Updated: May 25, 2021
Saratoga Shredders #MoreGirlsOnBikes
By: Krysta Kearney
It’s a total white-out, wind is howling, you’re in sub-zero temperatures, no cell phone and there is no one to be seen nor heard around you for God knows how far. Gigantic walls of ice are cascading around you and the frozen ground under you provides no shelter from the frigid cold wind and snow. It’s taken you months of planning, and days and miles of trekking to get there...a plane, then a ship...then a helicopter...ATV, skiing, then hiking, all to get to this one remote place in Antarctica. It is so remote that likely no human has ever gone there before. So why do this? Does it sound enthralling or does the idea of it make your stomach turn? What’s the reward, the potential outcome in this faraway land? Glaciers. Beautiful, gigantic, slowly moving masses of ice and snow. One could only imagine how marvelous of a site this is. A space that, although so massive, one feels grounded and balanced. Anna Laloë is an ambitious woman, scientist, mother, and athlete. She pushes all boundaries, doesn’t bat an eye at the largest of risks, only seeing the potential for a reward. Much of her career has been spent as a glacial geologist in the Arctic and Antarctic, where she studied gigantic masses of ice, glaciers, in order to answer important climate science questions. We thought that being a glacial geologist in itself is a pretty impressive feat, but after talking to Laloë, we learned that her life journey thus far has been an even larger adventure than we had imagined.
Her childhood memories are filled with inspirational moments, comical road trips and tight knit family gatherings. Much of it was spent leaving the shores of which she grew up on, in Cape Cod, embarking on family road trips, where her mother would pack everyone in the car and travel all around the northeast. If what you picture is anything reminiscent of Chevy Chase’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, it was actually a bit different. Laloë’s mother was a professional Ironman triathlete, one of the top in the world, finishing in the top 10 Pro Women category three times at the Kona Ironman World Championships. Very early on, Laloë knew by example what it took to be a fearless female, always being encouraged to live outside the box, finding what makes her happy and proving to herself that she is capable of more than she knows. After graduating high school, she went to Carleton College which is a small private liberal arts school in Northfield, Minnesota. She completed her undergraduate degree here in Geology and also played a lot of ultimate frisbee, like a lot! It’s a small college with a big ultimate frisbee problem. Ultimate frisbee is a club sport across all universities in the US and at the time, was not allowed to be a university sport. Because of this, there are no levels of competition. You compete against all schools, large or small, in all geographical locations.
“It’s this tiny school in Minnesota that happens to have a really successful Ultimate Frisbee program.”
Since it was such a small school, everyone played, literally everyone. Not just on one, but 3 or 4 different teams. There would be a team for your major, your dormitory, whatever clubs you were in, so people were just constantly playing. During Laloë’s senior year, her team won the College National Championships! It wasn’t just all ultimate frisbee though, she was passionate about her studies. During her time there, she did a lot of volunteer work as a park ranger in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and spent two semesters abroad, one in Iceland and one in Arctic Norway. Like we said before, quite the accelerator.
After her studies in Iceland, she went straight to the University Centre in Svalbard, Norway which is known as the world’s northernmost university. It is a satellite campus for the University of Tromso. For a bit of perspective, she went from a summer in Iceland which is 24 hrs of light (June- Aug) to arriving in Svalbard, that by October she was living in 24 hours of darkness. Her studies lasted until the new year. Here, she formulated her thesis project and it’s also where her love for glacial geology truly began. She became fascinated in glacial and polar environments rather than the traditional geology that she had been studying. While developing her thesis, she noticed that most of the literature that she was reading had been written by British scientists. It seemed to her that the European scientific community shared the same focus as her academic interests, and she took note of this.
“The dynamic-ness of glaciers (ahh). You can’t actually see them move but they sure move a lot more than 100 million year old rocks do! To me, it was a little bit more of a dynamic environment to study and it brought me to incredible places around the world.”
After graduation in the spring of 2000, she moved to Alaska for a year where she was a park ranger at Kenai Fjords National Park. During winters, they shut down the access road to Exit Glacier and a backcountry park ranger is hired to watch over the park and ranger stations. Every year, hundreds of thousands visit the park in the summer, as it’s the only “touchable” glacier that is accessible to the public. Spectators take self-guided or ranger-guided walking tours that bring you very close to the glacier. Her winter was spent watching over the grounds and maintaining the public areas and cabins. It’s highly suggested you bring someone along, so her boyfriend at the time went with her and they spent the dark winter season together. (It’s dark for 20 hours a day.) Every two weeks, they would go to town to get supplies. The cabin had no running water or electricity. For her, she was in the right place at the right time. It was the perfect opportunity to be in the solitude of the woods and reflect on what the next chapter in life would be. During this time, she applied to a number of grad schools, ultimately deciding she would prefer to be in Europe for her PhD, so she took off to Cambridge University in England.
“It’s just such an education in itself just being there [Cambridge], not even actually going to school there...and experiencing the international community where there are students from ALL over the world and they’re just brilliant. It's intimidating initially, you have to settle in and realize you deserve to be there.”
The education was much different from that of the states. Cambridge celebrated their 700th year of being a university while she was there. A lot to wrap your head around! It’s steeped in tradition and history which for her, was all so new. Although she ended up loving and embracing it, the adjustment was hard. The week she arrived, the attack on 911 happened. It was emotional and shocking.
“It was interesting being abroad and processing all of that. The kindness shown to us by the Cambridge community was wonderful. I felt supported.”
In general, the British socialize much differently than the United states, the approach is not initially as forward and inviting. It was tricky not knowing anyone and grasping hold of social cues and innuendos. She had told herself even prior to moving there that she was not going to play Ultimate Frisbee, but she was struggling to find friends. One day she noticed people were playing in the park and she thought, ‘Ok…I’m gonna go play with them.’ She knew the general population of the sport were very friendly and she could relate. There were no female players at all. The university had a varsity and club league. In Britain at the time, there was no women's national team.
