Geo Profiles: Lis Allaart
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
In our Geo Profiles series, we get in touch with sedimentologists working in the Nordic region, willing to tell a cool story about who they are, how they ended up where they are today and any advice they wish to impart to our community.
ln this geo profile we got in touch with marine geologist Lis Allaart, to hear all about her academic career as a glacial sedimentologist, transition into marine geology and the background to her own company - GlaciaLis.
Lis on Longyearbreen, Svalbard during the summer of 2022 (Photo private).
Who is Lis Allaart, how did you come to study geology and eventually glaciers?
I am Danish and grew up in Denmark, but took my degrees in Geology in Norway/Svalbard and I have a master's and phd in Glacial Geology.
Geology has always been present in my life, as my grandad was a geologist at the former Geologic Survey of Greenland (now part of the Geologic Survey of Denmark and Greenland). He died long before I was born, but we had many of his rock samples lying around at home. My parents did not try to push me in the geology direction at all, and while finishing my 3rd year in High School, the idea was to move to Copenhagen and study political science, as I thought I could help on climate decisions through that. Luckily, I took “three years off” after high school, working with different things. Amongst others, I spent quite some time working as a ski instructor in Southern Norway.
"I think it's our duty as researchers to make it more edible and understandable."
I have always been interested in how the Earth system works and particularly in climate change. After volunteering and working for an environmental organisation in my years off after High School, I figured I wanted to get to know the “truth” about climate change and get to know how the Earth system really works. At that time in Denmark, you could sign up at the Natural Sciences in Copenhagen to become ‘a student for a day’ and follow one student and his/her lectures. So I tried Geography first, then a year later Geology and I was totally blown away. However, I was not skiing, so I did one more ski season at the ski resort. And then I was ready to start studying.
Lis and students during the annual 'Glacier Day' part of UNIS course AG-220 Environmental Change in the High Arctic Landscape of Svalbard - after hiking up and tracing the margin of the Linnebreen glacier, as part of a long-running study that is done every year. The team this year consisted of 4 strong girls/women who hiked 27 km in total (Photo: Anna Hollænder).
Since I had spent some time in Norway, my dad suggested that I apply to a Norwegian University - and NTNU in Trondheim had a very tempting study direction called Arctic Geology with a year in Svalbard as well they had sent me a beautiful brochure with a front page featuring some cool students that were longboarding down the hill from Gløshaugen. And I was totally convinced that NTNU would be the right choice for me. And it really was - Trondheim is a vivid student town and I was heartily welcomed by the Norwegians and they were all very curious about a Dane who skied. I still have many friends from that time.
After two years in Trondheim, some of my classmates and I went to UNIS and we were all blown away. Our lecturer, Anne Hormes, brought us to a field camp in front of a beautiful glacier called Nordenskiöldbreen as well as to Ny-Ålesund during our first weeks and we all felt very lucky. I felt at home immediately - studying Arctic Geology and glaciers. The rest of the year continued like that - real fieldwork and early career research. At the end of my bachelor’s I was not done with Svalbard at all and I was offered to do a master’s with the legendary Professor Ólafur Ingólfsson mapping the forefield of Nordenskiöldbreen. The focus was on integrating marine and terrestrial (Quaternary) archives as only looking at glacier traces either on land or in the marine record will leave half of the story out. And this is how I have worked since: integrating marine and terrestrial data.
Lis at an outreach event during summer 2022 where guests could hunt for fossils in sediment cores taken with a "Russian corer" in the dammed area called Lammefjord on Sealand. This is actually a 'fake raised seafloor' - which is only about 100 years old in the upper most part! But further down you find gyttja and other exciting Holocene deposits (photo: private).
What did you do for your PhD?
My PhD focused on a key site on northern Spitsbergen, Svalbard, where we mapped the northern part of Wijdefjorden (the big N-S oriented fjord that almost cuts Spitsbergen in two halves) as well as the adjacent terrestrial area around the big lake Femmilsjøen and the lake itself. The focus was to reconstruct the Late Pleistocene and Holocene history of the area based on a holistic approach across marine, terrestrial and lacustrine data. We used geophysics in both the fjord and the lake and the more old fashioned Quaternary style mapping method on land (handheld GPS + notebook + photographs). Femmilsjøen is one of the largest lakes in Svalbard and as it got isolated from the fjord right around the onset of the Holocene it hosts a high-resolution record of the Holocene history. The idea is that the climate story from the Femmilsjøen area can give us an idea about how fast glaciers in Svalbard respond to warming, as the Early Holocene was comparably warm as today. I call all this work Glacier Detective work, when I explain it to non-geologists.
