Interview with Polly Bass

By Mary Gianotti

Polly Bass is a Faculty Member for the JIRP 2013 season. She came here first as a student herself in 1992 and has returned many times since then. She is a valuable member to the summer program with her knowledge in geobotany. Her enthusiasm is contagious and her dedication to the program a benchmark for all.

Dr. Polly Bass talking with JIRP students, Patrick Englehardt, William Jenkins and Mary Gianotti, about the geobotany of the "Taku B" nunatak on the Taku Glacier in Southeast Alaska. Photo by Mira Dutschke

Mary Gianotti: What is your current field of study or interest?
Polly Bass: I am a physical geographer specializing in alpine and high latitude vegetation, Quaternary environments and glacial geomorphology. I study the biogeography of periglacial areas and the vegetation of nunataks, in particular vascular plants and their distribution.

MG: What was your educational path to becoming a scientist?
PB: I was inspired first by my 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Anderson. He and his family were incredibly enthusiastic and lived their work. 

In my high school library I came across a booklet on National Science Foundation sponsored summer programs. That is how I found out about the Juneau Icefield Research Program. I wrote Dr. Miller and he replied with a detailed letter. My work in various jobs including a paper route and work at the Pastry Palace on the weekends allowed me to purchase my first plane ticket to Alaska.

Once I got up to the Icefield, I was taken by not only the passion everyone had for their work, but also by how Dr. Miller and the academic and safety staff really cared about the students and wanted them to succeed. They made sure we had a sense of responsibility and accountability to others and ourselves. Dr. Miller emphasized, s=xy^2. Your success in life (s) is equal to your God given ability (x) multiplied by your motivation (y) squared. In other words, your work ethic is much more important than your natural talent. The program also taught me about expedition mentality. If you hurt your toe, it is not just your toe, it is the expedition’s toe. It is important to take care of yourself and recognize you are one of several integral pieces of a well oiled machine. All are important and without one of the parts, the rest will not function as efficiently.

I attended the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee for my undergraduate degree and initially majored in geology.   An interest in the plant life encountered on geology field investigations led me to add a biology major. I knew I wanted to return to the Icefield. I earned my EMT certification and took NOLS and Outward Bond courses in winter camping and ski mountaineering and extra technical mountaineering in order to increase my value to JIRP. In 1994, I came back to the Icefield and worked on a senior thesis project while serving as a junior staff member. This research project was on the investigation of the presence of Blockschollen flow at the terminus of the Taku Glacier.

Following undergraduate work, I worked with the USFWS in Homer, Alaska, at the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge prior to completing a masters degree with a thesis on the distribution of gymnamoebae in subtypes of the Orangeburg Sandy Loam. My concentration was in geology and botany. My advisor, Dr. Paul Bischoff was very inspiring. During this time I completed my teaching certification and student taught as a high school science teacher.  I then continued to pursue research and entered a doctoral program in physical geography, concentrating in alpine environments and high latitude environments. I went down to Ecuador initially considering research on tropical glacier environments.  Shortly thereafter I returned to the Juneau Icefield and felt like I had come home.  My interest in vegetation and its distribution led to the observation of a lack of knowledge on the plants of the icefield region. I decided to focus on the theory of island biogeography and its application to the nunataks.

Dr. Polly Bass talking with JIRP students, Mira Dutschke, William Jenkins amongst others, about glandular tipped hairs of Phyllodoce aleuctica, ssp. glanduliflora (Yellow Mountain Heather) on the "Taku B" nunatak above Camp 10. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms

MG: What have been the worst places your work has taken you?

PB: It is a matter of perspective. Southeast Alaska receives significant rain and wind.  This can wear on a person. Even the most difficult conditions make us  better and allow us to appreciate the sunny days. The challenges are just as important as the Bluebird Days. Supporting scientific field work requires significant energy and resources. We cannot afford to waste a day in a tent or shelter because it is raining sideways. Every day in this environment is a gift…another day in paradise.

MG: What about the best places your work has taken you?

PB: Getting to work in places where it is quite likely that no one has set foot prior, is a primeval thrill.  You are one with nature. You can really see nature at work without the clutter of contemporary times. The basic processes of landscape and ecosystem evolution are in clear view.

MG: From talking with you earlier I know that you have taught in Sitka, Alaska and been a Southeast Alaskan resident for seven years. What do you love most about Southeast Alaska?

PB: It is green and lush. Even in the winter it is green. You notice that when you go to other places.  People in Southeast Alaska love to complain about the wind and rain. However, it is all of the rain that makes the landscape lush and vibrant.

MG: How many times have you been up to the Juneau Icefield?
PB: Fifteen times.

MG: Clearly this is an important place to you. What do you love most about the Juneau Icefield?

PB: I like the feeling of being close to the Earth.  Without the complications of the modern world, one can focus on the basics.  When you remove these distractions you have a better chance of understanding what nature has to share. It allows for a new perspective on the world and life.

MG: What advice would you give to young scientists?

PB: Don’t box yourself in. Be open minded. Design your own skill set based on personal strengths. Change is the only constant in life. Having a background that is diverse and interdisciplinary will give you the ability to have unconventional insight in the areas where disciplines overlap. This is frequently where breakthroughs occur.  Do not be afraid to take the difficult route.  It will pay off in the long run. Don’t protect yourself by taking easy courses to protect your GPA. Let go of the ‘success ethos’ and other societal baggage and do what you are interested in and passionate about, even if it is not what you are best at, right now. Most importantly, be thankful for the people who care enough to tell you things that you may not want to hear  but need to hear; who point out your true potential, which you may not be living up to;  and who teach you how you can be a better scientist and person.

MG: Thank you Polly. It was nice talking with you.

Dr. Polly Bass talking with JIRP students about the cushion plants and lichens on the "Taku B" nunatak along the Taku Glacier in Southeast Alaska. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.