Meet Ben Keisling: Ice Explorer and Scientist Extraordinaire

Not a single person would identify Ben Keisling ‘13 as ‘icy’ by any means (he happens to be quite bright and cheerful!), but nevertheless, this label is exactly what makes Keisling so interesting.

Ice has played a significant role in Keisling’s life over the past two summers which he has spent at Olaf, doing research with professor of Physics Bob Jacobel. Their goal has been to understand the role that active subglacial lakes (basins beneath the ice sheet which periodically fill and drain with water) play in ice sheet dynamics. “It’s been shown that lake drainage events are correlated with an increase in the speed of the ice above them, and they have been implicated as part of the process that turns ice streams on and off,” Keisling said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with many kinds of geophysical data and have been exposed to a wide variety of analytical techniques for understanding and interpreting data.”

While the content of his work may seem overwhelming, it is nothing short of impressive, and Oles like Bob Jacobel are no longer the only ones sitting up and paying attention to what Keisling has to say. For starters, Keisling was recently awarded the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, an undergraduate award for students pursuing careers in science, math and technology. For his application, Keisling had to write a short essay about an existing problem in his field of research and propose a method for studying it. “I wrote about predicting the instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet,” says Keisling. “It’s the most unstable ice sheet in the world. I discussed what information we lack, and what priorities should be for improving model results. I spent probably 24 hours over three days working on the essay, and it was a pretty grueling process.” For Keisling, simply practicing his skills in scientific writing was reward enough, but nevertheless, his hard work paid off. He plans on putting his scholarship to good use as he continues in his studies of Physics, along with his concentrations in Environmental and Middle Eastern Studies. “I was almost shocked to see my name on the list of winners,” Keisling adds. “I know many other students who applied who are phenomenal scientists and whom I consider to be much smarter than myself. I feel very lucky and blessed to have been recognized.”

Keisling’s scientific knowledge was also put to the test this past spring break, when he traveled to Norway to study data acquisition on/in the Engabreen glacier (located in the Northern part of the country). “Everything happened in a sort of unreal way,” says Keisling. “It’s not everyday that someone asks you if you want to spend your spring break on a glacier in Norway.” One of Keisling’s research advisors had spent time on the glacier in the past, and thought it would be beneficial for Keisling to do some field work related to what he had been studying in the lab.

On site, in the Svartisen Subglacial Laboratory, located in a hydropower access tunnel drilled directly beneath the glacier, Keisling aided a team of two researchers from Penn State and four Norwegian PhD students in installing seismometers inside the tunnel to measure the seismic activity of the glacier. Inside the tunnel, there was no natural light, and Keisling would often find himself completely absorbed in his work, sometimes working straight through a meal. “But I also came to love the routine in the tunnel,” he notes. “The simple pleasure of a hot meal and a beer after a long day of work, and the opportunity to work with people who are also interested in the same sort of work that I am.” These benefits, of course, continued to the science itself that had drawn Keisling there in the first place. “Being under 600 feet of blue ice is extremely attractive when it come to studying how ice responds to various forces and changes in the environment,” he says. “One day, we had great weather and hiked down to the front of the glacier, where we climbed on and tested a small radar system to determine whether it could detect crevasses. That’s another transferable problem we’re working on.”

Navigating the outside of these glaciers, then, is obviously problematic. Glaciers and ice sheets are covered in creavasses, which are very dangerous to work around.”Running around on the glacier was rewarding but also extremely unsettling,” says Keisling. “Here I am, having never even seen a glacier in real life before nor used a climbing harness or an ice axe, putting on crampons and being asked to literally run up what looks to me like a wall of ice. Each step was unsettling, and I can still feel my legs shaking when I think about that moment when I would put all of my weight on one leg, which held onto the slick ice via little metal teeth, and take another step up the steep incline.”

If all this makes it seem like Keisling is especially gifted (and we’re not saying it doesn’t!), it is also important to note that he is extremely well-rounded. On campus he is a member of the St. Olaf Cantorei, which any Ole knows is no small commitment. He’s also involved in the student organization Reaching Our Goals, which works with the Latino youth population of Northfield, and once ran an unofficial half marathon around the upper track in Skoglund (which he recalls being 74 laps). He loves watching Silence of the Lambs “primarily because I think Jodie Foster is a great actress in an awesome role, but also because I like scary movies,” and says that his favorite part about Olaf is the other Oles. “Though I’m under oath from the Admissions Office to say that the fact that my P.O. is unlocked is my favorite part of this school, the truth is I would be completely swamped, unmotivated and unsuccessful if it were not for the network of students here,” says Keisling. And indeed, it is not uncommon to see him spending an evening at the Cage, eating ice cream with his friends after scrambling to get his work done in time. “Priorities, right?” he laughs.

It’s quite obvious, then, that Keisling’s passion for living permeates all aspects of his being, from the social to the scientific. As he continues on in academia, pursuing graduate school in Earth Science and probably some sort of PhD program, he refuses to lose sight of what drives him. “I’ve developed a penchant for seeking out beauty in the natural world,” he says. “So much of the work geoscientists do gravitates around distilling these unintelligibly magnificent physical phenomena. The earth we live in is very much alive, and I am drawn to understanding life more fully. We are trying to take the pulse of our planet, to understand whether we are driving it irreversibly towards social and ecological collapse, but we are only just beginning to find it.”

Of course, Keisling refuses to get ahead of himself, adding with his usual humor, “I still have to graduate though, and I still need one writing credit, as well as an ethical studies seminar. I’m in no place to be talking about my next degree!”

We disagree, Ben. You’re off to great things!