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Madelyn Boslough with two people at the Inian Islands Institute

Madelyn Boslough, '18

Notes from Magic Beach: Small-town sustainability in southeast Alaska

Sea lions sang me to sleep in the dusky pink afterglow of a midnight sunset in southeast Alaska. Their bellows, echoing across the strait to my tent on Magic Beach, were surprisingly soothing, harmonizing with the gentle crash of tiny waves on gravel and kelp. The beach was aptly named. Each morning, I woke under a low ceiling of fog, obscuring the peaks of the Inian Islands and giving the whole place a mystical air.

Though I was born and raised in Alaska's Wrangell St. Elias National Park, I had never spent time in the Southeast region of the state until I was awarded a Cardinal Quarter through the Alexander Tung Memorial Fellowship to serve with the Inian Islands Institute.

I was captivated by the beauty of the Institute's location on a remote rainforest island off the coast of Gustavus, Alaska, and intrigued by its mission of inspiring youth to care about the environment by using experiential education. The Institute was founded by four Stanford PhD students, including the director, Zachary Brown, a recent PhD graduate in environmental science and fellow Alaskan.

The school intends to model sustainable living, and Zach offered me a position updating the Institute's micro-hydroelectric system, which provided electricity to off-grid property. I was thrilled to take the lead on a project in small-scale renewable energy. I love Alaska with all my heart and have always intended to use my education to serve the environment and communities that shaped and supported me. I majored in electrical engineering to work in renewable energy and influence my state to rely less on oil and use more environmentally friendly technologies.

Over the course of the summer, I researched existing micro-hydroelectric systems in rural Alaska and began to plan a retrofit of the system on the island. I assessed the school's present and future electricity demands, and the potential for incorporating other renewable energy sources like wind and tidal.

I was grateful for training in Stanford's Principles of Ethical and Effective Service, especially preparation and humility. Preparation guided me through the tasks and challenges I expected; humility allowed me to navigate the inevitable unexpected tasks and challenges for which I had not prepared.

For example, on my first trip to the island where the Institute is based, I discovered that I would be closely working with a seasoned fisherman named Greg. Greg was a brilliant engineer without a college degree, who imagined, designed, and installed the micro-hydroelectric system on the island in the 1980s, long before terms like "renewables" and "microgrids" were heard in Alaska. He had done all this by corresponding with a Canadian hydroelectric manufacturer via handwritten letter, and with the help of a few good friends for the system's actual construction.

Then, nearly 40 years of dependable renewable electricity later, I showed up to "fix" his ingenious but aging design. It took weeks for Greg to stop responding to my questions with a terse, "You're the electrical engineer; you tell me." Only by persistent, respectful questioning and listening was I able to earn his willingness to help me.

Living in Gustavus was a profound civic awakening. An isolated town of only 400 people, Gustavus is an intimate place where everyone knows everyone, and every person plays a visible role in the social fabric. Just by arriving, I took on a role as well. My actions could affect everyone in town, and realizing this, everything I did took on a greater importance. I had a responsibility to the community of Gustavus, and by the end of the summer, I had made an impact. I left knowing that my actions make a difference and that I can be of real service to the Alaskan communities I love.

Working on small-scale renewable energy was a microcosm for the greater issues of climate change and planetary sustainability—a window into a wicked problem. Working with Zach, Greg, various handymen and community volunteers, and the Institute's board of directors pushed me to understand how to work with a team with diverse expertise to tackle difficult problems. Through my fellowship I focused on the questions of what I want to do with my life and what kind of impact I hope to have on this world. I learned from Zach that a bias toward action is key—in the face of a terrifying, massive problem like climate change, the only thing to do is to choose somewhere to start, and do something. 

Madelyn Boslough, ’18 (Electrical Engineering), was one of 486 students who completed a Cardinal Quarter in 2017.
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