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Exploring Ecosystems Takes Reynolds Into Alaska’s Depths

While taking classes toward an animal sciences degree at Cornell University, Madi McConnell Reynolds ’07 discovered that her dream of becoming a veterinarian might branch into the wild.

She was learning about domestic animals but also enjoyed courses on wildlife, fisheries, management, and natural resources. These interests led her to become a research diver for the state of Alaska.

“I still graduated with my degree in animal sciences, but then I went to work for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,” Reynolds said. “They needed a field crew in the Arctic, and I really wanted to work in Alaska. They told me that if I did a season in subarctic Canada the following year, they would send me to Alaska.”

After graduating from Cornell, Reynolds spent five years conducting ecological research for private nonprofits throughout the Western Hemisphere from Arctic Alaska and Canada to Antarctica.

In 2016, she began a teaching and research assistantship with the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), partnering with Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to conduct research in predator-prey dynamics, tracking populations in Alaska’s Brooks Range.

After earning a master’s degree from UAF, Reynolds moved to her husband’s hometown of Ketchikan, AK, where she combined her passion for ecological research with her lifelong love of water.

As a research diver for the state of Alaska, she traveled the length of Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago, conducting underwater research on commercially valuable species.

Whether working in marine, wildlife, or aquatic sciences, her motivation is the same.

“What I love the most is getting to spend a lot of time outside and exploring cool ecosystems,” Reynolds said. “Every day that you have to do field work, it can bring new challenges, but you’re also going to learn a lot of new things every day, in every different ecosystem.

“When you immerse yourself in one of these marine ecosystems, you start to think that science fiction isn’t even creative enough to come up with some of these things that actually exist.”

The presence of potentially dangerous situations is part of both the allure and the difficulty of working in extreme environments.

“Every field site has its challenges, from polar bears and brown bears visiting camp, to shifting sea ice and wild storms in the polar regions, or navigating underwater currents with zero visibility.” Reynolds said. “The most constant danger is, of course, cold.”

Water temperatures range from the 30s to the high 50s Fahrenheit, with dives typically going down 40 to 80 feet. Safety is a constant discussion, as complacency and a false sense of security could be the biggest threat.

“In these situations, it is hard to find more passionate and motivated coworkers,” Reynolds said. “We truly work as a team, knowing we depend on each other, not just to get the job done, but to stay safe. The relationships you build when you rely on each other this heavily often makes coworkers feel more like family.”

Close-Knit Community

Reynolds recently relocated with her family, returning to her roots in western Pennsylvania, where she works as an environmental scientist for an engineering firm. She was happy to be near her family as she and her husband welcomed a son born in December.

Reynolds said the adaptability she learned from being away from home and becoming independent at age 14 was foundational for her career. She is forever grateful for the mentorship she received from Mercersburg coaches and teachers.

“I loved coach Betsy (Cunningham P ’22, ’24). I ran for her in cross country and track for four years, and was coached by Pete Williams (P ’92, ’95) in the pool for four years,” Reynolds said.

She remembers learning about hawk banding in class with Jim Malone P ’01, ’03.

“Once I got to Alaska, I ended up running some banding stations,” Reynolds said. “I did my master’s on birds of prey. My first exposure to anything like that was Mr. Malone’s hawk banding class, and I loved it.”

Malone still introduces students to hawk banding, although the activity is not part of an academic course.

“It has been a really long time since I’ve gotten back to campus,” Reynolds said. “Now that I’m back in Pennsylvania, and once things settle down after all the craziness of the new baby, I hope I can get back out there.”

Diving Gear Savvy: Wet suit or Dry suit?

“I pretty much only ever dive in a dry suit. A wet suit holds water in to keep you insulated with water. A dry suit holds air to keep you insulated with air. It’s like wearing a giant sleeping bag. Sometimes I put foot warmers inside of my dry suit to keep my feet warm, too. The hardest thing to keep warm is definitely hands. There are dry gloves, but it’s really hard to do our work wearing dry gloves, especially because we have to handle things like urchins, and it’s really easy to pop holes in dry gloves. Then you can get leakage into your whole suit and ruin your day. How we get around that is to wear dive mitts. They separate your thumb and pointer finger, and then they keep the other three fingers together. People get pretty creative out there when they’re cold.”

Madi McConnell Reynolds ’07

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