Alaska system, as well as hope for the future.

“There will be a University of Alaska next year, and ten years from now, and twenty years from now.  Our state needs us, we may be less of what we are today but our state absolutely needs us.  And so what we need to focus on during this time is students, and our mission.” Johnsen continued, “And we also need to take care of each other.  What often happens in difficult organizational climates like we’re heading into is people start cheating inwards.  Elbows get real sharp, and there’s a lot of anxiety and tension and competition within the organization.”

If you wish to contact Governer Dunleavy concerning these budget cuts, you can do so at the official Office of the Governor page located here.




Catastrophic climate effects

The view of Big Diomede, Russia from Little Diomede, Alaska shows what should be covered in ice in February. Bering Sea springtime sea ice extent in 2018 was the lowest since record-keeping began in 1850.
Photo courtesy of Little Diomede resident Henry Soolook.

 

By Mackenzie Sylvester

Climate effects foreseen to hit by mid-century are already present in Alaska. Sea ice surrenders to astounding high winter temperatures. In February 2018, the Arctic experienced temperatures 45 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

“The Arctic is a preview for what the rest of the world can expect,” said John Walsh, chief scientist at the International Arctic Research Center at UAF.

 

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming highlights the risks expected to surface by 2040.

In 2015, 195 nations adopted the Paris agreement that set goals to limit global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) and to keep increases well below 2 degrees Celsius. The atmosphere’s temperature is expected to rise to 1.5 degrees by 2040 if the current rate of warming continues.

The report, with 91 contributing authors and over 6,000 scientific references cited, emphasized the climate change impacts that would be avoided by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. By 2100, coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with a smaller increase, but at 2 degrees Celsius, virtually all coral reefs would be lost, according to the report.

 

“We are already seeing the consequences of 1 degree Celsius of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” panel co-chair Panmao Zhai said in the IPCC press release.

Climate change in Alaska and the Arctic is more dramatic and is happening faster than it is in the rest of the world. While those in the lower 48 still have 30 some years before these “catastrophic” events are expected to surface, Alaska is already enduring the effects.

On average, Arctic temperatures are warming twice as fast as in the rest of the world. Some of Alaska’s permafrost has been frozen for thousands of years. As it thaws, methane and carbon dioxide are released. Increases in the amount of water vapor in Alaska are proportionally larger than they are in other states. Along with carbon dioxide, water vapor is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Open water in the Arctic extends as sea ice melts, leaving more room for evaporation.

 

Bering Sea ice coverage in the spring of 2018 was at the lowest since record-keeping began in 1850. “It’s the sign of the times,” said Rick Thoman, Alaska climatologist for the National Weather Service. “I bet we won’t have to wait another 160 years to see a year like we had last year for Bering Sea ice.”

 

Change is evident to many Alaskans. October in Fairbanks entailed of nearing 70 degrees on the first, which usually averages only 30 to 46 degrees. This year has been the latest Fairbanks has gone without at least a trace amount of snow, according to a tweet by the National Weather Service Fairbanks.

 

Spring begins earlier than it used to. “We have data from about 1929 from the Fairbanks International Airport,” said Christa Mulder, professor of plant ecology at UAF, “on average we are about eight days earlier.” Spring, as Mulder defines it, is a period of five days in a row without freezing.

 

Summers have become longer than they were in the past. “We can expect it to increase by a month or two by the end of the century,” Walsh said of the lengthening growing season.

 

“This report just kind of validates what we’re seeing in our part of the world,” Thoman said, unsurprised of the doomsday-esque findings, “Here it’s so obvious.” Areas south of the Arctic, where climate changes are less dramatic or more episodic, may be getting caught up now, Thoman said. By 2040, Alaska will be “much further along than where we are today,” he said.

 

Animals have been observed to adapt to a changing climate. “As shrubs increase on the North Slope, we see beaver in places that they’ve never been observed before,” Thoman said. When they build their damns, they change the local flow of water. Moose are moving north and westward in search of food, Thoman said.

 

As the ocean warms, fish are going to migrate to places they have not been seen. Acidity levels in the ocean have been rising which poses threats to marine life. Salmon depend on tiny snail-like creatures called therapods for food. “In a more acidic environment the theropods can’t form their little tiny shells, so they can’t survive,” said Nancy Fresco, a climate change researcher at the International Arctic Research Center at UAF. “They’re an integral part of the food chain when the salmon go out to feed at sea and grow big and fat and come back and spawn in our rivers.

