Making a Polar Impact

A student standing in front of an iceburg.
Asmara Lehrmann

From the September 2020 Desktop News | Asmara Lehrmann is deeply connected to all sides of her identity. A PhD student in geology at The University of Alabama with a passion for paleontology and climate change, her geologist father and Indonesian-immigrant mother both influenced the path she’s on today.

“My mother’s family lives in Jakarta, which is a city on the coast that’s actually subsiding,” Lehrmann said. “The city is literally sinking, the sea level is rising, and I would often see how the monsoon season would just destroy areas that weren’t built to withstand it. The urgency of studying sea level and impacts from storms, it really spoke to me.”

Lehrmann was drawn to UA after meeting Dr. Rebecca Minzoni, an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences. She joined Minzoni on the Gulf of Mexico to study the paleorecord in sediment cores from Mobile Bay, and how it possibly records the severity and frequency of hurricanes. Lehrmann then dove into Antarctic research at Thwaites Glacier, and her latest venture as an organizer for the grassroots network Polar Impact ties directly into that.

Founded in 2019 by Prem Gill, a first-generation British Punjabi Sikh Cambridge University student, Polar Impact’s mission is to create a supportive network for racial and ethnic minorities in the field of polar research. It started as a Twitter page highlighting BIPOC figures doing polar research. Gill reached out to Lehrmann to feature her, and Lehrmann immediately knew she wanted to get involved.

The volunteer-run organization still operates through its Twitter account, but it is also expanding to offer a vast collection of resources. The team recently built a resource package for National Minorities Mental Health Month, and they are working on National Geographic Kids-inspired features on polar researchers for K-12 teachers to print and distribute to their students.

One of Lehrmann’s foci is including historic BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) in the features to challenge the idea that Antarctic researchers and explorers are only white males.

“Look at me—I don’t fit the historical image,” Lehrmann said. “I want to show that in history, these BIPOC people—even though their voices were overshadowed by others leading expeditions—they did have influence in polar research, especially the Indigenous folks in the Arctic.”

With members across continents, Polar Impact is a completely virtual project. However, it has already received an influx of donations, and the organizers have been invited to talk at several conferences. Through this, they hope to fund new projects and reach more people.

“Diverse backgrounds are really essential for studying global climate change to have different perspectives,” Lehrmann said. “I hope Polar Impact can become a safe space for people of color to come together.”