During the Arctic 2015 expedition, when Geoff asked if anyone wanted to speak to the entire group of students and staff, Robert Hrabchak almost didn’t accept the offer. Luckily, he thought back to the public speaking class he took the year before, and realized now he had the confidence to share his story. So he stood before nearly 200 people, and talked about how he built an electric car in high school and spent his gap year installing solar panels in the Caribbean. Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Mars Institute, approached Robert afterwards to connect. Fast forward to the summer of 2016 and Robert found himself back on Devon Island, Nunavut, this time as a student researcher with Pascal and the Mars Institute.
Robert’s hard work, in and outside of school, gave him the knowledge and experience to be able to capitalize on this amazing opportunity to engage in high-level research. He is currently in his fourth year at Tufts University in Boston, studying Mechanical Engineering with a focus on sustainability and renewable energy. He has valuable work in the solar energy industry, installing microgrids in developing countries to help reduce dependency on fossil fuels. And his experience with electric cars grows every year, as he participates in a club at school where they build and race their own vehicles. Last year, Tufts University’s car ranked 2nd in the country. This initiative helps gain public support for electric transportation, proving the technology can’t be as difficult and expensive to make as everyone thinks, since undergraduate students can do it!
Robert described the Arctic 2015 expedition as an eye-opening experience. He reflects on a moment at the Ilulissat Icefjord, where he learned how the icefjord is fed by a glacier moving at an incredibly fast rate of 40m per day. He learned about how much faster it is calving today as compared to a decade ago, and the reality of climate change hit home as he watched massive ice chunks split from their parent glacier. However the biggest lesson he took away from the two-week journey was, “Don’t be afraid. If there’s any hesitation, just do it.” He also encourages fellow alumni to keep in touch with the contacts gained on expedition, knowing firsthand what kind of doors the SOI network can open.
In preparation for his Devon Island expedition with Pascal, Robert spent a few weeks in California attending conferences about space exploration at the NASA headquarters. He also had to prepare his project, which is centered around answering the question of whether it’s possible to make the Mars Institute entirely powered by renewables. The research hub – which supports various experiments relating to Mars exploration – is run unsustainably on diesel-powered transported great distances before being burned. ‘Proudly wearing his SOI vest’ during his time north, Robert helped out at the camp as a research assistant and camp mechanic for the science experiments being conducted. He is especially excited about how his solar research could set the benchmark for any type of of habitat to be built on Mars, including discovering what types of facilities and resources they would need.
There is no doubt that Robert is passionate about sustainability and renewable energy. In the future he would like to stay in that field of study, and become a leader in it. When he graduates university, he plans to see what is on the cutting edge of renewable energy, improve it, and then see what else is new. In the spirit of a true innovator, Robert says, “Solar power is big right now. But I’ll keep my eyes open for the newest opportunity to make a difference”.