There’s an exciting new opportunity on the horizon for Wake Forest students interested in sustainability: under the umbrella of the Sustainability graduate program, faculty member Norman Fraley is piloting an academic research trip to Iceland this May, and he is looking for interested students to join.
Fraley teaches the Natural Science of Sustainability course for WFU’s Masters program in Sustainability. He is also a doctoral student in the Chemistry department, where he studies how to make biofuels from everyday oil and grease waste using sugar to make a catalyst. On top of it all, when he is not working for the FDA, he is the Executive Director of the Frölich Institute, a Winston Salem-based organization that aims to perform sustainability-related scientific research and share the results with the world. It’s safe to say that Fraley lives and breathes sustainability.
Which is why, when he saw a potential collaboration with Ocean Missions, a small non-governmental organization that does marine environmental research in Iceland, and North Sailing, a whale watching tour operation, he seized it. “I’ve been to Iceland three times, and this summer when I went I explored parts of the country that I had never been to before. One of the towns there, Húsavík, is the whale-watching capital of Iceland. I got on one of the boats to go out into the bay and got to talking with one of the science people on the boat.” The reason this bay is considered the whale-watching capital of the world is that it is constantly subjected to micro-scale earthquakes, which shake up nutrients from the ocean surface below, attracting hungry whales to the area.
But even this majestic and fairly remote place is not free from plastic pollution, and Ocean Missions is trying to measure the impact of plastic on the region’s environment. Each year they run two expeditions to monitor plastic pollution around the bay. They bring interested volunteers from around the world (mainly students) along to help. The group measures both microplastics in the water and larger plastic pollution on land. During their first expedition, they pulled 600 kilograms of plastic off a 100-meter stretch of beach on an isolated fjord in just 2 hours. They have also discovered that the concentrations of microplastics (very tiny fragments of plastic) are higher in the bay than outside of it, which could be dangerous for the whales that feed there.
The dual scientific and educational goals of Ocean Missions captured Fraley’s attention. “It was just resonating. This is what we do here [at Wake Forest].” And he saw new scientific connections that Ocean Missions could make in their work. “I asked, may we bring students to join up with this, and bring some things you aren’t currently doing, like water chemistry?” They said yes. “It just got exciting after that.” Fraley came back and immediately started discussing this possibility with others in the Masters of Sustainability program. This May, they plan to run a pilot trip to see how the partnership will work.
If this first trip goes well, it may become an annual Wake Forest program, adding another environmental and sustainability-related experience abroad to Wake’s international portfolio. The expedition ends with an additional 3-4 days for students to learn first-hand about Iceland’s renewable energy technologies, such as geothermal power generation and hydrothermal heating, along with active carbon sequestration projects in the country.
Wake Forest officially has four seats on the spring expedition by Ocean Missions, which will run from May 8-15th. One will be occupied by Fraley, and he is currently looking for three students to join. Any Wake Forest undergraduate or graduate student, regardless of major, or Sustainability alumnus will receive full consideration, and academic credit is available. The trip will involve a full week on the water, traveling in and out of the fjords along the western coast of Iceland. The mission sails on the Opal, a classic two-masted schooner with a twist: the vessel’s diesel engine has been swapped for Tesla batteries, meaning it moves silently through the water, a perfect set-up for watching whales.
This is a unique opportunity for Wake Forest students to do environmental research, learn about plastic pollution, alternative energy and explore a new part of the world. Interested students should contact Norm Fraley (email@example.com) for more information.