The John Alexander Project
Meet Our 2015 Fellow: Rebecca Hersher
Rebecca Hersher Rebecca Hersher started her career in neurobiology before switching to radio. And right away, she proved to be fearless. She trekked nine hours into the Liberian jungle in pursuit of a rumored Ebola case; she embedded with troops in Afghanistan; she continues to share the unfolding story of a family facing Alzheimer’s disease. So when she pitched us a story from the Arctic center of the suicide epidemic, we knew she was up to the task.

She shipped off to Greenland in January 2016 and aired two pieces while abroad: one on All Things Considered on January 25, 2016, and another on Weekend Edition Saturday on March 12, 2016.

Rebecca produced a transporting multimedia piece and aired a two-part series on All Things Considered April 21-22, 2016. Listen: Parts I & II | Reporter's Notebook

And just for good measure, she also aired a follow-up piece about an Inuit actor on All Things Considered on February 4, 2017.

Follow even more of Rebecca's journey below, on Instagram, on NPR's On the Road Tumblr, and on NPR's Embedded podcast. Plus, a link to the full series.

2018 Update: Rebecca is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk.

piece #6: an inuit actor reflects on his role in 2013 oscar-winner “gravity”


embedded podcast: how the story found rebecca


what i learned in the arctic
Tasiilaq Evening in the settlement of Tiniteqilaaq, East Greenland.

By Rebecca Hersher

It’s funny, the things I originally planned to learn during this reporting trip. They were the most vague, grandiose lessons, as if, in a few months, I’d magically master things that have eluded me for decades. I’m going to learn how to motivate myself to write without deadlines. No, no you’re not. I’m going to learn how to be self-sufficient when I’m traveling alone. Nope, not true. I’m going to learn how to not be afraid of people I don’t know. It’s a lie!

So, when the folks who run this fellowship asked me what I learned, I cringed a little inside. I wanted to say I still procrastinate while I worry about how to ask people I’m afraid of for help. I have learned nothing.

But, of course, that’s not true either. I learned a lot of crucial-but-not-very-sexy things. Here are some of them.

Lesson #1: Your local colleagues are everything.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Greenland was hire a fixer (interpreter/translator/local guide). Actually, I hired three. Different dialects, enormous distances -- in each town I went to, I needed a different person to translate for me. Some of the people I hired were more experienced or better-suited to the job than others. One person I worked with did not know the English verbs to go or to do, which turned out to be a real problem for interviews about where people went or did. Turns out most interviews are basically about people going places and doing things. Another person was a clear translator, but got very nervous during interviews and began to sweat intensely. Needless-to-say, this was distracting.

It’s all kind of funny, except there is nothing more important than your local colleagues. If your fixer is struggling, then you’re struggling. It took me weeks in Greenland to realize something really basic: translating between Greenlandic and English is extremely difficult. The grammar and vocabulary are really different. Slowly, I realized what a more experienced person would have known right away: I needed to hire different people. By the end of the trip, I was working with people I trusted and, together, we reviewed every interview word by word, to make sure I understood exactly what had happened.

Lesson #2: Whatever it is, eat it.

Fish Arctic char drying outside a home in Tasiilaq

Here’s the thing – some people like to try new foods. And some people are like me – uninspired and vaguely monastic about my eating when I’m at home. I’m talking to you, boring eaters. When you’re traveling, eat what’s put in front of you. Not sure how raw narwhal skin will react with your delicate constitution? Put it there and find out. Revolted by the smell of seal? No better way to move past it than to ingest it. Unsure what a musk ox is? Take a bite and ask your host.

Lesson #3: Write it down.

It sounds dumb, but one of the things I learned was how to take better notes. Which mostly means taking more notes – in notebooks, on my computer and phone, out-loud into my audio recorder or in photos of signs and faces. The key, for me, was finding an equilibrium where I was documenting as many details as I could without turning into a manic note-taking machine who made the people around me uncomfortable. I found that taking shorthand notes throughout the day and then writing every night worked really well, but it took me weeks to figure that out.

Lesson #4: Walk out the door.

I arrived in Nuuk in the evening. It had been 28 hours since I left my home in Baltimore, and I felt like dehydrated putty. Nuuk at night felt like the moon. I found the apartment where I was staying, and fell asleep immediately. The next morning, I woke up at 9:00 AM. It was dark. I made a cup of coffee and sat at the kitchen table, thinking about everything I needed to do. The next day, I was leaving Nuuk for Ittoqqortoormiit, above the Arctic Circle. Before I left the US, I had written a to-do list in my notebook.

Buy SIM card
Change money
Get bus pass
Find taxi to airport

I stared at the list. I was irrationally terrified. At that moment, it felt like if I walked out the door, I might be lost forever. For two hours, I walked around and around the apartment. Into the bedroom, out of the bedroom. Into the kitchen, out of the kitchen. I checked the clock. I looked at my service-less phone. I tried to read a book, but I was too distracted by the to-do list, and the time ticking away. 11:30 AM. Noon. 12:15 PM.