“What I realized was if I eventually wanted to be playing at the level that I was playing in the States, I would have to put in quite a bit of work to build the sport for women in the UK first.”
Players approached her and asked if she would be the coach and captain of the team. Being a woman, she was never questioned, her experience and ability was very obvious and the men respected her. Her skills reached beyond theirs - maybe they could jump higher or run faster, but her strategy and sportsmanship was unparalleled. It was a great experience for her because she really enjoyed passing on her skills and previously taught lessons to others - she was able to give back to the sport that brought her so much in life. As they practiced, it was always in public parks and people started noting that there was a female coach. This in turn attracted more women to the sport. After about four years, there were 24 women's teams that formed throughout the country! She ended up playing for the British National Team for about 6 years and traveled the world doing so.
“It was really cool to be a part of the building of the sport.”
Through all of this, she was working hard to complete her Master’s and Ph.D. at Cambridge, which she finished in 3.5 years. This should have taken much longer, but she did it as quickly as she could, as she was self-funding. Every summer she was doing fieldwork in Iceland. She was living the highlife, as from a geology perspective, everything about Iceland is phenomenal.
Once Laloë graduated from Cambridge with her Doctorate, she found a job at the British Antarctic Survey, which is a government-funded research institute that happened to be right in Cambridge. She was enthralled, as her specialty is very specific, so to find a job right where she was is very unusual. She spent five years working for them. From the winter months of January to March she would travel to Antarctica and collect samples, which she would bring back and spend the remainder of the year in Cambridge analyzing rocks and writing scientific papers. Antarctica is fascinating, beyond words, indescribable. Well for Laloë, she could spend days describing it but to most of us, it’s like a magical fairy tale, uncharted.
There are a couple of different ways to get to Antarctica and reside there. Amongst other countries’ stations, the British have five that vary in size. Stations can be anywhere from 10 to 1000 people. Ironically, Laloë never even saw a station, as her work was so far remote, she spent her whole time there camping with one other person, her field assistant. To get there is an excursion in itself. Europeans fly south in a cargo plane and arrive at a British Navy station at the Falkland Islands. From here, they would onboard a British Navy ship, HMS Endurance.
“It’s quite an experience in itself, being an American female civilian onboard a British Navy ship and there were only between five to ten of us civilian scientists, through all three seasons.”
They then sail across the Drake Passage which is known to have the worst, most treacherous waters in the world. Laloë has crossed it 14 times! It takes 2.5 days to cross from the Falkland Islands to the Antarctic peninsula. She has experienced hurricane condition weather as well as total calm waters, as it’s always a gamble. They would sail as far into the sea ice as they could and then onboard a helicopter to set up their field camp. Keep in mind that at this time, she is only 27. The only woman…barking orders to Navy officers, telling them where her field camp will be, going into the unknown and trusting her own instinct. Once out in the field it would be just two of them, totally remote for months on end. She, the field scientist and he, the field assistant.
“The field assistant’s job is to keep us alive, my job is to do the science. Very siloed jobs, which was hard for me. I’m used to being in control of my field season, I'm used to being in control of things in general! Having met my field assistant once prior to the field season, I had to entrust him 100% with my life - and me with his! If we got into a situation I had to 100% rely on him. I had different field assistants every season. They had to be very experienced in extreme environments.”
The two would have a daily routine. In the evenings they would look at the maps, plotting out the next day's excursion. The mornings were spent making breakfast and packing. Then a day of hiking and collecting rocks would lay ahead. Through the Antarctic years she did have a few life threatening experiences, none of which ever made her regret her decision to go there. She embraced all moments, and now all memories.
“It was my dream job - to do my own research in the polar regions whether it be the Arctic or the Antarctic - a total dream.”
Shortly after this, Laloë got married and held the wedding reception in the States. She hadn’t been home for eight years. Seeing everyone made her realize how many moments she missed while having been away. This fueled her desire to move closer and start a new chapter in life. Her husband was from France, and she from the US, so either place they decided to settle, one would be far from family and they chose the States. It was a really hard decision. Both she and her husband were leaving a unique community where they thrived and she, her dream job. Her husband got a position doing postdoctoral research at MIT, in Boston, Massachusetts so they made the move. Laloë became pregnant about three months after. In both of their seemingly successful upbringings, there was a stay at home parent, so they decided that one of them would do so. With him being in academia, it made sense for Anna to become a stay at home mother. This was both rewarding and challenging. Her whole life, she was used to traveling and never really being home. It was a big adjustment. They lived in Boston for about two years until he found a job at GlobalFoundries, which is based out of Malta, NY, and so they settled. Once they moved to Saratoga, Laloë gave birth to their second beautiful daughter.
It was a really big adjustment at first. Both of them were used to being in these international communities where everyone was doing extreme things and were incredibly intelligent. It was such a motivational environment to be a part of.
“I went through a phase after my second daughter was born. I now attribute it to postpartum depression, but I couldn’t identify it at the time and I certainly didn’t go to a doctor to diagnose it because I just didn’t realize what was happening. I lost a lot of self-confidence. I wasn’t actively using my science brain and I wasn’t being as stimulated as I was in the past. I knew I was in a different phase in my life and I felt VERY privileged to be a stay at home mom but that didn’t mean I was happy all the time.”
About a year after her second daughter was born she started riding mountain bikes, which helped her regain her confidence as a woman, and find herself again. It filled the gaps of what had been missing in her life, she would go out into the woods and ride up and over obstacles, and come back feeling on top of the world!