Doctoral room “A fantastic and attractive addition”

Wednesday 14. December 2016 | By: Birna Lárusdóttir

The first tenant has now moved in to the new doctoral room for rent at the The University Centre of the Westfjords; the Centre‘s lates addition to the good services provided to university students in the Westfjords. It is a roomy office space which can accommodate two students at a time. The office is in a prime location within the University Centre building and includes access to all the Centre’s facilities. By offering a doctoral room, the University Centre is actively trying to enrich the academic environment of Ísafjörður; as doctoral-level students are not only experts in their field, but they also often provide teaching services in the local area, as well as various location-specific projects, often linked to local businesses.

Temporary job led to biology

The first doctor’s student to make use of the new facilities is Sigurður Halldór Árnason, from Ísafjörður, who is investing his time researching wild populations of small benthic Arctic char in Iceland, searching for answers to which ecological factors affect biological diversity.

Sigurður was born in Ísafjörður in 1980 and grew up here until the age of ten, when he moved to New Jersey, USA, where he completed both primary and secondary education. As a teenager, he always came home to Ísafjörður in the summertime, to work, both in fish processing and for the local council, keeping the town looking good, as many Icelandic teenagers do. He later went on to work in many different jobs: “During and after college I worked, among other things, as a pot-wash, waiter, cook, gardener, furniture delivery guy, pizzaboy, GIS technician, and park ranger. Through these jobs, I was witness to how the modern economy and consumer society is ruining the ecosystem which holds all life on earth in balance. This was completely opposite to the wild and unspoilt nature I experienced on the many expeditions and camping trips I went on at the time with my friends, both here in Iceland and around the United States. I would say that this experience had a very strong influence on me and how I experience the world.”

Not a good student to begin with

“I was never especially good at the traditional school stuff, which we all have to get through. I was actually pretty bad at it. What got me onto the track I’m currently on was both love and respect for nature and the responsibility I felt we all have to understand, and to help others understand, the processes that have led to the development of the earth’s biosphere. Once we are all fully aware of that, then we can begin to understand what is needed in order to live in peace and harmony with nature. To collect and analyse data and then inform society is the main role of the scientist, whatever his specialism.”

Snails, plants, genetics, and ecology

After having worked and travelled widely around the USA, Sigurður eventually decided to head to university and registered himself in biology. He graduated with an A.Sc. in biology from Brookdale Community College in New Jersey in 2005. Next, his path led to the University of Hawai’i, which he graduated from with a B.Sc. in 2008. “In Hawai’i I also worked for the Center for Conservation, Training and Teaching at Dr Robert Cowie’s research centre, where I researched the many species of dry land snails which have evolved on the Hawai’ian islands. In 2011 I moved back to Iceland and graduated from the University of Iceland in 2013 with an M.Sc. in biology, specialising in botany and population genetics. Alongside working on my thesis, I worked as a supervisor in the University of Iceland plant genetics laboratory and as an assistant teacher. Today, I am working on my doctoral thesis in biology with emphasis on ecology and evolution with Hólar University College and the University of Iceland.”

Researching natural selection and evolution of the small benthic Arctic char

The doctoral thesis Sigurður is working on is called ‘Natural selection and the evolution of phenotypic diversity of small benthic Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus) in Iceland’. “In short, I am using a large number (35) of diverse small benthic Arctic char stocks, which have evolved in parallel and been isolated in fresh water sources all around Iceland, to get some sort of insight into the first evolutionary steps to biological diversity and to improve understanding of the effect the ecosystem and natural selection have on those processes.

Sigurður points out that by ‘biological diversity’ he means all the great diversity to be found in the earth’s biosphere. It is possible to look at this diversity from many points-of-view; all the way from examining diversity within ecosystems, biospheres, or communities, to diversity between and within species and populations; as well as genetic diversity. This diversity underpins the existence of all lifeforms found on earth. Without this diversity, the living system, which, for example, maintain current atmospheric conditions, would literally collapse. Detailed understanding of the processes which shape biological diversity is therefore of key importance, both for its protection here in Iceland and to be able to predict how lifeforms will adapt to climate change on the global scale.

