Call of the Wild

On any given day, Cheryl Rosa, V97, might be evaluating village sanitation systems or the health of endangered species in the Arctic

Cheryl Rosa in Alaska

The Japanese tourist had decided to take a solo beach-camping vacation at the northernmost point in the United States: Point Barrow, Alaska, 1,200 miles from the North Pole. There were problems, though. The thick sea ice had hidden where the beach stopped and the water started, so his tent was planted on top of the Beaufort Sea. And there was a hairier problem wandering about: polar bears.

Cheryl Rosa, V97, was also in the area for the first time, working on her dissertation about the health of Arctic bowhead whales, which the Native Iñupiaq people have hunted for thousands of years. It was 2000, and she had moved to Alaska to pursue a combined Ph.D. in biology and wildlife residency at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

But back to the ice tourist. When they saw him, Rosa and her research team couldn’t believe the camper had pitched his tent in the middle of a snow-machine trail on the frozen ocean. “And there were plenty of polar bears around, so you had to go everywhere with a gun,” she says. He had no firearm, and he spoke little English. “But you could tell when the light bulb went off, and next thing you know, he’s taking his tent down and heading for town.”

Unlike the camper, Rosa relishes life at the edge. She is now based in Anchorage as deputy director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, which helps develop recommendations and implement policies that guide research on everything from oil drilling to food security.

The call of the wild came early. In junior high, she read survival books. “Not many girls did that, and I was just fascinated with being able to survive and be self-sufficient,” she says. “I think it makes a lot of sense to be able to stay close enough to what’s happening in the natural world and be able to keep yourself from dying. That’s my comfort zone.”

Rosa grew up in Massachusetts, but when she volunteered to help study a colony of seabirds after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, she found Alaska suited her. “Alaska was the ultimate new experience, because it was so different from anything I had ever experienced. I had spent a lot of time outdoors, but before you come here, it’s really hard to envision the scope of it—and just the smell. It’s like really fresh air. I don’t feel like Alaska limits me.”

If anything, Alaska has sent Rosa spilling forward into a series of jobs, each more expansive than the last. She moved to Barrow full time in 2006 to conduct health assessments on populations of caribou, bowhead whales and walrus for the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management. The department is, by all measures, unique. Oil money made it possible for the borough’s eight villages to develop and fund their own wildlife monitoring program to ensure the safety of their primary food sources; most of the villagers rely on hunting and foraging for some of their food.

Monitoring for Disease

“I was basically in charge of a subsistence food-safety program,” says Rosa, who was on the lookout for diseases that villagers could get from eating marine mammals and caribou. She also tested the local animal populations to measure levels of vitamins A and D, indicators of the health of the animals, and investigated nutrient levels in niqipiaq—the Iñupiaq word for “real food” from the land.

But the job required extensive fieldwork away from her husband and two young children. Getting around the North Slope isn’t like getting around other areas, especially during the long, cold winters, and research trips could last weeks at a time. So in 2010, Rosa landed at the Arctic Research Commission, an independent federal agency. The job is as sweeping as its area of concern, covering 18 million square miles that stretch across 24 time zones and eight nations.

“The Arctic is this swirling mass of activity,” says Rosa. And the agency, which makes research recommendations to the president, checks in with everybody who’s doing related work, both on the ground in the Arctic and at research labs around the world. On a given day, Rosa may gather information on academic, state or federal projects related to renewable energy, climate change, sea ice, how the polar bear population is doing and challenges to the subsistence lifestyles of people in Arctic regions.

“I get to be the nosy Arctic person,” she says. “I have to know what everybody is doing in order to inform our research recommendations and determine scientific gaps in Arctic research.”

Rosa also makes sure agency projects keep moving forward, though when she was a veterinary student she probably didn’t think that so much of her work would involve sanitation issues in rural villages. Many villages don’t have plumbing, so they rely on “honey buckets,” five-gallon pails that serve as toilets and must be hand-carried and emptied into a central pit or holding tank, and communal wash basins. Both can spread germs more effectively than they prevent disease.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has established a water and sewer challenge, which Rosa likens to the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Teams in the competition have been charged with proposing new decentralized systems that are house-based and employ innovative approaches for water reuse. “It really has the potential to improve the health and living conditions of rural Arctic residents,” she says. Still, Rosa hasn’t completely left the animals behind. She’s keeping her eye on research about the health of gray whales, an endangered species.

The job is as big as the Arctic, and for a wildlife vet, one that is as much about the people as the animals.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Cummings Veterinary Medicine Magazine.

Anchorage-based freelance writer Jenna Schnuer has written for National Geographic Traveler, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and Entrepreneur, among others.

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