By BEN SEITZ-SITEK
Ulyana Horodyskyj, a visting professor in Colorado College’s environmental department, is the founder of Science in the Wild, and a finalist in NASA’s astronaut program. When not teaching, Horodyskyj travels to some of the most remote places on Earth, conducting research in the field known as “extreme science”. This week, The Catalyst sat down with Horodyskyj to discuss her experiences and work.
The Catalyst: How did you wind up at CC?
Ulyana Horodyskyj: So a few years back, I was living in Kathmandu, in Nepal, and Brot Coburn, who teaches here as adjunct faculty, said I should meet Miro Kummel. They happened to be in Nepal the same time I was there, so I gave an impromptu lecture to the class and Miro wanted to hire me. It was really cool.
TC: What is Science in the Wild?
UH: Science in the Wild is something I started a few years back after I finished a Ph.D. When I lived in Nepal, I’d be working in the dining area of a teahouse and a lot of tourists would come by and they’d ask me, ‘computer, ice ax, raft — what is all this stuff? What are you doing?’ And then I’d tell them about my research and show them photographs from the day. So people wanted to come along; they wanted to come in the boats, they wanted to come trekking with us. And so I was like, let’s turn this into a business. The reason being that I’m going to continue to go to all these places post-Ph.D., and I want people to be educated on science, literally in the wild, to realize how these landscapes are changing and what they can do to lessen their impact. Since they want to travel to these places anyhow, what can they learn about the land and how can they change their own practices when travelling through those lands?
TC: What keeps you ticking?
UH: It’s not coffee; I don’t really drink coffee. Wanting to make a difference. I mean, it sounds cliché, but I truly believe that if we all are putting forth the effort and making a difference that we can change this planet. It’s like the ripple effect — you do one thing and then you have a ripple effect of how many people you impacted. That’s what I love about teaching here. What I am lecturing about may not always strike everyone as that exciting, but when I share stories of my research and of my travels, that strikes a chord. Change from me personally, like anyone else, is going to be really tiny. With teaching and Science in the Wild, I am reaching a lot more people who will also start to make impacts, and then you have that big ripple effect that may quite change the world.
TC: How do you balance living sustainably with travel and doing research?
UH: That’s an excellent question. I don’t actually own a car and so I borrow when needed. I use the bus when I go from Colorado Springs to Denver Union Station, for example. I also try to eat many vegetables. As far as the long duration flights, which I do a lot of every year, I buy carbon credits or offsets.
TC: What are your favorite accomplishments?
UH: Throughout high school, I did science fair projects, and I won a lot of awards through these fairs that wound up paying for my college; that was huge for me. I came from a family that couldn’t afford it, so being able to have scholarships to attend college made my dreams come true. As far as attending the college I wanted to attend, that happened to be Rice University in Houston, Texas. In more recent history, I would say living a year abroad in Nepal. I had a Fulbright scholarship, and I really maximized it by traveling around to all the mountain communities that I love to work with when applying science. I was really trying to track how glacial floods happen. Essentially, these lakes form on the surfaces of glaciers, and they occasionally come down and take out villages. So my work was trying to figure out when that’s going to happen and how we could prevent it. Being able to connect with communities and being able to teach them science and having them care about it was huge for me.
TC: How do you deal with defeat?
UH: I deal with defeat through going outdoors. I think that’s what really drives me to hike and to climb — just kind of understanding what’s important in life and getting perspective. We’re going to experience a lot of loss and tragedy throughout life and I feel like the best way to center myself is to be outdoors.
TC: What was it like working with NASA?
UH: NASA had a program called HERA — it stands for Human Exploration Research Analog. They chose four of us to live in a habitat that is on the ground in Houston, Texas. It was kind of like Big Brother style — cameras watching everything; they’re listening in; they’re watching how strangers interact with each other in a very stressful and confined environment. The point was a simulated mission to an asteroid. There is an actual asteroid between Mars and Jupiter and the mission, if NASA were to do it, would be about 800 days and they compressed it into a 30-day scenario. So we had to go through the launch and the rendezvous with the asteroid to do all the science — they wanted us picking up samples. All of that’s done in virtual reality with simulators. They were also depriving us of sleep on occasion — one time was 40 hours, and then testing us to see how we were reacting. These long duration missions will require very different personalities than those who went to the moon because that was a mission where to get there is pretty close to Earth. But Mars is a two-year journey, so you have to have personalities that mesh and blend. They’ve been testing many different people — we were the 12th campaign.
TC: What is the craziest thing you have ever done?
UH: Skydiving, because that’s totally out of my control. I went tandem though. I risk, but I risk in a smart way … calculated risk taking. Oh, in Nepal for my birthday, I went in this open cockpit aircraft to fly over the mountains. The aircrafts there have to be careful because of thermals coming up from the mountains, and it was this super light aircraft, open cockpit, with very cold temperatures because it was in February. That was really exciting.
TC: What’s it like being on Everest?
UH: I was supposed to climb Everest in 2014 when the avalanche came down and actually killed one of our team members — one of our Sherpas — so I have not gone beyond the icefall: the first part, which is also the most dangerous. But from that experience and knowing what I know about glaciers and how fast they move through those ice falls, I’d say it is a game of Russian roulette. I’d love to have a chance to go up there again because I am studying the impacts of pollution on high mountain snow packs. It was an incredible experience; you’re surrounded by people who have a love of mountains. The Sherpas I’m also very close with since I worked with them for so long during the course of my Ph.D. But it’s also sad what’s happening because you see melting up there. You also see these huge glacial lakes forming, kind of pockmarking the glacier. And so it’s like what can I do to stop that, other than providing the research and the results to the people who can make the difference.
TC: What has been your greatest challenge?
UH: Professionally, I’d say finding funding for the research — especially since I work in climate science which, with this current administration, has become very challenging. Creating my own company has allowed me to go more freelance in science which is not really done and it’s very challenging. I see why it’s not done, but I’m making my way. Personally, just striving to continue to maintain physical fitness for the things I do. These treks that we lead are very demanding, and I’m the leader on them. Being able to keep up with the training on top of all the work demands is a challenge. I train six days a week.