A Cuban at the North Pole, a dream achieved

A Cuban at the North Pole, a dream achieved

Environment

By Mercy Ramos, Photos: courtesy of Laura Castro de la Guardia

For Cuban biologist Laura Castro de la Guardia to think of the Arctic and its frozen seas, when she was studying at the University of Havana, was a pipe dream, unattainable. However, just five years after graduating, she became the first Cuban to set foot on the North Pole.

A Cuban at the North Pole, a dream achieved

Born in Havana, this young biologist loved nature since being a child and questioned everything she saw around her and thanks to her mother, also a biologist, she was able to answer all her questions on the subject. This marked the beginning of her conversation with this journalist, who was able to interview her despite the distance, thanks to the advances in technology.

At first, Laura said, “I dedicated myself to joining my mother in her research on coral reefs and the effect of climate change on this marine ecosystem. Then I had the opportunity to emigrate to Canada, to a cold city quite far north, Edmonton, and surprisingly I have loved living in this climate, and I can’t imagine going back to living without snow.”

Once in Edmonton, Laura enrolled at the University of Alberta to complete her undergraduate degree in Biology, followed by a master’s degree and then a PhD, which she completed in 2018. Since then, she has been working as a researcher at that center of higher studies and currently at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, remotely, in the position of postdoctoral fellow.

A Cuban at the North Pole, a dream achieved

“As I really liked research I started looking for professors who were interested in the study of the sea. That’s how I met Professor Paul Myers, a specialist in oceanography, and he became my master’s and doctoral supervisor,” she explained. She was then able to join a worldwide scientific expedition studying the vulnerability of the Arctic Ocean to climate change. She stayed at the North Pole for 59 days, where she arrived on August 26, 2014, along with the rest of the team, sponsored by the Alfred Wegener Institute (Germany) and ArcTrain (Canada/Germany), aboard the German icebreaker “Polarstern”.

When asked what it meant to her to join this select group of scientists, she said, “I feel incredibly fortunate. I have the opportunity to research the Arctic, a region where there is still a lot to learn, and which is changing far too fast.”

As for her impression of stepping foot on the North Pole for the first time, having been born and lived for more than two decades in a tropical country, she said, “I didn’t think it was very cold, and I found it surprising that, while there was light, you couldn’t see anything as everything was white. I silently thanked all my family and my teacher for the support, as it was thanks to them that I was standing there, in the middle of that arctic desert. I felt very fortunate to have been able to take part in that expedition, and I discovered that I like sailing in ice-covered seas.”

A Cuban at the North Pole, a dream achieved

For this lover and faithful supporter of the ecosystem, taking care of the environment is everyone’s responsibility, so she believes that each person can contribute to the conservation and protection of the environment with simple actions such as throwing garbage in trash cans, and picking it up from the ground voluntarily, as well as contributing to the cleanliness of rivers and beaches to reduce pollution.

She added that “we need a healthy and clean environment to survive. Trees give us shade and oxygen, oceans and clean forests also give us food. Agriculture is important but we need to raise awareness of the effect of fertilizers and pesticides, and use alternatives. The ice in the Arctic and Antarctic acts as the air conditioning of the planet and its presence is very important for the circulation of air in the atmosphere, and of water and oxygen in the ocean.”

Speaking about her projects, she said, “I still have a lot to learn about the Arctic. I will continue to use mathematical models in conjunction with sampling and observations to explain more effectively how the Arctic marine ecosystem responds to climate change.”

“I would also like to contribute to society as an educator. And, as I believe that work and dreams must go together, I recently accepted a job offer in a city inside the Arctic circle, Tromso, Norway, so I will fulfill another of my dreams of living life in The Land of the Long Shadows, with a summer with 24-hour sunlight and a winter with 24-hour-long nights,” she finished.