Wallenberg fellow to explore the intersection of environmental research and technology in Greenland
Written by Fernanda Pires
ANN ARBOR—As soon as Abigail Meyer, a computer science engineering student, returned from a 10-day research expedition in Greenland last summer, she knew she wanted to go back.
The atmospheric measurements, the exploration of space science issues and the hands-on activities in the vast, flat, treeless region near the Greenland Ice Sheet—the second-largest on the planet—weren’t enough.
“On that expedition, we learned about remote fieldwork camping alongside an ice sheet and witnessed the warming climate pointed to by native Greenlanders and visiting scientists,” Meyer said. “I fell in love with the island of ice.”
Now, a year later, she is getting ready to go back to the largest island on Earth. A University of Michigan senior, graduating this week, Meyer has won the $25,000 Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship Award for 2020 and will start this new journey as soon as U-M travel restrictions are suspended.
“In the pursuit of the fellowship, I communicated extensively with potential hosts,” she said. “The longer process allowed me to fully speak to my desires for my experience and, in turn, listen to the needs of the community I wished to serve. I solidified the best uses of my time in Greenland and found a path to combine personal, professional and educational experiences.”
Meyer will spend the next year living at the Isortoq Reindeer Station, a 400,000-acre family-owned farm in South Greenland. Her main location of work will be 54 miles away, in Qaqortoq. With a population of about 3,000 inhabitants, it is the fourth-largest town in Greenland. (See map)
“I’ve spent my college career balancing my knack for technology and my love of rustic life and nature,” she said. “Greenland appealed to me, and my project specifically, to help me understand the process of truly living off the land.”
Meyer’s travels will be funded by the Wallenberg Fellowship, awarded in the spring each year to a graduating senior of exceptional promise and accomplishment who is committed to service and the public good. The fellowship provides $25,000 to carry out an independent project of learning or exploration anywhere in the world during the year after graduation.
“Greenland is stunning. Small homes dotted along the mountains. Spongy moss and lichen covered hills. Arctic blueberries latticing the ground, with wildflowers dotting up. Little kettle ponds of clear blue. The large white mass of the ice sheet in the distance.”
The fellowship honors Raoul Wallenberg, one of U-M’s most illustrious graduates. As a diplomat during World War II, he helped save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.
“I will be overwintering and experiencing full night and full day in the southern region of the country,” Meyer said. “While at the reindeer farm, I will be working for my stay, including being both a helpful farmhand and an American contact. With my hopes of homesteading in the future, I will be thoroughly enthralled by and assisting with the day-to-day of living off the land in Greenland, including fishing, herding, gardening, food preparation, winter storage and farm maintenance.”
According to Henry Dyson, director of the U-M Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships who advised her during the application process, Meyer’s humanitarian project in Greenland is a perfect culmination of her undergraduate education and training, and fits perfectly in the Wallenberg legacy.
“This fellowship is about embedding with a community and being transformed by that experience in ways that will launch fellows into careers dedicated to making a positive difference in the world,” he said. “Her project involves working with the people and living in the community in a way that we hope is transformative.”
Partnering with UNESCO
Meyer also plans to work with UNESCO World Heritage Kujataa and Innovation Southern Greenland in Qaqortoq. She hopes to use her time to capture the daily experience of native Greenlandic citizens through writing, interviewing and filming.
“Greenland’s intense remoteness leads to unfamiliarity with the deep history of the island and its inhabitants of 90% native Inuit Greenlanders,” Meyer said. “We hope to bridge this divide by creating 3D models and online learning experiences of their key ruins and natural sites conserved by UNESCO Kujataa.
“I will also be conducting a vegetation survey of a nearby island recently surrounded by mines to allow monitoring of the effects of mining pollution on arctic ecosystems. I wish to capture native reaction and adaptation to climate change visible in their local environment. In this way, I hope to honor the Wallenberg tradition of sharing stories and spreading knowledge, while having time to thoroughly reflect on my journey.”