 

Freezing rain in 2013 caused more than 61,000 reindeer deaths on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Bruce C. Forbes in the 2016 Biology Letters.

Reports have shown caribou die-off ensues from mid-winter rain as they struggle to dig into the frozen ground for food. A study in the journal Biology Letters recorded a rain-on-snow event in 2013 causing 61,000 reindeer deaths on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Bruce C. Forbes, the study author, found the immediate cause of mass mortality was the solid ice barrier across the ground.

Some of the Arctic mammals that depend on ice are heavily impacted by the warming climate. “The sea ice is not there where it used to be and the animals are reliant on that,” Fresco said.

Walruses can no longer rest on large, spread out ice packs before diving for food. They are forced to haul out on small land-areas on the coastlines in Western Alaska and Eastern Siberia. Walrus stampedes have become prevalent in over-crowded shore haul-outs, endangering the young.

Scientists agree that fossil-fuel burning is a large factor in the increased global temperature and a large-scale transition to renewable energy is an essential step toward a solution.

The challenge in bending the curve on greenhouse gasses is knowing the people of today will likely not live to see their efforts, but there is no time to be wasted, as Thoman said. “At this point there is so much heat built up in the oceans, if civilization collapses and 99 out of every 100 people in the world die tomorrow, it will take centuries for that heat in the ocean to work its way out.” There is no silver bullet. Cultures in history have taken the “longer view.” “It’s not that humans can’t do it, it’s that we don’t do it. We have to, in the Western world, start adapting that attitude.”

Alaskans do not need to wait until 2040 to see the effects of the climate crisis. The rest of the world only needs a look north to see what is coming. As Thoman put it, “The bad stuff is here.”




UAF Professor coauthors study in Science magazine

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The collection of bones and tools from which the infant’s tooth was discovered sat in a museum in Copenhagen for nearly 70 years. Photo Credit: Jeff Rasic National Park Service

 

UAF researcher co-authors study about first Americans

UAF Professor of  Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Dr. Matt Wooller’s isotopic analysis of a 9,000-year-old tooth was published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals in the country.

Wooller’s work allowed insight as to the diets of some of the first inhabitants of Alaska based on a nearly-forgotten artifact from a cave on the Seward Peninsula. His work led to a counter-intuitive finding.

“The site is surrounded by ocean and yet what we found chemically in the tooth was signatures that were more consistent with a terrestrial-based sources of food compared with marine sources despite marine resources surrounding the site,” he said.

Wooller said that this finding was particularly puzzling considering that the only other known site of these people, whom archaeologists call the Ancient Beringians, is in Interior Alaska on the Upward Sun site on the Tanana River. Paradoxically, those isotopic analyses showed a strong preponderance of marine food sources.

“Of course salmon are anadromous, so they are bringing marine nutrients into Interior Alaska,” he explained, “That’s how we reconcile that, is that those people had access to in close proximity with the Tanana River where today we have salmon.”

The site at which the tooth was found is located near Deering, Alaska in an area that is now inhabited by Inupiat Eskimos. Dr. Wooller and his colleague Dr. Jeff Rasic, who works with the National Park Service, said that they worked closely with the Deering Tribal Council to make sure that the research on the human remains was conducted with local input, which Rasic says can be a sensitive subject.

“We formally met with the IRA Tribal Council and raised the different possibilities for research with the collection and gauged their interests and input and objections,” said Rasic, “And they had none. They were curious to learn about their site more.”

The story of how the tooth was found stretches across decades and continents. According to Rasic of the National Park Service, the tooth was unknowingly excavated at a well-known cave at a site called Trail Creek back in 1949 by a Danish archeologist, Helge Larsen. Larsen brought the artifacts, which were mostly caribou and small mammal bones, back to Denmark, where they sat until 2012. In that year, a German graduate student conducted a thorough analysis of the bones and for the first time discovered an infant deciduous human tooth among the remains. That was when Rasic heard about the find, and he decided to investigate on a previously-planned trip to Copenhagen. 

“I brought the tooth to the attention of the ancient DNA specialist. It happened that one of the leading DNA labs in the world–and there are very few of these–happened to be in Copenhagen, so it was a very easy connection to make,” said Rasic.

