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Local Greenlandic kids are helping Sebastian with his PhD

Citizen science — University of Copenhagen PhD student Sebastian Zastruzny could not move permanently to Greenland to collect data on water and nutrients. So he enlisted local school kids as research assistants.

All the way up in the northwest of Greenland, a coastal town called Qaanaaq – whose name is also a palindrome – houses an Arctic hydrology research site for the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

Under a summer sun that doesn’t set, there are no massive icebreaker ships, no million-dollar laboratory facilities and no large teams of scientists in layers of heat-insulating coats. Only Sebastian Zastruzny, who is working outdoors with his “research assistants”, a group of Greenlandic 10-13 year-old schoolchildren.

They are measuring the water in the soil using the simple equipment of piezometers and frost tubes.

Below -10°C

Originally from Germany, Sebastian Zastruzny is doing his PhD at the Center for Permafrost (CENPERM) of the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH). He first started studying hydrogeology in Greenland on Disko Island in 2015 for his master’s thesis.

Seeing the research potential of Greenland on Arctic hydrology and its relation to climate change, he went further up the coast for his PhD to do research in Qaanaaq. Qaanaaq, which is also known as Thule, is one of the world’s northernmost towns, encircled with vast areas of nature, but with a population of merely 500.

Sebastian Zastruzny is a grantee of the Danish National Research Foundation. He is looking for a master’s student to join him next summer in Qaanaaq to work with the pupils of the partnering school in Greenland.

Qaanaaq was an ideal location for Sebastian Zastruzny’s project, as he needed a large piece of empty land to set up a treated site.

He wanted to measure the water flow and the nutrients released into the Arctic soil, and the measurements needed to be recorded continuously.

Qaanaaq has a mean temperature of below -10°C for seven months, and international merchandise is only shipped to the town twice a year. Not only are the natural conditions harsh, but it is also expensive for a foreigner to stay here for a long period of time.

They are the people who live up there. They understand the place, and they can make observations that we foreigners cannot.

Sebastian Zastruzny

As a full time PhD student, Sebastian Zastruzny could simply not be present in Qaanaaq for an entire year. And the measurements cannot be taken remotely. So he came up with an idea – enlisting the help of local, Greenlandic children.

“They are the people who live up there. They understand the place, and they can make observations that we foreigners cannot,” he says.

“It is also important to give the people a sense of ownership in this kind of science project. Because when you show up like an alien with weird equipment on their land, it could lead to hostility if you do not do it right.”

An introduction to science

Sebastian Zastruzny made contact with Dan Normann, the principal of the school Avanersuup Atuarfia in Qaanaaq, who was supportive of this ‘citizen science’ idea. Citizen science means engaging nonprofessional scientists or local communities in conducting scientific research, as well as trying to increase scientific awareness in the general public through publication of articles in mass media, sharing of databases, and community outreach.

“We did have a lot of UCPH students here that summer, but Sebastian’s project is maybe the first time that our school has worked with citizen science projects. We could see that Sebastian’s work was noticed by the local citizens, so we talked about it with the kids,” says Dan Normann. He introduced Sebastian Zastruzny to the local community of parents and students, allowing him to explain what his research is about and how it is related to them.

The citizen science was an idea well received by the local community, but the schoolchildren’s help came at a cost. To begin with, Sebastian Zastruzny faced a language barrier. He has lived in Denmark for more than four years and is a fluent Danish speaker. But he still had to communicate with the children through a teacher who translated his presentations and instructions into Greenlandic.

Greenlandic is a polysynthetic language, meaning roots and suffixes can add up to really long words, making the explanation of complex concepts lengthy and complicated. Sebastian Zastruzny had to explain to the children basic scientific concepts – like the nature of science, climate change, and permafrost.

It is the first time the children have been taught how to use Excel, and when Sebastian Zastruzny stepped into the classroom he was initially met with puzzled looks.

In the field, however, everything seemed to make sense. The children used a tube and censors to measure the water table and the frost table. They made notes in their notebooks. They discussed with one another. And they asked questions. After some time, they understood how climate change may affect their community, and how to link daily observations in the surroundings to science.

“I have seen the impact on the children, by learning to put the numbers into Excel and making the graphs. Some of the children said  ‘thank you’ to Sebastian Zastruzny and gave him a hug. They are looking forward to working with him again this coming summer,” says Dan Normann.

“We will continue to participate in some of the projects. In the future we can use the information to better explain permafrost and live in this, our town,” he says.

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