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Iceland proves a rich and varied field for student's summer research

April 16th, 2018

by Sam Bertholf

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College junior Heath Goertzen, Goessel, wasn’t specifically looking to go as far away from Kansas as possible for the summer.

However, that’s pretty much what happened, as he ended up in Iceland through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.

REUs allow undergraduates interested in the sciences – as is Goertzen, a biology major – to get more research experience, often in interesting places.

Iceland was not the main reason Goertzen applied for this particular REU, he says – he was more concerned about the type of research he would be doing.

“I did not choose Iceland in particular,” he says. “I was mostly looking for interesting projects.

“That said, one of the reasons the project was appealing to me was the location. Iceland is fascinating from social and scientific points of view, and is absolutely gorgeous to boot.”

Goertzen’s main goal for the summer was “to learn about ecology and explore what it is like to do field work from an ecological perspective. I also wanted to see neat things.”

He continues, “I got everything I hoped for and more out of the experience.”

The scientific techniques he got a chance to practice over the summer made the trip especially rewarding, he says.

The REU, listed as “Stream Ecology in Iceland,” allowed Goertzen to join an international group of ecologists looking at the effects and influence of temperature and nutrients on stream metabolism, particularly in the context of global climate change.

Because of Iceland’s unique geothermal environment, streams in the Hengill region of the country, where the summer work took place, exhibit a wide variety of ambient water temperatures and thus a broad range of study.

“The ecological techniques I was exposed to exceeded my expectations both in number and complexity,” Goertzen says. “I was able to gain a surprising amount of knowledge through speaking to experienced scientists about their lives.”

Goertzen spent most of his summer in what the scientific community calls “field work” – essentially, collecting data in the field, meaning “out in the elements.”

“Field work is always fun, but challenging,” Goertzen says. “We had a bit of a cold, wet summer, which presented some unique work conditions. Trying to do thorough research with numb hands was a theme.”

Goertzen’s most memorable day was the one with the worst working conditions, due to weather he describes as “hilariously terrible.”

Goertzen and his adviser, Lyndsie Collis, a graduate student in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University, were out doing a large sampling project, which, as Goertzen says, “is stationary, relatively tedious work.”

After several hours of working in frightful conditions, he says, “We were suffering from a pretty serious case of the having-no-fun-at-alls.

“In a brief break from working, Lyndsie yelled over the ambient roar of the weather, ‘Aren’t you so happy to be working in Iceland today?! Hashtag Blessed.’

“We shared a desperate laugh, and the rest of the work was manageable.”

While the weather was harsh, Goertzen looks back at that day fondly now.

He continues, “That day probably taught me as much about doing science as the rest of the summer combined.

“It’s not always fun, glamorous or even directly fulfilling. Sometimes science is hard, miserable work, hunched over a tray scrubbing rocks and fighting hypothermia.”

Goertzen recommends that anyone even remotely interested in research in the sciences should pursue a National Science Foundation REU.

“If you are reading this and you are an undergraduate who likes science, look it up!” he says. “There are paid internships. In cool places. In what you want to do. Seriously, stop reading and go.”

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.