The DNA analysis revealed that the tooth was indeed related to the oldest known inhabitants of Alaska, known as the Ancient Beringians, a term which was only coined in 2017 by another UAF archeologist, Dr. Ben Potter, who found cremated remains at the Upward Sun Site. That DNA showed only a distant relationship to the Native American lineage dating back to 35,000 years ago. Potter thus surmised that the Ancient Beringian lineage had died out while the Native Americans went on to colonize the rest of North and South America.

Pieces of the tooth were sent out to other laboratories for analysis across the world, including to Oxford, England where direct dating was done. A small portion was also sent to UAF for the isotopic analysis.

“The tooth is gone, there is one small fragment that we retained, but between the dating and DNA analysis that consumed the bulk of it,” he said, “We were very thoughtful, I think about that. We knew upfront that this was a very rare specimen and we were careful to squeeze every little bit of information from that tooth out of it.”

While the tooth no longer exists, Rasic says that scientists made high-resolution photographs of the tooth, and made a 3D copy of it so that future researchers can continue analysis. 

So are these the first ever Americans? “It looks that way,” says Rasic. “These are the earliest Alaskans and the earliest Alaskans are the earliest American.”

Still, he cautions not to read too much into this most recent analysis. “More finds, more analysis could change the picture,” he says, “We’re dealing with a sample size of just two Ancient Beringians, but each of those samples points to other relationships.”




ASUAF hosts Fairbanks electoral town hall

The candidates present for the town hall. From left to right: Tim Lamkin, Grier Hopkins, Ed Alexander, Billy Toien, Van Lawrence, Adam Wool, Rep. Scott Kawasaki, and Bart LeBon. Not pictured: Sen. Mark Begich.

Though the town hall was small in attendance it was overall hailed a success.

With the midterm election just around the corner, ASUAF hosted a town hall on Oct. 24, allowing the Fairbanks community to ask questions of those running for office. However, the town hall lacked the presence of Sen. Mike Dunleavy, Sen. Pete Kelly, Kathryn Dodge, Rep. Steve Thompson, Rep. Tammie Wilson, Jim Sackett, Kevin McKinley, and Rep. David Talerico.

Over the course of 1 ½ hours, various hot-button questions of concern to the residents of Alaska, such as the Permanent Fund Dividend, affordable education, preservation of Native Alaskan culture and the environment were brought up. These questions showed the myriad of concerns that Alaskans have and the responses were just as myriad, some crystal clear, and others more difficult to discern.

“I gotta say this was an excellent event. Although I am not a Fairbanks citizen and I voted in Anchorage. It was really interesting to be able to understand what is affecting Fairbanks and the community, what’s affecting the community that I’m currently living in,” said Emma Ashlock, a current University of Alaska Fairbanks student.

Rep. Scott Kawasaki

That sentiment was echoed by UAF alum Christina Sinclair, “It went very well. I really like that UAF and the students are getting more involved in politics because it is very important to us. I recently graduated and getting involved in politics I see how it can go hand in hand. We have a very diverse community here especially at UAF and we need to make sure that the students are protected and the best way to do that is with legislation.”

 

The event featured the gubernatorial candidates, state house and representative seats. It allowed the population of not only the university but also of the greater interior a chance to ask questions of those they will elect to represent them on Nov. 6. The chance to come in direct contact with their representatives allows a more human approach to a political system that, more often than not, doesn’t allow the people to meet their representatives.

Grier Hopkins (right) and Tim Lamkin (left).

When asked how the event went from the coordinating side, the overall opinion from Daniel Vaziri, the public relations director for ASUAF was that the town hall was, indeed, a success:

 

“[The town hall went] Surprisingly very well, because we were expecting more people but after Walker dropped out then no one knows what to do, everyone’s confused. But with Audrey, Bernard, Peter, Dawson, they all were making calls until 10pm till the Wood Center closed trying to get as many candidates as they can, being as fair to everyone as possible, organizing it […] But I think it went very well because we still have candidates talking to people right now they showed up on time,” Daniel Vaziri, the public relations director for ASUAF.

Gubernatorial candidates Sen. Mark Begich (left) and Billy Toien (right).

Though the turnout was small for the town hall, the ability to watch democracy in action was invaluable, even with the swath with candidates who weren’t present. Which, in and of itself is telling of the priorities of those who chose to be at an event to earn money for their campaign than to talk to the grassroots supporters of politics, and the future of politics, the young people.




