SOI Educator Q&A with Bianca Perren

This summer Bianca Perren will join SOI for her third expedition. She is both a painter and a paleoecologist, brimming with knowledge on Arctic ecology, more specifically the effects of climate change on the Arctic. We asked Bianca to share some of her knowledge of the area and expedition experiences.

How did you become interested in the Polar Regions?

The North has always had an allure for me, even since I was little. I think it was something about big, open, unexplored places. Now it’s more about the people, the quality of light, and the history. Getting to the Arctic became a bit of an obsession when I started university. After my 3rd year and while at a tiny semester program called the Center for Northern Studies in Northern Vermont, I wrote to about a dozen very well known Arctic researchers begging them to take me on as a field assistant. It was a sort of embarrassingly bold thing to do, and I am sure the letter was awful.

Bianca with Clare Glassco during the Antarctic 2013 expedition. Photo (c) Mike Beedell

Bianca Perren (left) and Clare Glassco during the Antarctic 2013 expedition. Photo (c) Mike Beedell

Only one of the researchers wrote me back, but in retrospect, it was what kickstarted my Arctic career (and since then, I have worked with each of those researchers, even those that didn’t write me back!)

What are some of your favourite SOI memories?

There are lots! Perhaps my favourite memory from SOI is visiting the town of Uummannaq in western Greenland last summer. We arrived on the day they were celebrating their 250th anniversary. It was one of those calm sparkly blue Arctic summer days and the town sits in this amazing setting on an island in a bay that was studded with jewel-like icebergs. There were kayak and umiak races, music and dancing, and everyone out and walking about in their traditional dress. We sang a song to the whole town and to Greenland’s prime minister that Ian Tamblyn wrote. The day had everything: whales, icebergs, an amazing community, and I think everyone left there thinking it was a very special place and that we had all been part of something pretty amazing.

What is your background and how does it tie into your role in the education program?

Bianca during the Antarctic 2013 expedition. Photo (c) Mike Beedell

Bianca during her printmaking workshop on the Antarctic 2013 expedition. Photo (c) Mike Beedell

I have a Ph.D. in geology, specifically in arctic paleoecology, which means that I study past environments in the Arctic and the way in which they respond to climate change, pollution, and recent development. I have been working in the Arctic, mostly in Greenland, since 1998. I now work for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England, investigating the ways in which the winds have changed in the Southern Ocean over the last 20,000 years or so.

On the art front, I enrolled in printmaking classes at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) when I started my Ph.D. and have been painting since I was small. It has always just been something that I do. On the SOI expeditions, I get the rare chance to do all of the things I love in one place: art, science, sharing my love for and knowledge of cold regions with a group of amazing students, and zodiac driving!

What changes have you discovered in the Polar Regions?
One of the most profound changes that I discovered was in the northernmost lake in the world, on the north coast of Greenland. We were using fossils in the lake’s sediments to see if we could detect changes in climate consistent with recent climate change and whether we could also detect evidence for atmospheric pollution at this extreme latitude. We found that the lake had been permanently covered with a thick layer of ice for the last 2500 years until about 1920, when temperatures started to warm, and since about 1980, the lake has had an explosion of life consistent with warmer and warmer summer temperatures. At the same time, we found no evidence of pollution, so we think this represents a very clear climate change signal. And a scary one! All of the students on the expedition were born during this time of extreme Arctic change! We are finding similar records across the Arctic. (I was on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks last year talking about that lake)

So you’re an artist and a scientist, how do you strike a balance between the two?

I’m not sure that I do strike a balance. It seems that it is more of a flip flop between the two. But in many ways, they do benefit each other. My artwork is mostly of landscapes, often the ones that I visit during fieldwork. I tend to see things with a geologist’s eye, so spending time out on the land, sitting, and really looking while painting also helps me to do better, more interesting paintings, but also helps me to better understand the landscape and its evolution. That benefits the science. Occasionally I get the chance to do both together, as I hope to on the ship this summer!

Do you have any advice to students who may feel torn between pursuing arts or sciences?

Do both! I think the days of single focus, ultra-specialization are coming to an end. I see the future as one in which we value the ability to move between different disciplines, to have richer, fuller, more varied lives and interests as a result, and to build connections between seemingly disparate worlds like art and science.

Arctic or Antarctic?
Oh, the Arctic. My first love!


Follow the 2014 Arctic Expedition!


The 14th Annual Students on Ice Arctic Expedition will take place July 9-24, 2014. To learn more and follow the expedition through photos, videos and student journals visit the expedition website and follow journey updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Students on Ice is proudly supported by bv02.

This website was made possible by a generous contribution from the Leacross Foundation.