Alaskans rightly call their vast and gorgeous land "the last frontier." Scientists use that slogan, too. This summer, on a trip to the northernmost state, I saw these two notions intersect in the work of some researchers who combine the rugged self-reliance that is their home state's pride with a decades-long dedication to gathering important data. Their unconventional success might also serve as an example to other researchers, including some who are facing career challenges in the Lower 48.

Since the 1980s, a band of colleagues and collaborators has tracked the population and behavior of marine mammals along Alaska's southern coast. Focusing mainly on killer whales, they have deciphered the gregarious animals' biological relationships and social organization. Of particular interest in this summer of ecological disaster is data they collected documenting the severe and continuing harm to marine mammal populations that resulted from the previous largest such calamity, the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Even more interesting to those not knowledgeable about Orcinus orca may be the fact that group members have accomplished this without academic affiliations -- and in some cases, without advanced degrees. In the Alaskan tradition of heading north and figuring out how to live in a breathtaking but inhospitable land, they devised a structure that has -- albeit sometimes precariously -- sheltered their work for almost 30 years. In the right circumstances, their model might serve others who want to do serious research but lack traditional academic connections. It takes luck, perseverance, a high tolerance for uncertainty, and a real dedication to the science. But it has worked before, for them, and it just might work again.

Getting started

The North Gulf Oceanic Society (NGOS) is "a federally recognized nonprofit research and education organization that specializes in long-term marine mammal research. ... Members are scientists and educators currently active in the field of marine research," reads the society's Web site. Now headquartered in the town of Homer, NGOS was founded in 1982 mainly by "a bunch of grad students" at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the group's director, Craig Matkin, tells Science Careers in an interview.

Craig Matkin (Courtesy, North Gulf Oceanographic Society)

"We weren't quite ready just to go and take regular jobs," he recalls. He and Dena Matkin, then his wife, had come from California to Alaska after college to pursue their mutual fascination with the wild. "At the time [we] started [NGOS], there wasn't really much cetacean work going on in Alaska. ... It was all done out of Seattle," Craig says. "I wanted to stay up here" and work with whales. A cluster of people interested in doing field studies, some on birds, some on marine mammals, "wanted to work with the university, but they wanted 50% overhead on any money that we generated. ... We'd write proposals, ... and then they wanted to take half of it. We weren't even using university resources for the projects we were writing up. They were field projects. We didn't need university infrastructure."

It's difficult for unaffiliated individuals to win funding, so "we decided if we can't really work with the university, ... we'll just start a nonprofit," he continues. They picked a name that expressed their location and range of interests and filed the paperwork. "So that's how it started. There were a number of us who did this and used it as an umbrella."

The whale work involves seeking out the captivating creatures in boats as they -- the creatures -- travel hundreds of miles through icy bays and inlets. Microphones record their underwater sounds. Tiny darts procure tissue samples for DNA analysis. Cameras take pictures that permit identifying and naming hundreds of individual whales. Dena, who does not have a graduate degree, has worked under the NGOS umbrella since joining the research effort in the 1980s.

Dena Matkin (Courtesy, North Gulf Oceanographic Society)

The Matkins, now divorced, live some 500 air miles apart. (The 400-person settlement of Gustavus, Dena's home, abuts Glacier Bay National Park and cannot be reached by road.) They remain colleagues, however, among the group of researchers associated with NGOS. After years of working for the park and initially doing whale research mostly on days off, Dena now works at it full time between April and October, when light, weather, and temperature permit work on the water. She and Craig share a grown daughter and the whales, Dena says -- "literally ... the same individual whales" -- which travel between Glacier Bay, where she works, and Prince William Sound, where he does.

Tracking the havoc

But if getting a nonprofit under way was not difficult, keeping it afloat "has been a bit of a struggle," Craig admits. Eventually, the bird people moved in other directions and NGOS's activities focused on mammals. Over the years, funding has come from a variety of sources, much of Craig's from "the tragedy of the Exxon Valdez oil spill," Dena says. By 24 March 1989, when the tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, there were years of data on the local whale populations. Soon after the accident, members got contemporaneous evidence of which whales came in direct contact with the oil.

"Craig just had to speak for [the whales]," Dena recalls. "He made graphs and charts and gave presentations [saying], 'These whales were killed by oil. ... I have the data.' ... Exxon tried to negate his results, although he had the proof." The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, a public agency financed from the civil settlement, has since funded Craig's work "at various levels" in various years, he says. A variety of other funders have also supported NGOS's work. Since the disaster's effects did not reach Glacier Bay, that region serves as a "normal" comparison, Dena notes.

"There isn't that much security with this kind of deal," Craig says. Researchers generally work as contractors with NGOS, which can administer grants and contracts and accept donations. Even when, as in recent years, Dena's funding comes to her directly rather than through NGOS, she continues to maintain the affiliation because it "helps give credibility," she says. "We all write proposals," Craig continues. "It's really the same as it was from the beginning. It's people just coming up with ideas and finding sources of money for what they want to do."

And because the funding often supports only part-time research, "all of us do other things," Craig says. Even as members contribute papers to journals and scientific meetings, "we all do educational work," including programs in schools, on tour boats, and for adult education and other organizations. In addition, NGOS publishes scientific books, maintains a running catalog of whale identifications, and cooperates with tour-boat companies and the National Park Service's Ocean Alaska Science and Learning Center to maintain theAlaska Whale Sightings Web site. The Web site collects scientifically useful photographs contributed by passengers and crew members on whale-watching and other boats.

Citizen Scientists

Activities that involve a lot of observation are especially amenable to the participation of the public in doing science; the Alaska Whale Sightings Web site is just one example. We described a few others in two recent articles in Science Careers: "Trusting the Public," and "Collaborating with Citizen Scientists."

A model for others?

So is NGOS simply a one-off product of a particular historic moment and what Dena calls "the Alaska way: trying to take control of your destiny"? Or could other bands of independent researchers adapt its model to their needs? Might other combinations of research questions, funding sources, desire, and determination inspire and sustain similar institutions?

"I think it's possible," Craig says, although he acknowledges that today a Ph.D. (which he does not have) would pretty much be essential. And, he warns, "There isn't that much security with this kind of deal. … You have to have a vision of some kind and decide you're willing to stick with that vision even though it might be a little bumpy. ... I really wanted to see cetacean projects done on the coast of Alaska. There are more marine mammals here than any place else in the country, and there was hardly any work being done."

"To me, it was just a matter of doing [the research] and figuring out later how I was going to be able to keep doing it," says Dena. "But once you've got data under your belt, once you've got a database, you've got the ammunition to go for funding. You have to create your own credibility by doing" the research, she continues. "Just showing people that you're doing it. … You've got to have real data." Even without graduate training, she continues, "I've done the work of a Ph.D. I've collected more data than most Ph.D.s. I've been doing this for 22 years now."

"I just like spending time with the animals," Craig offers in partial explanation of his precarious career path. "I'm afraid a lot of it is just that -- a lifestyle choice. … You want to spend a lot of time with the animals and you're willing not to have secure situation."

"You have to believe that you're doing the right thing," Dena adds. "Being able to study killer whales, in my mind, and no matter how difficult it gets, is such a privilege. ... I'll never get rich, … but it's worth it to be able to do something where any day you may see something or learn something that you've never seen or known before. It's the newness of it; it's the discovery that gives the excitement and the pleasure -- to learn and make a contribution to this crazy, messed-up, polluted world."

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.