Voices of Our Ancestors: Documentary film to revitalize the Indigenous languages

 

Yup’ik, Inupiat, Tlingit, Alutiiq, Koyukon, Aleut, Tsimshian, Gwich’in, Haida… Alaska is home to more than 20 Native languages. From the fjords in the Southeast to the northern tundra where it meets the Arctic Ocean, the Alaskan languages have been spoken and sung for tens of thousands of years. Sadly, all of them are facing an imminent risk of extinction.

On this year’s Indigenous Peoples Day (Oct 8), the UAF community had an opportunity to reflect on revitalizing the Indigenous languages. An award-winning documentary short, “Voices of Our Ancestors”, was screened to the public in the Ballroom at Wood Center.

‘Waats’asdiyei (Joe Yates) is introducing his documentary short, “Voices of Our Ancestors” to the audience before the screening.

The event started with an introduction to the film by the director, ‘Waats’asdiyei (Joe Yates). Yates is a Haida from Craig, Alaska, majoring in Film here at UAF. “Our mission is to spread awareness on the state of our languages right now, to inspire others to learn their language, and to provoke them to teach what they know,” said Yates to the audience of about 50 people.

The 12-minute-long documentary was shot mostly at Yates’ home, starring his Yup’ik wife, Charleen, and daughter, Nayak’aq. Yates narrated how the Yup’ik and Haida languages are being forgotten as elders pass away, along with the hope to revitalize the languages. “After having my daughter, she re-woke my spirits. She made me realize that I don’t know enough to continue on our history,” said the Haida director in the film.

The film showed the Yates’ teaching their daughter Yup’ik and Haida by reading her children’s books and putting name tags on various objects in the house. Nayak’aq, who was at the screening with their parents, would grin and laugh whenever she saw herself on the screen. Although the circumstances of her languages are certainly not positive, the big smiles that she made to her elders’ songs showed a living hope. With parents like the Yates’, her languages will survive and be passed on to her and her children.

The documentary film, “Voices of Our Ancestors”, is screening in the UAF Ballroom in Wood Center.

The greatest moments in making “Voices of Our Ancestors” were “Seeing the growth of my daughter’s knowledge of both her culture’s language; that and my wife is understanding more Haida and I am learning more Yup’ik,” Yates told the Sun Star in an email interview. He said his family was his biggest inspiration to create this film.

“My wife’s culture is so beautiful and vibrant, it’s not hard to see how strong their culture is. With my language, Haida language is slipping away, my goal is to keep it alive and the best way I know is to teach it to my daughter. My wife and I agreed before our daughter was born that we wanted to teach her our languages.”

In fact, Charleen was not only his motivation but also one of his most valuable colleagues. The film’s authentic feels of home and intimacy that gave the audience a warm satisfaction naturally stemmed from his close collaboration with others.

“Charleen helped me out tremendously and not with just the cultural side, but she made sure the story was there and would notify me if anything looked of sounded off. I received a lot of advice from my professor, Rob Prince as well. After going to my wife, I’d go to him to get more of the filming side of the advice. Other than those two, my co-worker, Buck, helped me out a lot with my outline and helping me how to animate my title,” Yates wrote.

But not all processes were smooth, the filmmaker also mentioned. “On this project, I was doing both [the technology and story] sides. I was directing, starring, working with sound, everything. In the beginning we had to re-do a few interviews because the audio wasn’t up to par.”

‘Waats’asdiyei (Joe Yates) talking with the audience after the screening, holding his daughter, Nayak’aq, in his arms.

And it seemed like Yate’s endeavor has paid off. Wataru Takahashi, an anthropology exchange student and amateur filmmaker from Japan, praised “Voices of Our Ancestors” as a “very well-done film” with so much information in short runtime yet with the perfect amount of weight.

Takahashi said, “the reason I found [the film] very interesting is because, usually in university, all teachers and students think we have to study –in general, people have to study–their own language, but they don’t say they want to teach their own children in the future. Now I want to know more about the Alaskan languages.”

He sounded inspired by how the Yates’ taught their daughter Yup’ik and Haida. “I found it really cool that when they put stickers which he writes the name of the furniture in their language. It’s very cool to learn language as a life-tool in baby’s life. For me, I can use that way to learn the Athabascan, Yup’ik or Inupiat language,” said Takahashi. He was already a fan of Voices of Our Ancestors.

“Films are a really good tool to inform who don’t know or who don’t have really strong interest in this kind of issue,” he said with enthusiasm. “I really want to watch the full-length film.”

