Published: March 6, 2024 By

The George R. Aiken Graduate Fellowship supports CU Boulder graduate students conducting water-related research. Millie Spencer, a PhD student in Geography, is part of a team of Mapuche, Chilean, and U.S. scientists that has received consent from several Mapuche-Pehuenche communities outside Temuco, Chile, to share scientific perspectives and community knowledge about glaciers and water supply. Her fellowship has provided funds for travel and lodging while conducting her work in Chile.

The George R. Aiken Fellowship has been an enormous help to my first graduate field season. The fellowship paid for my travel to the city of Concepción, which is my home base here in Chile. I am collaborating with Dr. Enrique Muñoz, a professor of Hydrology and Civil Engineering at the Universidad Católica de la Santísima Concepción, to map the glaciers on Nevados de Chillán. We want to determine how much glacier melt contributes to regional water availability, and what will happen when these glaciers disappear. Our project puts social and physical perspectives into conversation, treating human knowledge and experiences of glacier retreat as equally scientific and important as our drone measurements of the glaciers.

While I firmly back the importance of this interdisciplinary work, it can be extremely cost- and time-intensive. As a result, having a reliable and flexible funding source for the unexpected costs that can come up in the field has been essential. On just my second day in Chile, a professor mentioned that she was travelling to Temuco, Chile, to participate in a four day summer school program with Mapuche Indigenous youth and elders. Given my project’s focus on Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the disproportionate impact of water insecurity on Indigenous populations, I was honored to be invited to participate. The Aiken Fellowship made it possible for me to say yes without hesitating and make the long trip to the towns of Nueva Imperial and Pitrufquén. The most powerful experience for me at the summer school was the opportunity to participate in Trawün, which are Mapuche community meetings led by elders. At the Trawün, I was able to listen to concerns and perspectives shared by community leaders. Poignantly, one theme that was consistently underscored by most elders was water, and concerns regarding access to water of sufficient quantity and quality. This experience validated my interest in documenting Mapuche experiences of water (in)security and made me excited to learn more when we begin our research interviews next month.

More recently, the Aiken Fellowship enabled me to make the journey to Nevados de Chillán for my preliminary field visit to the glaciers I will be mapping with Dr. Muñoz. The journey required five buses and over 21 miles of hiking on steep volcanic sands, with a heavy backpack full of my camping gear and drone. Despite the fatigue of the journey, I was elated to finally see the glaciers in person. I was able to identify several undocumented debris-covered glaciers and a vent where glacier melt emerges from shallow groundwater reserves. These changed our understanding of the volcano’s water balance and are helping to hone our scientific questioning.

In summary, the Aiken Fellowship has provided essential support for the early stages of my field work. I am happy to know it is there to help navigate whatever unexpected turn comes next!

See also

Spencer on the summit of Cerro El Plomo (17,795') in Central Chile.

Spencer on the summit of Cerro El Plomo (17,795 feet) in Central Chile.

The community of Nueva Imperial gathers before the welcome ceremony to the Indigenous Summer School.

The community of Nueva Imperial gathers before the welcome ceremony to the Indigenous Summer School.