| by Mark C. Anderson

News Stories

Kelly, Brendan
At a recent meet-up of the Arctiphiles Club, researcher Brendan Kelly with the Center for the Blue Economy took a look at a porpoise skull with student Hannah Ditty.

Monterey isn’t what you’d think of as a launchpad to the Arctic, but for a growing number of Institute students and alumni seeking careers in Arctic-related fields, it is precisely that.  

As a nexus of climate, cultural, and geopolitical issues, the Arctic offers enticing global challenges for students, and Institute faculty frequently find ways to connect them with this work.

“The Arctic has a mystic-ness,” says environmental policy student Hannah Ditty, who is currently gathering data for Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH), a collaboration of 50 Indigenous knowledge holders, scientists, and lawmakers.

Ditty talks with far-northern tribes to help them inform local government choices about environmental management, making sure their input is heard. 

“Incorporating and elevating their voices is crucial,” she says. “They’ve seen so many changes within their lifetimes—and have learned so much from their parents and grandparents.”

She also helps SEARCH organize relevant studies, and she copy edits “Arctic Answers,” a collection of two-page briefs on many of the North’s most misunderstood issues, from sea level rise to permafrost carbon feedback to the effect of melting ice on tropical storms. 

We’re working with decision makers on research that’s applied and has real impacts, and not just something academics dream up.
— Hannah Ditty, MAEPM ’25

Finding a Cool Career

The polar extremes have called Alex Shahbazi ’22 for as long as he can remember, but it wasn’t until he learned of the Middlebury Institute that, as he puts it, “I saw that things I wanted to do in the Arctic were an option.”

Decades before he studied environmental policy in Monterey, Shahbazi was a youngster living on the Canadian edge of Michigan, noticing he was content in colder climates and “always looking farther north.”  

In fourth grade, he chose boreal forests—the planet’s northernmost trees, nestled in Alaska, Canada, Europe, Russia, and his home turf in Michigan—as the subject for his class project. 

One of his first jobs out of college was to educate guests about Lincoln Park Zoo’s polar bears.

He reached a realization along the way. 

“I hadn’t been to the Arctic at all, but being able to interact with the bears [and Polar Bear International] in that way, I realized there’s a lot I can do to have an impact, and that happens to be through policy,” he says.

A colleague at AmeriCorps turned him onto Middlebury, and he leapt at the opportunity. 

When he expressed his interests to Jason Scorse, chair of the Environmental Policy and Management program, Scorse linked him up with Kelley. 

Soon Shahbazi was studying everything from social justice for native Alaskans to best practices for commercial fishing in defrosting seas. 

Meanwhile, for his Public Policy and the Environment class at the Institute, he dove deep into the mechanics of crafting policy, and drafted a mock memo for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on polar bear conservation—and even went on to intern for WWF, where he published “Sustaining Tomorrow’s Central Arctic Ocean Today.”

“Middlebury gave me more than just the tools to create change,” he says. “It gave me connections and experiences too.”

When Shahbazi graduated, Kelly offered him a position with SEARCH. That, in turn, has led to a range of additional impact projects. 

Shahbazi supports the team’s layered science initiatives, has organized and helped author a paper on coproduction of Arctic knowledge, and interviews regional experts while cohosting the SEARCH podcast, Out of the Arctic. 

“[The podcast] is a really wonderful avenue for sharing policy,” he says. “It is about bringing together a lot of information and sharing it in a way that’s very human—you get a better sense of who’s behind it in a way you can’t with a peer-reviewed paper.” 

In the process, his passion for the North widens: As he lives his research dream, he’s synchronizing the prime of his career with a moment when the Arctic is undergoing new international treaties, critical international policy, and intensifying climate change.

“Practically and spiritually,” he says, “it’s a wonderful combination of it all.” 

Hannah Ditty in the Arctic
Environmental policy student Hannah Ditty bundled up at the helipad in Akutan, a sub-Arctic island that’s part of the Aleutian chain.

“You can have as much information as you want,” says Ditty, “but if it’s not tied to regulating policy and progress, it’s not going to [translate to] effective action.”

Ditty landed her Arctic assignment through Brendan Kelly, a senior fellow with Middlebury’s Center for the Blue Economy. As SEARCH’s science director and principal investigator, and a professor of marine biology at the International Arctic Research Center, Kelley has helped mentor a dozen Institute students on polar projects. They’ve since gone on to work everywhere from NOAA to the Alaska Division of Natural Resources to the White House.

Kelley says SEARCH aims to answer questions about the changing environment, using science and Indigenous knowledge in a way that can be useful to policy chiefs and average citizens alike.

“We’re working with decision makers on research that’s applied and has real impacts, and not just something academics dream up,” says Kelley.

Here’s What Keeps Me Hopeful