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Meet Alison Criscitiello: Scientist, Mountaineer, and Mentor to Young Women

Pioneering U of A professor was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in glaciology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

If you are a kid who likes outdoor adventures, you want to be a National Geographic Explorer. It’s your dream job.

But only a few extraordinary, “infinitely curious people who are passionate about our planet and making it a better place” get named Explorers. People like Jane Goodall for her work with Chimpanzees in East Africa. University of Alberta professor Alison Criscitiello also fits the bill.

The renowned scientist certainly leads an exciting life.

In 2015, the glaciologist was skiing with two friends in the remote Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan near the Chinese border when a group of armed men confronted them. The gun-toting men were agitated and wary of a trio of foreign women. 

“They very much did not want to be questioned on exactly where the Tajik-Chinese border really is,” Criscitiello says. “We left the area immediately and skied a different route than planned.”

The experience is another footnote in a life that has seen no shortage of adventure and adrenalin.

As a kid growing up in Boston, Alison’s happy place was exploring the frigid corners of a New England winter with her twin sister Ra.

It’s fitting that Criscitiello spent her 40th birthday a few years ago on Mount Logan on a six-week research project taking ice cores from Canada’s highest mountain. 

“We summitted for fun just to take an altitude reading,” Criscitiello said from her home in Edmonton, where she heads up the University of Alberta’s Ice Core Lab. 

Scientist, mountaineer, and mentor to young women  – this pioneering mountaineer and glacier specialist wears many hats.

Criscitiello’s path to the pinnacle of science and mountain climbing has been a parallel journey. After earning an undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University in her 20s, she trained as a climbing ranger for the US National Parks Service. After two years at Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park, she was ready to move on.

“A lot of people told me that I had a dream job, and in a lot of ways, it was. But I’m also a bookish person, and after a while, I wanted to use my analytical mind,” Criscitiello said.

She hit the books again, studying for a Master’s degree in geophysics from Columbia University. Then came a Ph.D. in glaciology, the first ever earned by a woman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Criscitiello’s scientific curiosity led her to Canada, specifically to do a post-doc with the University of Calgary’s Shawn Marshall.

She moved from Boston to Canmore, knowing nothing about the town and with no intention of staying in Canada long term. But her timing was good; the newly established Canadian Ice Core Lab was well funded, and she could climb and ski in Canmore’s backyard. 

As her scientific career flourished in Canada, so too did an understanding of her own personal circumstances and the advantages it has afforded her.

“I grew up in an upper-middle-class family,”  she says candidly.

This realization led her to volunteer with Girls On Ice, an American non-profit dedicated to giving teenage girls mountaineering experience and opportunities to explore art and science in a wilderness setting. At first, her involvement was minimal, mostly helping to select candidates. When she started seeing more and more applications from Canadian girls, she spotted an opportunity and a need.

So, in 2018, she co-founded Girls On Ice Canada. The program accepts ten candidates each year and is held in Rogers Pass. The Canadian version has been so successful that two new chapters are being launched, Girls On Ice Kootenays and Girls On Ice Yukon.

“I don’t get paid for any of this, but I think it’s the most important work that I do,” Criscitiello says.

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