Recently, I came across a photo of a severely emaciated polar bear on Instagram taken by Cristina Mittermeier; Paul Nicklen also posted a video of the bear. Mittermeier and Nicklen are cofounders of SeaLegacy, and work towards building awareness of environmental issues. They “believe that producing powerful media and art that gives people hope is imperative (, para. 1). SeaLegacy employs visual media experts who are “veteran virtuosos in the art of visual storytelling … Our strategy instills hope in humanity and stimulates the global community to protect our seas. For us, hope is not just a nice word; hope is empowerment, hope is a solution, hope is a game changer” (, para. 1).

I was fascinated by how quickly the image went viral, and how many people automatically connected the polar bear to climate change. Certain images have a direct impact on how people view and/or understand certain environmental issues. A study was conducted asking participants to record their thoughts/feelings about global warming. It was revealed that participants’ responses mirrored images dominated in the British press, such as those of flooded landscapes, melting ice caps, and polar bears on ice floes (Smith and Joffe, 2009). Polar bears have indeed become iconic symbols to represent the effects of climate change. So much so in fact that an advertising group, Grey London, proposed to the World Wildlife Federation to change its infamous logo from the panda bear to the face of a polar bear because “the polar bear, [is] an animal synonymous with climate change, and the inclusion (or lack) of its habitat reflects this very modern and very pressing threat better” (Richards, 2016, para. 4). Some may argue that the images of polar bears have become “periodic propaganda shots” for climate change, and this may partly be true. But at the same time, the repeated use of such images draws upon people’s emotions (rhetorical notion of pathos), have a longer effect, and can help people better understand larger abstract ideas, such as the effects of climate change.

What this particular image draws attention to is: 1. polar bears (whether shown as struggling, dying or not) do still have strong connections to issues of climate change and 2. there still requires some level of criticality. The Instagram posts where I viewed the image/video of the emaciated polar bear clearly state/imply scientists do not know the actual cause for this bear’s deteriorating health. Some people just assume the polar bear is dying because of climate change, and maybe it is the truth. But there are a number of reasons this polar bear could have been dying – wounds that did not heal causing the bear to not be able to hunt/eat, a disease of some sorts, etc. Whether people reacted positively or negatively to the image of the polar bear, what the image did do is re-ignite a conversation about climate change. I am one who believes in motivating people with a sense of hope to enact change. But I do also believe that on occasion, images that are difficult to view are necessary. They provide a jarring reminder of what might occur if we remain complacent.

I reached out to SeaLegacy with the hopes of seeking permission to use the photo in my dissertation. To my very pleasant surprise that very same day, Mr. Nicklen emailed me directly and asked that I call to speak to him in person. I was unsure of what to expect, but it turned out to be an inspiring conversation. Surprisingly, Mr. Nicklen asked for my opinion on the image of the polar bear, and our conversation revolved around how the use of visuals (or what kinds of visuals) can motivate people to act in more sustainable ways. I have always admired Mr. Nicklen for his photography and for his commitment to environmental issues (and yes,  I was completely fan-girling about having the opportunity to speak to him). And so, while it was a very short 15-minute phone conversation, hearing Mr. Nicklen’s perspective about the rhetorical power of the image was re-assuring, almost comforting in a way knowing that my doctoral research is relevant and perhaps can even make a difference.

(Oh, and yes, Mr. Nicklen did personally provide permission for me to use the photo of the polar bear in my dissertation. I also mentioned to him that I reference his TEDTalk in my thesis, and he was so kind and granted permission to use photos from his talk of leopard seals as well. So all in all, that was an awesome day! 🙂 )

Smith, N. W., & Joffe, H. (2009). Climate change in the British press: The role of the visual. Journal of Risk Research, 12(5), 647-663.

Having started the 5th year of my doctoral program, I have been fully propelled into dissertation writing and editing. I am fortunate to have wonderful supervisors who provide support and guidance, and friends who keep me sane and listen to my endless rants.

