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'Cryosphere Biogeochemist'

Dr. Alia Khan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. Alia applies environmental chemistry in the cryosphere – the frozen water domain – to document global change of glacier and snow melt in mountainous and polar regions. Her research explores the impact of aerosol deposition to the surface of snow and ice, and the resulting impacts on spectral albedo, melt and water quality.  She has studied snow packs, lakes and reservoirs in Colorado, and glaciers, snow packs, and lakes in the Arctic, Antarctic, and major mountain regions including the Himalayas, Rockies, Andes and New Zealand Southern Alps.  Alia completed her PhD in August 2016 in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Colorado – Boulder, while working at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, an interdisciplinary research institute focused on documenting environmental change in the polar regions. She was then a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado - Boulder and remains an active member of the NSDIC Research Science Team.  Alia has been conducting research and teaching in Svalbard since 2011.

1, Alia sampling snow in Nepal.jpg

Meet Alia, before the expedition:

Hi Alia!

Where are you right now and where are you originally from?

I am currently based in beautiful Bellingham, WA.  I recently moved here in March from Boulder, CO; I got my PhD from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado - Boulder and worked as a Postdoc at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at CU-Boulder..  I’m originally from Raleigh, NC so I’ve been slowly migrating West across the US and am very excited to land in the Pacific Northwest! 


What is your job?

I’m an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University.


Can you describe yourself in 3 words?

Inquisitive, Passionate and Compassionate. 


What does “Climate Sentinels” mean for you?

I am so excited to be part of the Climate Sentinels team!  I think this project is such a unique passion project for all of us.  We are four early-career female scientists coming together over a common adoration for the Arctic, and Svalbard in particular, to help move our understanding of the impacts and deposition rates of light absorbing aerosols on the pristine Svalbard cryosphere through ‘clean science’.  Normally when I collect snow samples for black carbon analysis we use helicopters or snowmobiles. I’ve always wanted to do black carbon field project on skis but it’s not something you can easily do in Svalbard outside a small radius from Longyearbyen. I am so excited to work Heidi, Silje and Dorothee to make this field campaign happen! 


What are you hoping to achieve with this project?

I’m looking forward to all the data we collect from under-observed regions of Svalbard.  Additionally, I hope that we will provide complementary data for the MOSAIC project, as well as satellite validation for instruments like IceSat2.  


Is there anything that scares/worries you about the expedition?

Phew - I am not going to lie, I would prefer not to have any close encounters with polar bears!  I love observing them from a far though! Field campaigns like this obviously require a lot of preparation prior to the trip, as well as laboratory analysis, after the trip.  I have the utmost confidence in our team so I know we will manage just fine. 


What are you most excited about with this project?

I am really looking forward to working with such an amazing group of women.  Many of my closest relationships with friends and colleagues have been developed during field campaigns.  I am so excited to spend more time with everyone on the team. Additionally, I look forward to interacting with local schools in Bellingham and hope we can help inspire the next generation of female polar scientists!   I have a growing dataset of black carbon in snow observations from Svalbard so collecting data in under-observed regions (that have not been previously sampled for black carbon) is also very exciting! 

Meet Alia, after the expedition:

Hi Alia!

Where in the world are you, and how has your life changed in the past year?

I am writing from Bellingham, WA though I am about to leave for Antarctica in a few weeks!  This will be my first flight since Feb 2020 - when I returned home from teaching at UNIS in Svalbard.  Life has changed a lot - I know have a ~12 month old daughter!


Were you able to follow the progress made by the team during the expedition? And what did you think about the trip they experienced?

Yes!  I was a bit distracted since my daughter was born on March 22nd, 2021, but it was great to follow updates as I could.  What an adventure!  The expedition looked amazing from afar and I was sad not to be with the team after all the planning that went into the expedition.  However, I look forward to future campaigns!


Today you are the mum of the wonderful Apricity, as well as a prominent scientist. What would you change in academia to make it easier for female scientists to have a family?

Motherhood is definitely its own unique adventure and I am constantly refining my work-life balance so that I am ‘fully present’ for my family when not working. In general, I have felt very supported by my university and family for maintaining a strong work-life balance.  Most of the challenges for fieldwork and travel so far have been due to Covid.


Have you told Apricity about the fieldwork you have done around the world; and about climate sentinels?

Hahaha I suppose not in so many words, yet, but I can’t wait to tell her all about it as she gets older!  She has already been joining for fieldwork here in the PNW and I hope once she can walk and talk that she will be assisting with sample and data collection, too!


It seems that the entire team is already keen to prepare for another expedition, are you excited to embark on another adventure with the team? And if yes, where would you take the team and why?

Yes!  I think the team should come here to the PNW and we could climb and sample some of the glaciated volcanoes here!  However, there are a lot of locations that we could explore that are still under-sampled.  Excited for more brainstorming!

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