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Dr. Kelly Kenison Falkner: «What can we do better by working together?”

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22 de Nov del 2018

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Antártica Internacional

Dr. Kelly Kenison Falkner  – COMNAP Chairwoman


Dr. Kelly Kenison Falkner is an American chemical oceanographer and educator. She is the Director of the Office of Polar Programs of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). She also serves as Director of the U.S. Antarctic Program, which NSF manages on behalf of all of U.S. government agencies. Dr. Falkner oversees an annual budget of about $450 million covering scientific research and logistics programs in both the Arctic and Antarctic. In 2017 she was elected to a 3-year term as COMNAP Chairwoman.


Dr. Falkner joined the nsf in 2010 as Deputy Director of the Office of Polar Programs and transitioned to Director in 2012. Currently she serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Arctic Council Ad Hoc Task Force for Enhancing Scientific Cooperation and as a member of the U.S. Delegation to the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. She is a delegate to the wmo Expert Council for Polar and High Mountain Observations, Research and Services. She is also the lead U.S. representative on the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs ( COMNAP).

Prior to Federal service, she was a Professor at the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, where she taught and conducted research for 26 years. She and her team executed state-of-the-art chemical measurements to investigate a wide array of environmental topics, the results of which are presented in over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters.

Dr. Falkner conducted postdoctoral studies at mit in 1990 under an nsf Women’s Initiation Award and at the Centre National D’Etudes Spatiales in Toulouse, France in 1990-1992, under a nato Postdoctoral Fellowship and cnrs Poste Rouge, respectively. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chemistry complemented by Russian language studies from Reed College with Phi Beta Kappa distinction in 1983 and a PhD in Chemical Oceanography from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution-mit Joint Program in Oceanography in 1989. She was one of the keynote speakers of the IX Latin American Congress on Antarctic Science, where we had the opportunity to talk to her.

Which are the focuses of the American Polar Program?

Kelly K. Falkner (KKF): We do have a broad range of discipline science and cross-discipline science that we support, but we have a lot of challenges with our logistics and operations right now and we are undertaking some major projects to overhaul our stations, we’ve asked for help from our National Academy to help prioritize over the next decade the most important science to fund, and they picked three areas. One is called The Rules of Life, so understanding what the environment and genetics, genomics do together in order to create the unique life forms that we see in Antarctica. Another is to use cosmic microwave background radiation in order to probe the origin and nature of our universe. And the last one is to intensify our studies in the Thwaites Glacier area where we are seeing the fastest movement – net movement – of melt to the oceans. So, we are doing that, we are moving out in all three areas, in addition to continuing our base level of discipline science.

For you, what is the importance of creativity and innovation in science?

KKF: It is our driving motto. We always want to stay at the forefront of what we are doing. We don’t want to be stuck doing things just because we know how to do them. That’s the tricky part of doing science in Antarctica. It’s already very difficult, because the environment makes it difficult. So, it’s easy once you know how to do something to stay comfortable doing the same thing. But we constantly reminded ourselves ‘doing the same thing is not going to have the next new discovery’.

Could you tell us some keys to be more innovative, more creative in science? I mean, it’s a good idea to meet people from other cultures, other countries, like in this congress.

KKF: Absolutely, you never know where the best ideas are going to come from. We like to let the ideas emerge from the community itself. Ideally the community is making connections and networking in a way where they are inspired by other people and that way generates new ideas.

How do you face the risks of maybe your personal life and your professional life of doing something new?

KKF: You have to balance the safety, right, on the operational side, with the risk of doing something new. Let me give you an example. We are going to go to the Thwaites region, it’s very difficult to get there, the weather is very intense. We worked in Pine Island glacier for a while and it’s right next to it. But, from satellite information and other information we do see signs that that is the most important place with respect to change for sea level. So what we’re going to do is put attention and focus on getting there safely, ideally of course, and despite the fact it would be easier to stay right next to McMurdo Station and do things right there (there’s plenty that could be done right there), we are going to put our energy and our resources into getting part of the community into Thwaites. Just one example.