I walked into the hallway and looked at the parka I had bought just for this trip. It was expensive, guaranteed to keep me warm all winter. I put it on. I found my boots. I wrapped a scarf around my face and tucked my keys into my pocket and walked out the door. —RH

piece #5: reporter’s notebook
Rebecca_Nuuk_John_PooleHere's Rebecca reporting from Nuuk, Greenland. Photo Credit: John Poole/NPR.


piece #4: arctic suicides: it’s not the dark that kills you — part two


piece #3: arctic suicides: it’s not the dark that kills you — part one


why does greenland have the highest suicide rate? it’s not what you think.

Rebecca worked with the NPR Global Health and Visuals teams, plus an entire treasure trove of talented NPR co-conspirators, to create a beautiful multimedia web piece. All of 32 photos, two audio stories and a 5,000 word investigative piece. Full credits at the NPR site.


piece #2: dispatches from the arctic winter games


arctic travel zen

By Rebecca Hersher

It’s something we don’t talk about much: the waiting. International reporting has a (somewhat deserved) reputation for being exciting and scary and full of illuminating anecdotes about far-flung places. And sure, all those things are true.

But the sexy parts are the exception. When I’m traveling for a story, I spend most of my time doing two things: worrying about logistics, and waiting. If I’m being generous, the ratio of wow-that-interview-was-so-enlightening to I-am-sitting-in-an-airport-waiting is 1:5.

I actually don’t mind the waiting. It slows everything down, opens up time for writing without being inundated with phone calls or emails. In fact, I’m sitting-in-a-room-waiting right now, writing this.

In the Arctic, the waiting game is particularly intense. The weather is violently unpredictable, the landscape is stunningly inhospitable, the prices are high and the on-time ratings are non-existent. In a strange way, traveling here in Greenland requires both obsessive planning and cool detachment. My phone is always fully charged, full of contacts and backup accommodations. I wear a heavy coat and boots, ready for an unexpected ride on a snow-mobile taxi (as happened yesterday). I carry a paper map. (Google maps will helpfully inform you of nothing beyond the coordinates of most Greenlandic towns. Kulusuk is at 65.5753° N, 37.1833° W. Thanks, Google. Now I know what latitude I’m stuck at.)

So, having packed and repacked and downloaded and charged, I go to the airport, and I try not to play the Arctic Waiting Game. Will the flight come? Will the connecting flight be canceled? Where, exactly, will I be stranded tonight? These are the questions of the Game, and once you let your mind starting wondering about them, you’re screwed.

The one-room airport or industrial-smelling bunkhouse or severe hotel room will start to feel claustrophobic. The inevitably stunning view of a frozen fjord or snowy mountain range will fail to calm your mind. You will be unable to focus, unable to write or read. This is how you lose the Arctic Waiting Game. I know, because I’ve lost before. A whole afternoon in Tasiilaq, gone. Hours and hours devoured by neuroses and worrying.

But there’s a way to win! It’s called Arctic Travel Zen. It’s a variant of the calm, get-a-sandwich-and-answer-emails approach to handling domestic travel delays. Except there’s no food or internet access.

Arctic Travel Zen begins by assuming that you will not leave wherever it is you are. No, the flight will not come.

Next, go outside. Wherever you are, however bad the wind and snow are, take that heavy coat and go out into the Arctic air. It will probably be stunningly beautiful. If someone had told me I’d get to see some of the places I’ve been stranded, I’d have swooned.

Lastly, talk to people. Part of what making the waiting game so difficult is feeling alone. So talk to people. Here in East Greenland, I don’t speak the language x2, because the first language for local folks is Greenlandic, and the second is Danish. I speak neither. And yet, I had a delightfully broken conversation with my snowmobile-taxi driver about how hard the snow is (“Like concrete”) and his sealskin seat-cover (“Fur is very soft. Seal is very big.”) When I ran into him again, we smiled and said hello, and I felt a little less lonely. —RH


to ittoqqortoormiit we go

By Rebecca Hersher

Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland sits about 400 miles above the Arctic Circle, at the edge of the largest fjord in the world. The ocean around the town (population 398) is frozen eight months of the year. To get there, you must fly either from northern Iceland or, as I did, on a zigzagging itinerary across the Greenlandic ice sheet from the capital, Nuuk, north to the former American airfield at Kangerlussuaq, and then east to Kulusuk airport and north again to Nerlerit Inaat.

There, unless you have $500 lying around or happen to be related to an intrepid resident of Ittoqqortoormiit who is willing to pick you up by snowmobile, you’ll spend the night in a bunk house called (of course) The Hilton. I give it five stars, if only because I could see the northern lights out my window.

The final leg of the journey is by helicopter. It’s a fifteen minute ride through the fjord to Ittoqqortoormiit, with snowy mountains in three directions and ocean pack ice to the horizon. IMAX movies about the Arctic are trying to copy the experience of this helicopter ride. It’s dizzying and electric and quite scary.

