Vera Alexander dropped out of high school at age 16 to work on an English farm, but her interest in agriculture eventually led to science. She became the first woman to receive a doctorate from the University of Alaska, and afterward she helped guide the institution’s marine research and academic programs for decades.
Alexander was born in Budapest, Hungary, but her family emigrated to England just before World War II. When they moved to the United States after the war, Alexander’s interest in farming led her to the University of Wisconsin. There, an advisor told her “you really need to get your sciences in order to be good at agriculture,” she recalled in a 2013 interview.
She married a fellow student, developed an interest in studying the biology of water and ended up at UA in 1962. She started studying algae in Smith Lake on campus and earned her doctorate in 1965.
At the time she earned the degree, women weren’t allowed on research ships, but that all quickly changed.
After 15 years as a researcher and professor, Alexander became director of UAF’s Institute of Marine Science. When the university formed what is today the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in 1987, she became dean and served until 2004.
Why create a marine science school led from landlocked Fairbanks? “I had this question with the Board of Regents so many times,” she said in the 2013 interview. “I said, ‘To study solar physics, do you have to live on the sun?’”
Fairbanks also is relatively equidistant from much of Alaska’s coast, she noted. “And thirdly, we are not beachcombers,” she said of the college’s teachers and researchers.
As a professor, director and dean, Alexander spent decades helping to design a research ship for the Arctic.
“It was a long, long odyssey,” she said.
Congress finally in 2009 provided $200 million to build what is today the Sikuliaq. The ship, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by UAF, was launched on a cold, rainy day in Wisconsin in October 2012.
Alexander had the honor of christening it.
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