“In this project for example, I am using otolith (ear bones) to assess whether there is diversity of growth patterns among the 35 stocks of small benthic Arctic char. I am also checking how that diversity is connected to environmental factors, i.e. the role of natural selection, for example the type of fresh water body (stream or pond), temperature, what the bottom is made of, conductivity, pH level, available food, currents, and others. A strong relationship between growth speed and these environmental factors could mean that forces of natural selection have an impact on variability in growth speeds among these populations. I will also follow individuals from seven of these 35 populations for four years. Here I mark individuals with electronic PIT tags which allow me to take samples from the same individuals twice a year to assess whether the relationship between food and appearance between, as well as within, populations is steady over time, and to check whether this relationship is also changeable between and within populations.”

Sigurður asserts that this research is important because very little is known about which environmental factors shape biological diversity. Such knowledge is, however, important when assessing the importance of habitats and ecosystems within nature, for example for utilisation and conservation. “The project’s main utility and practical application is first and foremost that it provides new understanding of the relationship between environmental factors and the development of biological diversity. That understanding can be used to shape the future direction of how we manage and conserve biological diversity in Icelandic hydrological systems. This applies not least to planning and organisation of aquaculture and power stations that impact the hydrological system. 

Facilities at the University Centre could bring former locals back home

Sigurður is really pleased with the new facilities at the University Centre and he says without hesitation that it could bring others following in his footsteps: “The facilities here are really good. Here I have an office which I can share with one other doctoral student and everything is done to make one feel at home. There are also lots of very fun people here; academics and students, and it’s actually a really international community. If the doctoral room and working environment were not here at the University Centre, it would have been very hard to justify moving to Ísafjörður, at least as far as studying is concerned. It’s important to care for such a facility and build it up so that it will attract more former locals, and the knowledge they have acquired, back home. It is a very important part of informing our young people and strengthening society here in the Westfjords. I believe there is demand for such good facilities, because I believe there are a lot of students and graduated academics who are “stuck” in Reykjavík and cannot see how they can leave without making great sacrifices.”

Two children and a dog

Sigurður’s wife is Magnea Ósk Sigrúnardóttir. She is from Reykjavík, but has family ties to Litlibær in Skötufjörður in Ísafjarðardjúp. The pair met when Sigurður was working on plant genetics research at the University of Iceland. Magnea’s great-grandfather was the captain a prominent Westfjords ship called Fagranes until Sigurður’s grandfather, Halldór Gunnarsson, took over from him. Magnea is in the third year of studies to become a nurse and works at Ísafjörður hospital alongside her studies. “We have two children: Alexander Sebastian, who is eight and in year three at primary school, and Mýrún Halldóra, who is 18 months and at Sólborg pre-school. Then there’s one other family member as well: Megas the dog, who loves long walks on the beach, Westfjords dried fish, and the kids.”

The family wanted a secure long-term home

Sigurður says that it was not a foregone conclusion to move to the Westfjords to work on his research, but that he and his family had somehow always been on their way home to Ísafjörður. “I lived in the north, in Hólar and Sauðárkrókur, for the first two years of my doctor’s studies and that was actually really convenient when it came to sampling which took place in the highlands twice each summer (2013-2016), at Mývatn, Aðaldalur, and Borgarfjörður. But I am from here in Ísafjörður and in some way, through all these years, I have been on the way “back home again”. I didn’t move south, per se, just further and further west. When it finally came down to it, and we had had enough of paying rent and not having a secure home to live in for the long-term, we couldn’t bring ourselves to buy a house up north or down south, so we just decided to come back home. It didn’t take long to realise that we wanted to stay here. There are good research facilities here at the University of Iceland research centre in Bolungarvík, and at this excellent office facility here at the University Centre of the Westfjords, where there is good camaraderie with other academics and students, as well as with locals in general.”

A little while has passed since Sigurður moved in to his new office and he has already personalised it and seems to feel very comfortable. Beautiful drawings by his children decorate the wall and he has a very fine view from the window, along Suðurgata and up to the mountains beyond, including Naustahvilft, often called the Troll Seat. And the University Centre’s refreshment room is close by, too.

Finally, those interested might like to know that the desk next to Sigurður’s is still available for hire.