30 November 2022

PhD just tip of the iceberg for glaciologist Lauren Vargo


Aotearoa New Zealand’s position in the world, on the shakey edge of the Pacific Rim, is a real drawcard for students of Earth Sciences. Whether it’s Geology, Volcanology, Seismology, or Glaciology, they’re at the heart of the action.  

US student Lauren Vargo understood that first-hand when considering coming to New Zealand to study for her PhD. She had taken geology at undergraduate level at the College of Wooster, a small university in Ohio. Of the 10 students in her final-year class, half of them had already studied here. 

But it was only when she was working in a laboratory after completing her Master’s in Earth Science that her boss convinced her she should go. “He had travelled to New Zealand to complete his PhD at Victoria University – Te Herenga Waka in Wellington with the same advisors I am now working with,” she says. “He raved about working with these people and living in New Zealand, so I applied.” 

Lauren completed her PhD in 2019 and is now a glaciologist working at the Antarctic Research Centre (ARC), based at the university. Her special area of interest is measuring the impact of climate change on glaciers.  

But it’s a long way from the flat lands of Ohio, where she grew up. “It certainly gets cold and snowy, but there’s no topography for glaciers,” she says. “And I didn’t even really feel like I was particularly good at science.”  

It turns out she definitely is. Lauren recently secured $360,000 from the Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for her own research project How Much are Glaciers Melting Due to Climate Change? 

Getting to grips with melting glaciers 

“I’m really excited to have this project that I get to lead and make the decisions on. The goal is to try and figure out the years when glaciers melt the most, to calculate how much of the melt is due to climate change compared to how much would have happened without climate change.” 

Lauren will be working with one New Zealand-based researcher and four international ones over the next three years. “This is my first international project. It will be the first time I get to take the methods and skills I’ve developed and apply them to glaciers around the world.” 

As the world warms, there is a sense of urgency for glaciologists. Approximately one third of the world’s glacier ice has melted since 2000, and a recent global survey found that New Zealand glaciers had the fastest acceleration of melt of any region globally between 2000 and 2019.   

Lauren’s past and future research is of great value to New Zealand and contributes to a pool of knowledge which will ultimately inform government, councils and iwi, and help shape future policy decisions for sectors of the economy which include water resource management and tourism.  

Empowering budding scientists 

Lauren came to New Zealand for the three years needed to complete her PhD, but seven years on she’s still here, living with her Kiwi partner and enjoying life in Wellington. She is also making the most of being based at the ARC, which gives her the added opportunity to work with undergraduate students. “It’s so much fun. They are so keen, and it’s rewarding to be able to play some part in their careers and their futures.” 

Engaging and supporting budding scientists is important to Lauren and is one of the key drivers behind her decision to help establish Girls on Ice Aotearoa New Zealand, part of a wider international network operating in collaboration with Inspiring Girls Expeditions, based in the US. 

“We’re working towards holding our first mountain expedition next year. The goal of the programme is to empower teenage girls by teaching them outdoor and science skills,” she says. “We want to show them that being a scientist is a job that they can do, and that science can be part of their daily lives. Getting the opportunity to meet scientists at work is key to changing their thinking.  

“We need a diverse group of people working on global problems and there is a valuable place for women to contribute to, and communicate, science in the future. Having people from different backgrounds and life experiences provides more opportunities to problem-solve, and climate change is one of the biggest issues we need to be collaborating on problem-solving right now.” 

Photo credits

Photo one: Hannah Perrine Mode

Photo two: Brian Anderson

Photo three: Rebekah Parsons-King

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