Student in the 90’s: Career-changing studies

With only 35 fellow students at the entire university centre, Katrine Borgå attended the first biology course at UNIS in 1994-95. She tells of a camaraderie that’s still strong after nearly three decades, and an introduction to a career path that she excels at today.

Students from the first class at UNIS on their way from the student housing in Nybyen to downtown Longyearbyen. Photo: Endre Helland.

Text: Maria Philippa Rossi

– It was my fourth year at university, like many of my fellow students. We had almost completed a bachelor’s degree but were looking for an adventure before starting our masters, Katrine Borgå says.

In the mid-90’s, it was popular to go backpacking in Asia, but Borgå says she wanted to go and live somewhere, to work or study, not just drift from place to place.

Going to Svalbard was like a fairytale and offered her the academic adventure she needed before continuing her career.

Katrine Borgå on field work
Katrine Borgå did her PhD on pollution in food webs, and spent a lot of time doing field work in Svalbard. Photo: Private.

Changing community, strong fellowship

– We lived in the upper barracks in Nybyen previously inhabited by the miners. 20 students were sharing a kitchen and three showers. Frozen water pipes were normal, and we were often anxious of polar bears on our daily hike to and from UNIS. A lot has happened since 1994.

She laughs. Today’s students are accommodated in brand new student housing at Elvesletta, with modern facilities, just a short walk from UNIS.

– This was before internet as we know it, there were no digital cameras or cellphones, just one fixed line to share in the corridor. It was only a couple of flights a week. It made us a lot more isolated than what Longyearbyen is today. Nevertheless, it made the fellowship in the student group very strong. We were united because we were few and the only ones in our age group.

Her experience from Oslo was that people from different groups went to different places, different bars, different activities. In Longyearbyen, everyone was thrown together in a jolly student mix. She remembers her first trip back to Oslo during the Christmas holiday, and says it was a shock to see people at her age that she didn’t know.

Passionate professors for decades

Today, UNIS prides themselves with small classes and passionate lecturers, and Borgå says it was the same in the 90’s.

– The course coordinators were very dedicated and motivating. The teachers were very committed and brought us students on an exciting journey. Guest lecturers were brought in, which meant we always had people talking about the latest from the field, which they were very passionate about.

Borgå had not yet decided whether to continue with terrestrial or marine biology. At UNIS she found a passion for seabirds, that are a good mix of both worlds.

– During the year at UNIS, I contacted our lecturer who was working for the Norwegian Polar Institute with seabirds inquiring for a master project. I ended up doing both master and PhD in Tromsø at the Norwegian Polar Institute with pollution in food webs, and it turned out to be my career path.

Longyearbyen in the 90s.
A lot have changed in Longyearbyen since the early 90’s, but many of the cars still roam the streets. Photo: Tor Brekke.

Encourages students to study in Svalbard

Today, she works as a professor in ecotoxicology at the Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo, where she leads a large research group. She is interested in understanding the ecosystem’s response to contaminant exposure. Once a year she returns to UNIS for a lecture series in Arctic Environmental Toxicology. She tries to teach with the same passion and motivation she experienced when she was a student.

She admits she’s encouraging her students to take a semester in Svalbard, and hope they can experience some of the magic she did.

– It was an eye opener and an opportunity to meet different types of people and learn about the polar environment. It was incredible educational, and many of us keep in touch 25 years later. I was taken by the vivid changes in nature, how the light disappeared in the autumn. You could see changes from week to week, even day to day. The tremendous seasonal changes were impressive.

Borgå says that it was very nice to be in Svalbard in 1994-95. But, she says Svalbard felt more distant and remote, than what it does today.

– But that’s OK, she smiles.

– It makes it easier to visit today.

Arctic Biology Student life