I was in Ittoqqortoormiit for one week. At the end of that week, the sun rose for the first time since before Thanksgiving. It was, predictably, gorgeous.

But life in Ittoqqortoormiit is also harsh. It’s a town that is still dependent on hunting to bridge the gap between income and food prices. And hunting is dangerous. Hunters have been known to set off by dogsled or boat and never be seen again. More often, people lose fingers to accidents or to the cold. The animals they’re hunting are dangerous. Polar bears are, obviously, aggressive, but walrus are also potentially lethal when they’re in the water and can move quickly. Those tusks.

For those who don’t hunt, there are other risks that come with living in such an isolated place. Pregnant women leave town a month before the due date, to give birth in a larger hospital. Most women return just a few days after the birth, bundling up the newborn for its first snowmobile ride home. There are very few resources in town for acute medical problems. Last year, a man with heart disease died waiting for an emergency evacuation. It wasn’t the first time.

So, the isolation that makes Ittoqqortoormiit so beautiful, also makes it difficult. This is a place where people routinely come face to face with death.

Which brings me to my other reason for visiting this remote part of Greenland. East Greenland has an alarmingly high suicide rate. Last year in this town of about 400 people, two people killed themselves. To put that in perspective, it would be like if 3000 people had killed themselves last year in Baltimore, where I live. (Instead, the number is about 50).

How to prevent suicide — and how to talk about it as a society — are things people in Greenland are thinking about a lot. That’s what I’ll be talking to people about in the coming weeks. —RH


piece #1: sunrise in the arctic circle


because, it because (or, why i'm not going to siberia)

By Rebecca Hersher

When this journey began, I intended to report from the Russian region of Chukotka.

I’d like to think I wasn’t naïve, but I most certainly was. I’d heard getting into the Russian region of Chukotka was complicated. I imagined that meant some extra paperwork, maybe some tactful appeals to mid-level bureaucrats and a handful of Official Letters on Official Letterhead with Official Signatures.

I hired a fixer right away, a hard-charging Crimean woman named Zhenya, who had a no-nonsense approach to Russian bureaucracy, perhaps because she and everyone else in her region became Russian citizens overnight. She assured me that, although my request was a difficult one, she felt confident we could get the necessary permits. A local fixer echoed her optimism. You SHOULD get accreditation to work in Russia he wrote.

I could fill pages and pages with the logistics of the six weeks that followed. In fact, I have. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that, three weeks in, Zhenya began an email this way: I understand that I understand nothing.

I am still applying for an entry permit. A scientist I spoke to, who travels to Chukotka every summer, said she expected her team’s permit application to take at least six months this time around. These days — with Cold War-era military bases reopening in the Arctic and fear of western criticism heightened — the bureaucratic labyrinth is more tangled than ever.

I’ll leave you with an exchange that, in retrospect, sums up the kindness, the pride, and the inscrutability of Chukotka from afar.

It comes from a man named Nicolay, a local Yupik hunter and friend of some former Red Cross folks in the region. I had written Nicolay with a long list of questions and ended with a plea for his expertise and help with my permit. His response was brief, and I share it in its entirety.

Hi, Rebecca.
We live in a rule: your friend is a my friend. If my friend Edward recommend I do that.
Because, it because.
Best regards,

So, I’m not going to Chukotka this winter. Because, it because. But I will be reporting on the problem of suicide and depression in the Arctic. I’ll be in Ittoqqortoormiit and Nuuk, Greenland. No visa required. —RH



Durrie Bouscaren is selected as our 2017 Above the Fray fellow.
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Stephanie Joyce airs the first of two stories on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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Stephanie Joyce airs a piece on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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Stephanie Joyce is selected as our 2016 Above the Fray fellow. Read the release.

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NPR's "Embedded" podcast features our own Rebecca Hersher!
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Rebecca Hersher airs part two of her series on NPR's "All Things Considered."
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Rebecca Hersher airs part one of her two-part series on NPR's "All Things Considered."
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Rebecca Hersher's special report is live on the web!
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Rebecca Hersher airs a piece on NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday."
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Rebecca Hersher airs a snapshot from Greenland on NPR's "All Things Considered."
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Rebecca Hersher is selected as our 2015 Above the Fray fellow.
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Emma Jacob's second piece airs on NPR's "All Things Considered." Listen here.

Emma Jacob's first piece airs on NPR's "Morning Edition." Listen here.

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Emma Jacobs airs a piece on NPR's "All Things Considered." Listen here.

Emma Jacobs is selected as the 2014 Above the Fray fellow.
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Andrés Caballero's second piece airs on NPR's "Weekend Edition." Listen here.

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Andrés Caballero is selected as the 2013 Above the Fray fellow. Read the release.

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Matt Kielty's second piece airs on NPR's "Weekend Edition."
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Nina Porzucki's second piece airs on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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Nina Porzucki is selected as the 2011 Above the Fray fellow. Read the release.

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Brian Reed's second piece airs on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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