Image courtesy of FBX Films

Yates is currently making the 26-minute-long television version of Voices of Our Ancestors with a plan to have it completed by the end of this year. This longer version will contain the stories of the Yates’ visit to Kasigluk, Alaska, where Charleen is from. Yates is also planning on making a full-length version of the documentary but told the Sun Star that it is hard to predict what will be in it. “My goal is that we will go to my hometown, Craig, Alaska, and have both my wife and daughter adopted in the Haida culture so that they both can have a clan. Within the documentary, I explain further on what all that means,” the rising director showed his ambitions.

“A message I would like to share with the Indigenous communities at UAF is that I am honored every time I am able to speak. I know there was a time that if you were able to speak to a crowd, you were most high honored to do so,” Yates wrote.

He also shared a message to the UAF’s non-Native populations, “a Seawolf is a Haida creature that we share in our stories often. Before you chant ‘what’s a Seawolf’, Google the question first!”

“Voices of Our Ancestors” won Best Alaska Film by the MôTif Film Festival in 2018 and an award by the Ketchikan Film Festival in the same year. The documentary was also nominated and officially selected at other film festivals.

Yates can be reached at his team’s website. “Voices of Our Ancestors” can be found on Facebook and Instagram.




Rainy days, enduring lessons, all part of inspiring girls award-winning expedition

 

Muddy, gray water shot out vigorously as Kim McNett, in a glossy suit of soaked rain-gear, rapidly worked her kayak bilge pump. Only she was not bailing water from a boat. The sea-kayak guide, stood on shore at bended knee, ridding water from a trench built around a flooded tent.

McNett was anything but discouraged, “Welcome to Girls of Rainy Fjords!” She yelled, with arms outstretched in triumph

Girls on Icy Fjords is one of several expeditions offered through UAF’s housed Inspiring Girls Expeditions program. Every summer, each year, teams of high school girls, instructors and mountain guides immerse themselves in wilderness, science and art on these tuition-free 12-day excursions. The girls spend time collecting data and analyzing in field projects. Over 200 students have participated to date.

The goal is to spark the girls with an interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “They leave with an understanding of why field science is different,” said glaciologist Aurora Roth, one of four UAF researchers instructing the Girls on Ice Alaska expedition this past June.

“Field science,” as she put it, “is this combination of understanding your surroundings and your landscapes and being able to move safely within them.”

The efforts, aimed at igniting interest in STEM fields among a traditionally underrepresented demographic, recently drew a national award for UAF’S Inspiring Girls program. INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, a 40-year-old subscription-based publication serving the higher education industry, listed UAF’s summer expedition program among it’s 2018 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award.

INSIGHT publisher Lenore Pearlstein characterized the magazine’s award as an incentive for change: “To advocate diversity, promote equality and build a stronger US work force, we at INSIGHT recognize the importance of increasing the number of people from underrepresented groups entering the STEM professions.”

UAF and other recipients were recognized in INSIGHT’s September issue.

“The best parts about that are that it feels like we have a good reputation among the university level,” Erin Pettit, a UAF glaciologist and founder of what has developed into a national program. Even though it is for high schoolers, the program is being recognized on the university level. “I appreciate and value having that feeling that we have that respect among our collegial institutions.”

Caitlynn Hanna, a current freshman engineering student at UAF, participated in the 2017 Icy Fjords expedition. Her team spent 12 days in Seward where they collected and analyzed data and studied things like shore birds.

Hanna was inspired seeing “tough, strong ladies in their career field and doing really well in it.” She made lasting friendships with her team members. “We celebrated the one-year anniversary in August,” she said.

On her last day in Seward, she and the other girls wrote letters addressed to themselves one year in the future. “I wrote a lot about the people I was with and things to remember.” Hanna recalled with a laugh, “Like when Rosemary got stuck in the mud.”

Rosemary had to sit down and use both hands to pull her feet out of the mud. She then had to retrieve her wetsuit shoes from the bottoms of the pits.  Courtesy of Caitlynn Hanna

To stay warm after getting out of the Kayaks, the girls started to run laps on the sandy beach. “When she [Rosemary] stepped on it, the sand moved,” said Hanna. “She decided to stand in one place and move her feet. She quickly got stuck in the sand. Like shin deep.”