At the same time, it’s also one of those aspects of the PhD that no one really talks about (something I wrote about previously, re-posted below). You do not realize a lot of the “stuff” until you are actually living in the moment. Such as — every supervisory committee runs differently, do not copy-edit your thesis until after the committee has at least read the first draft (in my experience anyway), and you do not actually know shit. You think you do, especially while writing the analysis and discussion. You feel like you’re on top of the world, that you’ve discovered something super cool, and you’re advisors will think it’s awesome. But no. They will pick it apart, shred it to pieces (in a nice, professional way … some times …), and make you wonder — what on Earth just happened and/or how am I supposed to do this and/or whyyyyyyy. But. Having been in the program for the 5th year, this feels like merely a sting. In the first few years, it feels like a punch in the face. No. A punch in the face, followed by an upper-cut, and knee-in-the gut. But, you get used to it. I’ve come to realize everything we experience as students will only make us stronger academics.

There are indeed very many phases of writing/editing the thesis, something I tweeted about recently when I hit writer’s block. But I can reassure those who are just starting the program, or those who might feel frustrated at any points of the program (comprehensive exams, proposal writing, data collection/analysis, etc.) that the light does get brighter at the end of the tunnel, and to make sure you celebrate all the victories, no matter how small it might feel.

Originally posted June 18 2015 titled A Lack of Disclaimers

When you enter graduate school, and especially a PhD program, no ever tells you about all the pitfalls. Yes, there may be small bits of advice here and there, but what graduate school lacks is a full disclaimer. You know, like those American prescription drug commercials where half or more of the commercial lists all the side effects. Besides the obvious of ‘being a lot of work’, ‘negotiations with your advisor’, ‘balancing life’ and ‘lack of funding’ there are other factors that one should seriously consider before entering a doctoral program. Based upon my experiences, here are my 5 disclaimers.

1. Be prepared for death. Okay. Perhaps not imminent death, and I do not wish any ill will on anybody. But apparently, according to numerous studies and reports sitting for long periods of time leads to an earlier death. You may think “But I run everyday” or “I go to the gym” or “I go for walks in the kitchen while snacking on carrots and hummus”. Apparently that’s not good enough. I run and work out every morning, but still the majority of my day is sitting. And if you think about it what the researchers are saying is true. Poor circulation, possible blood clotting, weight gain, poor eye sight, jiggling leg syndrome, eating more than you should (okay, some of these are made up, but you get the idea). So, be prepared for an early death.

2. If death is not in your near future, then poor posture might be. I have always had poor posture, but sitting in front of my laptop for hours on end has crippled my posture even more. To the point when I met someone at a party, that person later told my friend “That Claire’s a lovely person, but her posture is terrible!”. Ouch. Yes, I know I can create a standing desk, but how is that even possible with the scads of papers and books I need by my side. Perhaps I have not thought it through enough to find a solution and perhaps, being realistic, I am just too lazy to figure out a solution. Some may say to me: be more conscious of it or go to Yoga. Being more conscious about it is difficult especially when you are ‘in the zone’. And Yoga may help and also help with point #1, but Yoga is not for me; to be still, to free your mind and ‘not think’ is more stressful for me. For now, I guess Hunchback Graduate Student Ahn it will be.

3. Increase in coffee and alcohol intake. No explanation required.

4. Limited/decreased food choice/intake. For those of us who are single and/or alone (i.e. moved away from family) and not living in a residence making proper meals for yourself is difficult and actually requires a lot of effort. Perhaps I am the only one feeling this way, but I highly doubt it. I have the staple granola bars in my pantry, coffee (of course!), dry pasta, pasta sauce, and crackers. Fridge is filled with various vegetables, chicken, tofu, eggs, fruit and various dressing and condiments. Freezer — ice and frozen pre-packaged meals. That’s it. Yup. Graduate student life. I try to eat balanced and healthy meals everyday, but sometimes it is hard. Sometimes all I have the energy for is carrot sticks and hummus (sometimes I will throw in a few crackers! *Gasp!* I know!). But I miss having the time, energy, money and kitchen space to cook. And, more importantly, being close to Mama Ahn just in case I’m craving a home cooked, fully loaded Korean meal.

5. Even with all the pitfalls, with these disclaimers included, it all evens out in the end. We entered this world for a reason. For those of us pursuing academic life, we are in it forever. And as I am learning to see the glass more full than empty, I do feel all the good outweigh the bad. Receiving a compliment from a professor, encouragement from your advisor, accolades from your department and support (and venting) network from friends can be the greatest motivator and source of inspiration you can receive. So don’t take the positives with a grain of salt. Take it, embrace it, remember it during those valley-moments and perhaps, when the occasion calls, celebrate with a glass of wine (or chocolate or cake or whatever other form of indulgence). 🙂