Early Career Spotlight

Scott Zolkos

Tell us about yourself:

I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) in Falmouth, MA. In September 2019, I completed my PhD at the University of Alberta in Canada, where I studied carbon cycling in rapidly thawing permafrost terrains. This work brought me far from home in western Massachusetts to the western Canadian Arctic and on some of my most memorable adventures.

What is your research about?

The adventures continue! I’m now working in the Yamal and Gydan Peninsulas in western Siberia, and in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska. For the work in western Siberia, I’m part of a research team using remote sensing to map the distribution of permafrost thaw features like gas emissions craters. So, it’s more of a virtual adventure, with some potential for fieldwork later on. For the YK Delta research, I’m faculty on this year’s NSF Polaris Project (https://www.thepolarisproject.org). Polaris is a remarkable program that engages bright and wonderful undergraduates and graduate students in the excitement of Arctic science. I’m thrilled to be part of it. On June 1, 2020, I start an NSF Earth Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowship. I’ll be investigating the effects of wildfire and permafrost thaw on the cycling and bioavailability of the toxicant mercury in the YK Delta.

What excites you about your research?

Broadly, I love to immerse myself in fascinating regions like the Arctic and use various scientific tools (geochemical analyses, GIS/remote sensing) to understand connections between biogeochemistry, ecology, and environmental change. I also relish the opportunity to work with people from around the world and from different scientific disciplines. This includes mentoring students and working with northern communities, which I find incredibly rewarding. For my upcoming fellowship research, I’m very excited to address pressing questions about the effects of environmental change on ecosystems, contaminants, and public health.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

For my fellowship research, I aim to improve understanding of mercury cycling and methylation in northern environments, from the process-level to across spatial scales. At northern high latitudes, perennially and seasonally frozen soils (permafrost and active layer) are thought to contain Earth’s largest natural reservoir of mercury. The mobilization of this mercury via thaw and wildfire and its transformation into the neurotoxicant methylmercury has considerable ecological and public health implications. Understanding these effects and the implications are primary goals of my research.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth science?

I have always been fascinated by the environment and how things are connected. The root of this curiosity is surely in hiking the White Mountains when I was very young. Exploring the natural environment inspired my subsequent pursuit of diverse research, from oceanography to geology and ultimately biogeochemistry and Arctic/Earth system science. Earth science offers the means to study the effects of human activity on the global environment and our irreplaceable biosphere. Understanding these connections motivates my pursuit of a career in earth science.

What are you looking to do after you complete your PhD or postdoc?

A faculty position would be an incredibly appealing opportunity to pursue my passion for teaching/mentoring, research, and outreach/communication. I’m keeping an eye out for faculty position openings, while crafting my dream research projects into more realistic proposals for funding.

Given unlimited funding and access to resources, what is your dream project that you would pursue?

Unlimited time, too? I would create a ‘cosmic biogeochemistry’ course, bringing participants on an expedition across space to study the origins of elements, formation of our solar system, and the evolution of Earth’s geology and ecosystems, for a holistic understanding of our modern-day environment. I think this would create an ultimate inspiration of and appreciation for our biosphere. While this could be done virtually, it would have to be a field course, because we’re dreaming! My more pragmatic research dreams are yet to be crafted into reasonable funding proposals.

What else do you do?  Any hobbies or interests outside of work?

I enjoy fishing, hiking, biking, and rock climbing with my wife, and taking care of our dog, cat, and chickens.

Learn more about Scott here: https://scottzolkos.weebly.com


Note the brown, turbid stream water in which I’m standing. Here, I’m downstream of a large retrogressive thaw slump – a permafrost thaw and collapse feature – on the Peel Plateau in the Northwest Territories (Canada). Thaw slumps can release thousands to millions of cubic meters of thawed permafrost material into stream networks, drastically altering downstream ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles. The chemistry of streams reveals the nature of these effects, providing a more complete understanding of rapidly changing Arctic carbon and contaminant cycles. I loved spending four summers of my PhD research studying streams like this!