Rosemary stood, seized by the mud, in her vivid blue raincoat on a foggy, grey beach below a sunless sky. Her eyes peaked down behind her glasses at her predicament while the corners of her mouth turned up, forming the slightest smile.

When Pettit founded the program in Washington in 1999, girls taking part were mainly involved in mountaineering. Since emerging in Alaska in 2012, Girls on Ice has become much more.

Pettit hopes to broaden the ideas on what science is. “It helps them realize there is not one way to be a scientist,” said Pettit.

“Many girls choose not to go into science because we all grow up with very particular ideas of what science is. Science is a lot more than the stereotypes they were given as kids.” In both the scientific and outdoor-adventure worlds that are still very white-male dominant, Pettit said they do anything they can to help give these girls an experience that will give them a leg up.

The program gears the girls up with the confidence that carried into their first college science classes.

Inspiring girls encourages any high school girl with an interest in science, outdoors, art or environment to apply. A team is chosen as a whole. After members reach Alaska, the program provides transportation to the expedition locations well as food, gear and art supplies.

This is not the first time UAF’s Inspiring Girls drew recognition from INSIGHT, an influential publication with a combined print and online subscription base of 60,000, according to its online advertising fact sheet.

Three years ago, UAF’s expedition program earned the magazine’s Inspiring Women in STEM Award.

Lessons from these field expeditions go beyond science.

That rainy trip in Seward expedition’s gear tent was not placed in an ideal location, leading to so much rain collecting underneath it was, as Hanna described it, “like a waterbed.”




Indigenous Peoples Day at UAF

UAF Hosts 2nd Annual Indigenous Peoples Day

Gwich’in elder Luke Titus gives a blessing at Troth Yeddha’ Park, the future site of an indigenous studies center.

The University of Alaska held day-long celebrations for Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday, October 8th with guest performers from around the community and a visit from the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska.

“There was a time that this university reflected a society that was not particularly embracing of or understanding of or even welcoming of Alaska’s First Peoples and other races, and that has changed powerfully as society has changed,” said Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallot, a Tlingit from Yakutat in an interview with the Sun Star.

The day began with an invocation ceremony that was shortened by the cold temperatures that left the twenty or so spectators shivering as they circled up around the grass at Troth Yeddha’ Park on West Ridge.

After delivering the invocation in Gwich’in, Vice Chancellor of Rural and Native Education Evon Peter announced new funding goal.

“Our number one fundraising priority for the university is getting Troth Yeddha’ built,” he said, referring to the planned indigenous studies center. Troth Yeddha’s architectural plan was completed in 2014 by a renowned national architect, but lack of funding has stalled construction since then.

At the invocation, Gwich’in elder Luke Titus recounted a story of growing up in his home village of Minto, 60 miles down the Tanana River from Fairbanks. He recounted waking up in an unheated cabin on days much colder than Monday’s 20 degrees.

“Who in the heck would wanna get outta bed when its -30, or -40 outside?” he joked, “My uncle taught me to do those things without complaining.”

Celebrants walk from Troth Yeddha’ Park to the Wood Center on Monday Morning

Titus said his uncle would wake him on those cold morning and he would pretend to be sleeping, but eventually was forced to go outside to “run out,” for a morning jog. He was supposed to go to a certain tree a ways down the trail and come back to the cabin. One day his uncle caught him turning around before his tree.

“In life you can’t take shortcuts,” he said, “In life you are going all the way, and if you try to cut off, you’ll get caught like that.”  

After the 10am invocation, celebrants walked down to the Wood Center for an impromptu dance performance that redirected traffic through the side stairs.

Alaska Governor Bill Walker signed the bill establishing indigenous peoples day in July of 2017. That makes Alaska one of only two states to recognize the day, which was formerly celebrated in Alaska as Columbus Day.

Dancers Julian Thibedeau, Evon Peter, and Travis Cole perform an Athabaskan dance at the Wood Center

Julian Thibedeau, a second year student in Rural Development and a member of the Troth Yeddha’ drumming group at UAF, echoed Mallot’s optimism about the progress the university has made in recognizing indigenous heritage.

“It’s huge,” he said referring to the celebration, “When we ignore the facts of the origins of our country–and don’t get me wrong, American has done a lot of good, and stands for a lot of good things–but it’s huge for the university to acknowledge us. It doesn’t fix all the wrongs.”

He said that he sees reasons for optimism elsewhere too.

