Researching Cancer Genetics in Reykjavík

Sarah Lucht
  • For Sarah, Iceland will always occupy a special place in her heart
Tuesday, 15. March 2016

A country rife with enchanting landscapes and breathtaking natural wonders, Iceland is not only an outdoorsman’s paradise but also a place where cutting edge scientific research of all kinds takes place. For example, the nation’s small, insular population has made Iceland a top destination for cancer researchers and geneticists fascinated by the purity of Icelanders’ ancestry, with companies like deCODE Genetics leading the way in unlocking the mysteries of the human genome.

Sarah Lucht, a Minnesota native and graduate student at Harvard’s School of Public Health, decided to focus her master’s thesis research on a unique genetic mutation among Icelandic women that increases the risk for ovarian and breast cancer. Her curiosity for cancer genetics led her to apply for a residency in Iceland back in 2013, and ever since, she has developed a strong relationship with the country, returning in January 2016 to further her research endeavors and re-discover the country’s haunting, awe-inspiring beauty.

Seeing the Sites and Catching Up with Old Friends

For Sarah, coming back to Iceland this winter presented a great opportunity to reconnect with the friends and research contacts she made during her residency several years ago.

“I was lucky to get to spend a year in Iceland getting to know Icelanders and Icelandic culture,” she explains. “I’ve made many wonderful friends and grew to appreciate so many of the things that make Iceland distinctive. My Icelandic friends and collaborators are some of the most warm-hearted and generous people I know—I am so grateful to have them in my life.”  

While most of this most recent visit to Iceland was devoted to her project, Sarah managed to sneak outside the city on several occasions to catch a glimpse of sites she didn’t see during her first visit.

“I got the opportunity to go to Skaftafell, where I was able to hike on the glacier,” she reports. “It was an amazing experience and my tour group was blessed with the most wonderful of weather. I’ll never forget the beauty of the glacier, the mountains, and the ocean all at once.”

Skaftafell, a stunning mountainous region located in Southeast Iceland, used to be a manor farm in ancient times before it was eventually deemed a preservation area and made part of Vatnajökull National Park in 2008. It is a fantastic place to hike, explore, and reconnect with the natural world.

Reviving Old Traditions

Sarah’s winter visit also gave her a chance to become reacquainted with some of her favorite aspects of Icelandic culture.

“I am always surprised by how well so many old traditions are woven into modern life here,” she explains. “Icelanders are wonderful at taking aspects of things from the past, making them new, and building them into new traditions.”

During her stay, she purposed to stock up on her favorite Icelandic delicacy, the crispy chocolate candy Nóa Kropp.

“I am absolutely addicted to the Icelandic candy Nóa Kropp,” she says, laughing. “I ate six family-size bags in just a few weeks!”

A popular bite-sized candy, and the perfect snack food, Nóa Kropp is a chocolate treat native to Iceland that comes in a variety of flavors, including original, mint chocolate, and caramel.

Although it’s traditionally one of the slower periods of the Icelandic tourism season, Sarah also recommends that travelers take the time to visit Iceland during the holidays, despite the lack of sunlight. In Iceland, Christmas, or jól, is a jolly three-day event of gift-giving, feasting, and drinking, while the countryʼs New Year’s Eve celebration is like no other, spectacular fireworks lighting up every corner of the capital city and countryside.

A Place Like No Other

For Sarah, Iceland will always occupy a special place in her heart, and she firmly believes that others should take the time to venture there and experience everything the island nation has to offer.

“Go. Iceland is a place of such beauty and strangeness,” she describes. “The landscape is like no other and you will find the cities and towns so enchanting. Rent a car, drive around, stop frequently, and you will never regret it.”