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Lakehead University Magazine Spring/Summer 2007

A Personal Migration in Search of Arctic Dreams

By Jackie T. Hrabok (HBSc'96, MSc'99)

I may have left Thunder Bay more than seven years ago, but my northern upbringing in the Northwestern Ontario region continues to direct my dreams as a Biologist working around the world.

You might remember me for my dedication to the development of the Thunder Bay Women's Hockey Association and Lakehead University Women's club hockey team. Or perhaps I persuaded you to purchase a new bike or top-of-the-line hockey equipment from Petrie's Cycle & Sports. I was also active in the annual Lakehead Music Festival performing with concert and jazz bands and brass ensembles.

A few weeks after graduation from Lakehead University in 1999, I embarked on a mission to get hands-on fieldwork experience in the Alaskan Arctic. Stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, and in various base camps above the Arctic Circle, I completed a post-graduate internship at the Large Animal Research Station with the University of Alaska and volunteered with the University's Reindeer Research Program in Nome on the Seward Peninsula. I also set foot on the North Slope, investigating the environmental impact of oil development and oil spills on a wide range of Arctic mammals and vegetation.

As a young girl, I was hesitant to pick up slimy earthworms (and I still squirm at their touch when fishing), but when it comes to research, I thrive on dissecting the stomach contents of reindeer/caribou, muskoxen, and fish, in search of parasitic roundworms, also known as gastrointestinal nematodes.

On October 13, 2006, I successfully defended my PhD research at the National Veterinary Institute and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, Sweden, with a thesis titled, Macroparasites of Reindeer in Fennoscandia; Population Dynamics, Control Options and its Environmental Impact. (http://diss-epsilon.slu.se/archive/00001207/). During the past 4.5 years I conducted my PhD fieldwork approximately 400 km north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland, Finland, in the northern-most Sami Reindeer Husbandry Area, under the academic guidance of world-renowned experts from Australia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and New Zealand.

I discovered that reindeer become infected with parasites year-round when naturally grazing from the forest floor, despite -30 C and snow depths of up to one meter. The majority of the larval-staged abomasum worms do not develop into sexually mature adult worms during the winter. But in late May, when the snow begins to melt and ambient temperatures increase, the internal parasites resume development and there is an increase in output of parasite eggs within reindeer feces, which are then shed onto vegetation.  Male and female reindeer calves were infected with similar numbers of parasites, but castrated reindeer consistently had significantly higher worm burdens.

Dr. Jackie T. HrabokIn Finland, approximately 80% of reindeer are injected once annually with ivermectin, a chemical that essentially kills many of the parasitic nematodes and most of the warble fly and bot fly larvae. The residues of ivermectin are passed with reindeer feces. I studied the impact of these residues on soil nematodes, which are responsible for breaking down organic material in Arctic soils. After two years of monthly sampling of the contaminated reindeer fecal material, I did not detect a statistically significant difference in abundance or in species richness of soil nematodes. However, in more tropical environments, the concentration of residual ivermectin I detected in my samples has been shown to have detrimental effects on other soil organisms such as springtails.

The village of Kaamanen, Finland, with approximately 70 inhabitants, was my home and outdoor playground for most of the time during my PhD field studies.
At first, various community members would draw pictures in the snow or in dust on the dashboard of their cars to teach me valuable communication skills.  You see, the spoken languages of the area include only Finnish and Sami. I love adventure and am willing to take risks to learn about the world around me.  It took me one year until the locals accepted me, but some folks continue to challenge my bush skills and knowledge of reindeer husbandry. The 50- to 70-year-old reindeer herders are my favorite − they are always eager to share traditional knowledge with me. I am basically fluent in Finnish now and can slaughter a bull or cow in a few minutes and describe the resulting parasite fauna to the general public. The Sami community taught me how to naturally treat reindeer and trout skins to make leather for clothing and crafts.  The traditional reindeer fur boots lined with horsetail grass I made are much warmer than Sorels or Bunnyboots. There is very little waste of the animal.  The meat is eaten fresh cooked, smoked, salted and dried; cast antlers are used for making knife handles and buttons; and the fur-intact hide and prepared leathers are used for handicrafts among the families, and are also sold to seasonal tourists.

What does the future hold? The rigors of an outdoor lifestyle with snow and ice, hunting, fishing, trapping, foreign languages, and culture call out to me. One of my long-term goals is to become Professor of Arctic Biology/Ecology or Director of Research/Science.  For the immediate short-term, I am seeking funding to pursue a post-doctoral position with The Finnish Game & Fisheries Reindeer Research Station in Kaamanen, Finland, in affiliation with a Finnish University.  

What I have learned in my short, intense life is that anything is possible with determination (and prayer). Hard work, ambition, and a genuine smile have carried me a long way, and somehow money found me when I was in need. Will I return to Canada? My heart remains with my family in Thunder Bay, but my adventurous spirit for cross-cultural communications remains overseas for the time being. I have been fortunate to find some of the comforts of home in all of the places I have traveled to − hockey rinks are ubiquitous, and regardless of the international teams on which I have played, a Canadian flag is always proudly displayed on my goal mask and jersey.

Have you got a story to tell? If so, send it to the Editor by email: frances.harding@lakeheadu.ca
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