Two weeks in Iceland: a physical, intellectual, and cultural adventure – Victoria Quennessen

Iceland was, in a word, amazing. The course covered all things biological that make Iceland unique. We studied the lichens that cover 12% of its landmass, the geothermal vents that provide clean energy to all its inhabitants, the deserts that mimic the environment on Mars, and all the biotechnology that could be discovered from these recently unexplored environments. Besides biology, we also had seminars on the relationship between science and art, and on the importance of good scientific communication, making this a rather well rounded experience.


The view from a Mars analogue site halfway up a mountain in Öxarfjarđarheiđi

In the laboratory, we tried to determine how many and what kind of bacteria can be found in these environments, and, more importantly, what they can do. What kinds of bacteria live with the lichens, and what is it that they do for the lichens? What can survive in deserts devoid of vegetation, and could it survive on Mars as well? What lives in the harsh environments around geothermal vents, and could they be useful in industrial processes, or produce substances that could be useful? Can we discover any new species of bacteria that break down harmful substances while surviving in more extreme conditions, such as cold arctic waters?

The people we met were just as interesting and diverse as the course topics. The students and instructors that participated and organized the trip represented at least thirteen different nationalities. Everyone brought a unique perspective to the course, be it in terms of discipline, worldview, or research interests. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all made friendships that will last and started or continued forging strong bonds between universities, countries, and hopefully, future research teams. I’m especially thankful to our hosts, who always made sure we had somewhere to stay and good food to eat. Even the Icelanders we met around town, or in the dorms were always kind, respectful, and eager to teach us about their culture or ask us about ours.


Running PCR gels in the lab at University of Akureyri

Regardless of what we learned and whom we met, just being in Iceland in and of itself was a fantastic experience. Besides collecting field samples, we made various stops just to absorb the beauty of the mostly wild island. There were so many more kinds of environments than I had expected: from breathtaking mountainous panoramas to awesome waterfalls and rolling lava fields to desert sites that could have been on Mars. There wasn’t a single time I could look out a window and be bored by what I saw.

My favorite part of the trip was getting to experience new things. In a liberal arts college, you meet lots of very interesting people, not all of whom will appreciate your corny biology jokes or get as excited as you for a marine microbiology lecture. It was wonderfully freeing and personally satisfying to get to spend so much time with people with whom I share so many fundamental interests and passions. It was also wonderful to get to taste and share local drinks and food, and to get to watch an historic soccer game – sorry, football match – with members of both participating nations present, cheering with them and groaning with them in turn. Overall, this trip was an amazing experience, and I can’t wait to have an excuse to go back and visit Iceland and the wonderful people who inhabit it.

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