How did you get involved in science and, particularly, in polar science?

KKF: How did I personally get involved? I’m a chemical oceanographer by training and I went out to Lake Baikal, in Siberia, Russia, and there is a crazy story: we ended up not having the equipment that we were are going to use for oceanographic studies on the lake (Lake Baikal, it’s the deepest lake and the largest freshwater body in the world). However, the equipment got quarantined in Moscow. We went there to study as a team. And it turned out that one of the people and myself had our equipment with us, we hand-carried it, the rest of the people had their equipment in Moscow and they had to wait for it for a long time. So I went out on a small boat with a physical oceanographer from Canada and we worked very intensively together, and what I was doing was trying to understand with all the rivers that empty, what is the geochemical mass balance of the lake. And he was helping me sample those and I was helping him do the physics and at one point he asked me: “Do you think you could measure something in the Arctic Ocean that would let you determine whether there is river water coming in from Canada or from North America?” And I just said “I’m a geochemist, yes, I’m sure there must be things you can measure that could give you that information”. So, then I went back and I wrote a proposal to do that and it was funded and the next thing I knew I was working in the Arctic. And I worked in the Arctic for over 20 years. The reason I got funded is kinda crazy, it was just a luck in timing: at that point Russia had revealed that it had put spent nuclear waste in the river basins in the seas of the Arctic Ocean. So everybody was very concerned —“where is this material going?” It turned out that the material is largely contained, but that was the beginning of finding out that the Arctic Ocean circulation was changing dramatically and the sea ice was diminishing.

I didn’t guess that that would happen, but my first data set showed those things so I continued to use the kinds of tools that I could bring to the table to help understand the changing Arctic.

Kelly Falkner2

Before that, how do you get interested in Oceanography or in Science?

KKF: Well, that’s a good question. I studied Chemistry in college, and Russian.


KKF: Yeah, I thought before I went to College I would study Art (she laughs). Then I thought to myself, “I’m not from a family with a lot of money, I should take Chemistry in case I need to do restoration of art works”, and then I enjoyed Chemistry and one summer I went to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for undergraduate experience and then I was hooked. I felt like I found my people (she laughs).

Do you paint or write?

KKF: I very much enjoy all kinds of arts. I’d need a few more lives in order to do all the things I’m interested in. I enjoy where I’ve landed in my career. It’s marvelous that we have a Writers and Artists Program, with an educational component. I really appreciate your participation in that [with the Joint Antarctic School Expedition]. Because it’s so difficult and so intense and very few people experience Antarctica that whole artists’ and writers’ perspective on things is really important.There’s a lot of complements that come together with what I do.

How do you get involved in Antarctic Science?

KKF: I had an opportunity to go become what they call a Rotating Program Manager at nsf. They were very worried that things be done in a way that is free of conflicts of interests. So, for example, I should not be, as a Program Officer at nsf, giving money to someone because they’re my friends or because I know them. So they make firm rules about this. It turned out that I knew everybody in the Arctic and I worked closely with them and it was easier for them to have me work on Antarctic things so I thought, “Well, ok, I’ll try it”. I learned so much from it. I always wondered before why we have so much money in Antarctica when we could have more in the Arctic. Then I learned that it’s not really what we call “Zero-sum game”, both are extremely important, both affect our entire planet, so that’s a wonderful perspective to gain from that experience. That was a temporary position I had for 2 years to be a Program Officer in the Antarctic. Then I went back to my university and I never expected to go back to the nsf, but then they created a deputy position in the office and asked me to apply. Here I am (laughs).

What challenges you the most in your new position in Comnap?

KKF: A lot of things about Comnap work well. I work from a philosophy of “do no harm” (laughs), but, on the other hand, I feel we should challenge ourselves in Comnap to do a better job of bridging with the science. That would be the main theme I hope to bring to Comnap, that we are an operational focused group, but we should really try as best we can to find the common science drivers and to facilitate that, so facilitate international science collaboration through our operations. I would like to see us take more steps – there are so many of us working on the peninsula. What can we do better by working together? Those are the big questions I would like Comnap to work on.