Helga Edwald arrived at Allegheny College in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in English. But when the native of Iceland graduated in 1983, she accepted her degree in environmental science.
“I took one course with Sam Harrison and that was it. He really influenced my life. I changed my major to environmental science,” Edwald told an Introduction to Environmental Science class at Allegheny while she was visiting campus during the fall semester. She was referring to Professor Sam Harrison (pictured below with Edwald), a 1963 Allegheny graduate who taught at the College from 1970 to 1989.
“In retrospect, Helga's decision in 1981 to complete an aquatic environments major at Allegheny added a bright, new dimension to the College's then barely decade-old interdisciplinary environmental science program,” Harrison said.
“While in this country we were simultaneously scrambling to obtain sufficient fossil fuel supplies and to evaluate the environmental impacts of its usage, here comes a very conversant curious student whose life had been spent in a country where renewable energy sources were an absolute necessity and the norm. Helga's outgoing personality, curiosity and quick wit made the learning process a two-way street between her and her classmates.”
Edwald’s Allegheny experience has led to a passion for environmental activism in her native land, a geothermal outpost about the size of the state of Ohio. Iceland is located along the North Atlantic Ridge, southeast of Greenland, and has a population of about 330,000 hearty souls. Its capital is Reykjavik, pictured below.
The tourism industry is one of the fastest growing industries in Iceland, so protecting Iceland’s natural resources is of the utmost importance, said Edwald, who is the College’s only Icelandic alumna.
The country also gets more than 70 percent of its energy from renewable resources, including geothermal and hydroelectric power, so conservation and preservation of those resources is very important, she said.
“Renewable energy has become an important field of study in Iceland,” Edwald said. “It’s become a nation of environmental awareness. Residents turn out at protests and are involved in activism because we believe that we have an obligation to preserve our natural resources, and we should use them so that future generations will be able to use them as well.”
More than 1 million tourists visit Iceland every year, and most of them are interested in seeing the pristine vistas outside Reykjavik. There are stunning glaciers, volcanic edifices and hot springs to lure visitors. In fact, in May 2015, a group of Allegheny faculty and staff visited Iceland for 12 days. One of the group’s first stops after being greeted at the hotel by Edwald was an environmental rally, pictured below, outside the Icelandic Parliament in the capital.
“The protest was about a proposal made by the Parliament’s Industrial Affairs Committee to transfer four additional power plant options from the on-hold category to the energy-utilization category of the Master Plan for Nature Protection and Energy Utilization,” Edwald said. The master plan is a tool to reconcile the often competing interests of nature conservation and energy utilization on a national scale and at the earliest planning stages.
Because of her enthusiasm regarding the sustainable use of natural resources, both in terms of harnessing hydroelectric and geothermal power in a sustainable way and in preserving the natural environment for recreational usage, Edwald has been approached about getting involved in politics in her homeland. “I haven’t taken the plunge,” she said. “If you go into politics you have to join one political party. I am worried about the way political parties seem to mold their members. There’s too much containment; I am not sure if I could adhere to a party’s agenda if required to compromise on important environmental issues for the party’s best interests.”
Edwald’s interest in the environment has led to a multi-faceted career in medicine and as a medical translator since she speaks four Nordic languages and English fluently.
“I’ve been interested in the impact humans have on the environment, so for me, it’s been a natural career choice to study the environment’s impact on humans. It’s like two branches of the same tree,” she said.
After graduating from Allegheny, Edwald returned to Iceland and acquired teacher’s credentials at the University of Iceland. She taught at the Iceland University of Education, crafting her own course, “Developing Curriculum on Environmental Issues for the Elementary School.” She also conducted courses for rangers in national parks and nature reserves on how to educate the public in national parks and nature reserves.
Edwald then decided to pursue a medical degree at the University of Iceland and eventually became a practicing physician. Taking time to raise her two children, Viktoria and Atli Thor (pictured above), she switched her career to medical translation because she could do most of the work from home. That work, she explained, consists of “translating research and information for new medical products to be registered in the European Union, Norway and Iceland.”
Edwald continues to stay engaged with the College and members of the faculty. She has had some initial discussions with College representatives about exploring the possibility of setting up a study away program in Iceland. “There’s nothing official,” she said. “In Iceland we have the Sólheimar Eco-village, which is renowned for its ecological, artistic and international community ethics. It could be an excellent learning experience for students to do an internship there.”
Edwald credits her Allegheny experience with the success she has enjoyed later in life, both professionally and personally.
Besides developing an interest in environmental science, what is Edwald’s most vivid memory of her time on campus?
“I was used to very warm houses at home because of the geothermal heating of homes in Iceland,” she said. “When I got to Allegheny, I thought it was so cold in the rooms. It was so cold, in fact, that I had to wear my winter coat indoors, so finally I broke the seal on the (thermostat) in my room to turn up the heat. For some reason, all my friends really liked to study in my room!”
An Icelandic Alumna’s
Medicine and Environmental Activism
“… [Iceland] has become a nation of environmental awareness. Residents turn out at protests and are involved in activism because we believe that we have an obligation to preserve our natural resources.”
“I’ve been interested in the impact humans have on the environment, so for me, [medicine] has been a natural career choice to study the environment’s impact on humans. It’s like two branches of the same tree."