Once a Viking, Always a Viking

Erin Moreland ’91
When Erin Moreland ’91 was in 3rd grade, she had a transformative experience in a summer science course that would have made most kids, at the very least, squeamish: she dissected a fetal pig. From that point on, Erin was hooked on science. By the time she entered Campbell Hall in 9th grade, she knew she wanted to make science, one that preferably centered on animals, her career.

While her interest and focus were clear, her path to her current position as a Research Zoologist at the world-renowned National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was not always straightforward. “I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to get it,” Erin explained. After receiving her B.S. in Zoology from Humboldt State University, Erin said: “I made a promise to myself that no matter what job I took to support myself, I would always keep one foot in science and continue to work with animals.” She volunteered, did internships, and worked part-time in order to keep that promise to herself, and later went on to receive her M.S. in Environmental Toxicology from Western Washington University.

Erin worked her way up through NOAA, starting out living in field camps in remote parts of Hawaii collecting data and conducting studies on the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal. In 2006, she began her work with the Polar Ecosystems Program where she studies seals in the arctic waters of Alaska.

When she first began doing this work, it involved flying over the Bering Sea in helicopters to count and capture images of seals that were broadly distributed over the vast ice. She also reviewed high altitude imagery of glacial fjords. Counting these tiny specks that were presumably seals, was not only a laborious and not altogether reliable process, but the harsh conditions in which the helicopters sometimes flew could also be extremely dangerous. When Erin learned from a colleague at another institution about a program that was using thermal technology to track the heat emitted by marine mammals, she lobbied to obtain similar equipment. Soon, she and her team were using thermal cameras in addition to color and ultraviolet imagery, to conduct more accurate surveys of the seal populations. Now they use fixed wing planes with cameras and computers on board and machine learning algorithms that add to the accuracy and efficiency of the research. Once the machines have been set up and are running, the team is able to spend any additional time they have collecting data on other arctic wildlife such as polar bears and foxes for agencies that use them.

The work Erin does is not only of ecological and environmental significance, contributing data and understanding about the effects of climate change on Alaskan wildlife populations, but is also personally fulfilling. “It’s been really important for me to contribute to something beyond myself, but it is also rewarding on a personal level,” said Erin. “I relish the time I get to immerse myself in work in the field. It’s energizing. Getting out of my comfort zone is when I feel really alive.”

When Erin reflected on her time at Campbell Hall, she noted that: “The care and focus of the teachers was the thing that was most valuable to me.” Erin, who had previously struggled in History classes, recounted one CH History teacher who conveyed the material through relatable and memorable stories. “She helped me see that, while the subject was a challenge for me, I could get through it,” Erin explained. “It instilled in me not only an appreciation for History, but also that I could overcome obstacles.” To this day, Erin continues to meet challenges with zeal, courage, and determination.
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