For University of Maine paleoecologist Dr. Jacquelyn Gill, Acadia National Park has always been as much a research destination as a respite. The native Vermonter first fell in love with Acadia on a field trip with her eighth-grade earth science class. Years later, when she enrolled as an undergraduate at Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic, the park became both her classroom and laboratory.
“It was remarkable to be right next to Acadia,” remembers the 38-year-old assistant professor, “particularly to have access to that off-season experience, where it’s just you and the park and everything is so quiet. It’s great to see a different kind of beauty that most folks never get to experience.”
An $800,000, five-year award from the National Science Foundation to fund a research project titled, “Environmental Change and Extinction on the Mammoth Steppe.”
Gill’s research focuses on ecological change and disturbance, particularly on events that haved reshaped landscapes and ecological relationships over geologic time. “One of the things that draws me to study the past is the fact that we can use these analogues to understand where we’re headed,” she explained on a recent episode of Warm Regards, the popular climate-change podcast she has co-hosted since 2016. “We don’t have to be groping in a room with the lights off.”
This summer, Gill traveled to Siberia to help film a Discovery/BBC-produced documentary about ice-age fossils discovered in the permafrost. While in the field, she developed blood clots in both legs that sent her to a Siberian hospital for two weeks — a harrowing ordeal capping off an extraordinary research expedition.
Not every eye-opening field excursion is so fraught or far flung. One of Gill’s most pivotal experiences as a young scientist occurred in college, during a hike up Acadia’s Gorham Mountain, when a professor pointed out what looked to be a sea cave a few hundred feet up. Gill was struck by the realization that the spot had once been at sea level, but the crust of the earth had risen back up like an unsqueezed sponge following a glacier’s retreat. Today, she relishes sharing such stories with park visitors through a program called iSWOOP — Interpreters and Scientists Working on Our Parks.
“Most people don’t think of a park as a laboratory, but tons of research happens there,” Gill says. “So it’s just a great opportunity to show people not only how the park works and how the natural systems operate, but also that Acadia is an active place — it’s not just some sort of preserved snapshot.”