American on ice

Fulbright scholar Jacinta Clay studies climate science in Bergen

Jacinta Clay

Photo: Ellen Dymit
Jacinta Clay keeps warm in her Norwegian sweater while enjoying Tromsø’s snow.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

For those who think of Norway as a land full of ice and snow, there is some truth to this view. So let’s have fun studying it!

Future Ph.D. student Jacinta Clay is doing exactly that. With a Fulbright grant from the United States, she has delayed her doctoral studies at Princeton for a year to pursue ice science at the University of Bergen. She focuses on modeling changes in glaciers, especially those disappearing due to climate change.

“I came to Bergen to work at the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research and study Folgefonna, a nearby glacier,” says Clay. “Bergen has a long history of climate science. For instance, it was once the home of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian climate scientist and explorer most famous for skiing across the Greenland interior and almost reaching the North Pole (86°14́) in the late 1890s. It’s exciting to be in a place that is so committed to climate science, especially ice science.”

Her research employs “a mathematical model that can illustrate glacier retreat, testing the theories and principles of glacial physics. We compare the results with real-world data, such as photographs, cartographical charts, and satellite photography, then use all this to illustrate the impacts of global warming that are easily understood by scientific and non-scientific audiences alike.”

Clay was inspired by these topics during her first degree in mathematical geophysics at Brown University in Rhode Island, the smallest U.S. state. She excelled, graduating with honors and garnering a taste of cutting-edge scientific work.

Her summer job in 2018 as an oceanography research intern at Texas A&M University led to her first scientific publication. Appearing in a top environmental science journal, she co-authored an article about how water and sediments in Galveston Bay, Texas, responded to Hurricane Harvey, which ripped through the area the previous August.

“That summer validated that there was a place for me in science and that science was something I could make a career out of,” Clay recalled. “It demonstrated how beneficial it can be to study climate around those who have been impacted by it. Researching in Galveston kept the data from becoming dehumanized, because what I was researching had such an impact on the community around me.”

Her first degree also provided her first taste of Scandinavia. While Hurricane Harvey was making landfall, she started studying in Copenhagen from August to December in 2017 in a program run by the non-profit foundation DIS on “Environmental Science of the Arctic.” Her time there included field work in Iceland, examining the melt phenomena and flow dynamics of glaciers there.

So now Clay will enjoy Norway until June, experiencing the full range of seasons.

“There’s so much more of Norway I want to explore, but I’m so very appreciative of the experiences I’ve had so far,” she notes, though not referring to the west coast weather. Instead, she lists meeting young scientists in Bergen, visiting fellow Fulbrighters in Tromsø, and being able to conduct research with her adviser, Norwegian climate scientist Kerim Nisancioglu. “Working in the lab of such an expert in both the numerical modeling and field work is going to not only improve my research this year but also make me a better researcher and Ph.D. student,” she says.

All this feeds into the purpose of the Fulbright opportunity. Started by U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright with the first exchanges in 1946, the program supports “promotion of international goodwill through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” Over 140 countries are involved, with Clay proud to represent the United States overseas, gaining and giving in the true spirit of science diplomacy.

“I was so fortunate to receive the Fulbright and have this opportunity to explore how climate change will impact the landscape of Norway, while in conversation with those at risk of losing their environmental heritage,” she says. This ethos demonstrates the rewards to society from international science collaboration, to understand the world around us, our roles in observed changes, and ourselves.

Despite Norway being seen as the frozen North, it produces modern, internationally renowned science studying these cold parts. This will be boosted by what Clay will achieve during her stay in Bergen and during the rest of her career.

This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.