“Not just at the university but around Indian country there’s progress being made,” he said.




Celebrated Ceramics Artist Patti Warashina Visits UAF

Patti Warashina explains her creative process at a presentation on Wednesday

Patti Warashina, an iconic Japanese-American ceramics artist from Seattle, visited Fairbanks last week for a workshop sponsored by the UAF Students Ceramics Arts Guild.

“When the Ceramics Guild proposed Patti I said, ‘No way, she’s too big of a star!’ ” said the Faculty Adviser for the guild, Jim Brashear, in introducing Warashina, “But she was super excited to come up.”

Brashear said that Warashina is considered a pioneering iconoclast in a movement of ceramics called California Funk that evolved from a hyper-masculine ceramics styles of the 50s and 60s.

“California Funk started looking at mold making: Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and that kind of shit, that was considered kitschy,” said Brashear, “Patti was one of the first successful artists to come out of that and she was the first successful female [ceramics] artists.”

Warashina hosted a public two-day workshop at the UAF ceramics studio as well as giving a presentation about her work that was attended by about forty people. The 78-year old Warashina talked about her wide-ranging influences–from the religious fragmentation of the Japanese American community she observed during her upbringing in Spokane, to her flower garden and King Tut– that have inspired her art over her iconoclastic 50-year career. While a lot of her recent work has included political commentary, she says she hasn’t let it get her down.

“My work is so happy,” she said.

Warashina says that she never tried to make explicit feminist commentary, but that it was taken as such.

Despite her trailblazing achievements, Warashina said she usually wasn’t trying to make feminist statements, but that they came out naturally from influences she was feeling.

One of her earlier pieces entitled “Clothesline Robbery,” portrays a naked woman smiling ebulliently from atop a car towing the scraps of a run-over clothesline. “I wasn’t consciously doing it as a women’s thing, but because of the timing it was taken as such,” she said.

In another example of her light-hearted irreverence, Warashina talked about her portrayal of her then-husband sitting atop a rat in “A Procession.” “My husband asked, ‘Why’d you do that to me?!’ I said, ‘It’s my work, I can do what I want.”

Despite her age, Warashina said that she continues to work in the studio and sleep only a few hours per night.

“I cat nap, but I sleep for two hours and then I’ll wake up and I just gotta read something,” she said, “But I still love going into the studio, and I feel bad when I don’t go in.”

Zoey Hensley, a sophomore art student, attended the workshops and said she was interested in Warashina’s entry into pottery.

“She talked about what was popular when she started was these large, macho, pots, and she started using things that were considered kitschy,” said Hensley.

Hensley said that she has never run into the barriers of being a woman that Patti described from her early career.

“She got picked on a lot,” said Hensley, ”I haven’t had any problems with gender issues, and thinking about what she did is so much more impressive.”




Nanook Hockey Dominates Simon Fraser in Exhibition Game

Nanook hockey fans cheered gloriously Saturday night as the University of Alaska, Fairbanks outscored Simon Fraser University 13-1.

Coming from Burnaby, British Colombia, Canada; Simon Fraser University’s hockey club from the BCIHL (British Colombia Intercollegiate Hockey League) arrived in Fairbanks to play against your Alaska Nanooks. The Nanooks played a high scoring hockey game to start off their season in the Carlson Center. The Alaska Nanooks had a combined total of 34 points amongst its players with senior defenseman and captain Nikolas Koberstein scoring a powerplay goal and assisting in five other goals, giving Koberstein a six-point game.

Freshman forward and Indiana native Sam Ruffin got his first collegiate hat trick in his first collegiate hockey game as he put the puck in the back of the net for the last three goals. All three goals were scored within a two-minute and three-second time span, two of which were scored merely nine-seconds a part. Ruffin scored his hat trick and last goal of the game with five-point-five seconds left on the clock as the crowd chanted “one last goal”.

Junior goaltenders’ Anton Martinsson and Niko DellaMaggiore played a perfect goalie game, keeping the puck out of the net with seven, and six saves respectively, with freshman goaltender and Latvia native Gustavs Grigals making eleven saves while letting in one goal, giving him a save percentage of 0.917.

Alaska Nanooks will be traveling to the desert of Tempe, Arizona to play against Arizona State in a non-conference official game next weekend, October 6th and 7th. You can listen in on KSUA 91.5 FM at 5:05 PM AKDT or listen to their live stream online at ksuaradio.com/stream.