We had a lot of fun during fieldwork back in 2018, but it was also very hard work and a bit too exciting at times when we had polar bears visiting the cabin. The PhD was carried out in Tromsø, northern Norway and in collaboration with UNIS.
"The geologic time perspective is often really hard for people to comprehend, but everyone seems to understand it when I say that I do glacier detective work."
You have not one, but several jobs. Tell us, how do you combine all this?
I work part time as a marine geologist at GEUS (Geologic Survey of Denmark and Greenland) in Aarhus, Denmark. Here I use all my achieved skills to trace glacial and postglacial deposits and gain an overview of their lateral extent on seismic data from the Inner Danish Seas. I work a lot in front of a computer but there are also seminars/talks and fieldwork from time to time.
The work at GEUS is very collaborative and there is a very good working environment, better than I have experienced in any other place. I started working at GEUS in August 2022. Additionally, I work one day per week doing outreach and illustrations for a Hydrogeophysics research group at the Geologic Department at Aarhus University - which is also a lot of fun. This in total gives me a 4-day working week, which is perfect.
In the summer, I have also been guest lecturing at UNIS in Svalbard - and this summer I was lucky to teach on a course called “AG220 - Environmental Change in the High Arctic Landscape of Svalbard”.
What motivated you to start your own company called ‘GlaciaLis’?
With GlaciaLis, I tour around and give Glacier Detective talks about climate and my work in Svalbard. I launched my little company in spring 2022. I have always given talks while being a student and as part of my duty as a researcher. My advisors/bosses in Tromsø allowed me to do outreach work as part of the PhD ‘duty work’ for the department - and I have had many cool moments in schools in Northern Norway. I think there is way too little outreach in general at the universities and for a lot of inhabitants in both Denmark and Norway the stuff people do at universities can seem eclectic. I think it's our duty as researchers to make it more edible and understandable. Maybe not all researchers have to do it, but maybe all research groups as a whole.
"I don’t like the competition in academia at all - I think it is destructive for science and I strongly believe that we can only solve all the big problems if we collaborate."
Since finishing the PhD it has been a dream to do outreach a bit more professionally. I got a lot of help to start the company from a StartUp hub in Aarhus called The Kitchen as well as from a wonderful career advisor at AU. I work on my business approximately one day per week.
The Glacier Detective was born in order to explain what you really do as a glacial geologist. The geologic time perspective is often really hard for people to comprehend, but everyone seems to understand it when I say that I do glacier detective work and explain that I look for traces of past glaciers, glaciations and climate.
Lis presenting at one of her Glacier Detective talks (Photo: private).
What do you enjoy the most in your current job?
The best I know in all my different jobs is when I am able to pass on information in an understandable way and feel that the receiver really understands it. That happens both when reporting to the decision makers through my work at GEUS, writing LinkedIn posts for the Hydrogeophysics Group, lecturing at UNIS or doing outreach talks.
How do you experience the transition from academia to your current job?
I have not entirely left academia, I think, but perhaps found an alternative and (I feel) more human way to be part of the academic world. I don’t want to work 60-70 hours per week as a professor and I don’t like the competition in academia at all - I think it is destructive for science and I strongly believe that we can only solve all the big problems if we collaborate. At UNIS they taught us to collaborate and I think that’s the way forward. I really like working the way I do now!
You work as a marine geologist for GEUS. How does a typical work-week look like? And do you have any plans for the future?
My work week consists of many different components and the biggest challenge at the moment is time management, but my 4-day-working-week gives me some ‘free time’ to shuffle around so that I work when it suits me best. I am much better at taking time off now, than I have been during my entire time as a student and PhD-student. I have allowed myself to work like this for one year (starting August 2022) in order to be able to take more time off, work on my company and do what I really want to. After that, I'm not sure what my work configuration will look like, but my dream is to keep working at GEUS, perhaps in a part-time position as that will allow me to still run GlaciaLis at the side.
Lis at a research cruise with GEUS (Photo: private).
What would you advice other sedimentologists that are interested in working outside of academia or industry and may be thinking of starting their own company?
If you dream about starting your own company, I can only recommend it. I recommend becoming a part of a startup-hub where you can get help - at least I learned a thousand things I did not know beforehand, and I am still learning. Another outcome of starting GlaciaLis is that I have gotten a lot of job-offers. It seems like the geo-world in Denmark suddenly realised that I existed and the webpage also serves as sort of an online CV. I also strongly recommend creating a webpage to all early career scientists (based on the previous argument).