Interconnected Pathways – January 22, 2020


For this week’s Science Wednesday, we’re joined by Dr. Daniel Zietlow, a scientist-turned-filmmaker at Provare Media (a production company he co-founded with his film partner Ryan Vachon), the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the University of Colorado Boulder.  Dan is particularly interested in showing science in a way that encourages people to gain an appreciation for humans’ connection with nature.

I’m standing in a wide valley in the Brooks Range.  The colors of late autumn in Arctic Alaska have taken hold of the landscape.  The springy ground is a patchwork of browns and fading orange.  The mountains around me are gray, capped with the white of snow and blending seamlessly into the overcast sky.  It’s quiet except for the river below us and the sound of wind moving through nature.  It’s the type of quiet that reminds me that I’m one of the few humans around for hundreds of miles in any direction.  A quiet that grounds me to our Earth and re-centers my senses.


The team is here today to collect vegetation samples as part of a long-term study of the nutritional landscape of caribou forage.  This particular valley is a thoroughfare for the Central Arctic Herd as they move back and forth between their summer range in the tundra north of the mountains to their winter range south of the mountains where it’s easier to survive the harsh Arctic winters.  As we continue to alter our climate faster than naturally expected, the amount and quality of food available to these caribou is also changing.  This has knock-on consequences across many ecosystems, including the human ecosystem.


The interconnectedness of Earth systems, including humans, is one of my favorite stories to explore.  Being outside doing fieldwork is always a great way to remind myself that nothing happens in isolation.  Water, air, soils, etc. are constantly interacting through different pathways.  As I’m standing in this valley of the Brooks Range, I’m strongly remind of these interconnected pathways, not as a scientist, but as a filmmaker working on a developing youth-education show, Adventures in Science.


I wound up in that valley because a few years ago, I decided to make the transition from full-time scientist to full-time science filmmaker.  As I was finishing my Ph.D. dissertation, I kept noticing a common occurrence: I would venture out into the field to do some science research to learn something new and cool about our Earth, and I’d bring my camera.  I wanted to take photos, take videos, write, do something that would make the work we do as Earth scientists more accessible to someone not all that keen on hauling themselves up the side of a mountain in the Himalaya (for example).


When I started graduate school, I thought getting a Ph.D. in the sciences meant I was bound to be an academic doing research in a laboratory or teaching at a university.  Both very fine choices.  After finishing, though, I realized that there are so many pathways out there through the sciences.  Studying science is really about training yourself to observe the world around you, asking some questions on why something works the way it does, and then being curious enough to hunt down a means of answering said questions.  And when I realized I could make a career out of combining science, art, and the outdoors?  Sold—an interconnection of my own pathways about which I care the most.


Information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Alaskan caribou:


A really rad book about the interconnectedness of our Earth written by indigenous scientist Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer:


More information on Adventures in Science can be found on our Provare Media website: