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Summer 2009 | Caring for creation

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The study of glaciers of Nelson Ham (Geology) takes him to the Matanuska and Burroughs Glaciers in Alaska.

Adventures in environmental science

By Doug McInnis

Four professors share a major, a zest for field research - and a close call or two

Nelson Ham
Nelson Ham (Geology)
There is a feeling of being on edge that never quite goes away in grizzly country. A field trip that runs for weeks or months is a long time to be looking over your shoulder. Nelson Ham (Geology) first experienced that feeling of constant apprehension when his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison took him to Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park.

When scientists like Ham take to the field, they aren’t looking for danger. They want to come home in one piece, and for the most part, they are successful.

His work, like that of the three colleagues who teach with him in the interdisciplinary environmental science major, begins not in the clinical confines of the lab but out in the messy world, where they share space with grizzly bears, maneating caimans and the forces of Nature.

These professors are united across their different fields by two things – a common passion for trying to unravel the mysteries of the natural world, and a certain taste for adventure.

Ham was in bear country to study how modern glaciers work, as a way to understand how long-ago glaciers shaped the landscape.

But as he worked, one eye was usually alert for the larger fauna. His canister of bear mace was always attached by a cord to his shirt, and it is visible in every photograph of him taken while he was there. “The park didn’t allow us to carry firearms,” Ham says.

The level of anxiety escalated whenever the team needed to restock their food supplies. That entailed a trip back to a base camp, where the summer’s food stock was stored in bear-proof barrels. To get there, the team had to tunnel through a thick blanket of alder bushes. “The fear was always there that there would be a bear coming toward us through the tunnel, or that there would be one standing there at the other end,” Ham says. They took turns being point man.

Usually, grizzlies will avoid people if they hear them coming. “We would sing children’s songs as loud as we could,” Ham recalls. “If a bear heard us, it would (hopefully) run in the other direction.”

The level of fear rose as well when they split up to do their research. “When you were alone, bears were the constant thing you thought about,” he says. From time to time, they would see the telltale signs that bears had been in the area – a paw print, or bits of uneaten fish.

In one stretch, rain fell for three weeks straight. During that time, it was constantly foggy, he says, and that inspired still more fear. “You worried about running into a bear you couldn’t see.”

Two months passed without incident and they flew back to park headquarters on their final day. “I went out to the beach at park headquarters to read a book,” Ham remembers. “I heard grunting. Twenty yards away, a large bear and her cubs had wandered onto the beach.” Her cubs began to approach him out of curiosity. The mother reared up. It was the worst of situations; A mother bear is particularly likely to attack to protect her cubs.

“After two months in Alaska, I was going to get killed by a bear at park headquarters,” Ham says. “I was within a few seconds of her making the choice to charge – and you can’t outrun a charging bear.”

The bears backed off.

A trip diverted
Jim Hodgson
James Hodgson (Biology)
The risks of fieldwork often stem from Mother Nature. But in many parts of the world, the biggest danger comes from our own species – from bandits, kidnappers, revolutionaries and drug traffickers. In that case, the best course of action is often a change of plans – especially when students are along.

On a trip in the late 1990s, as a group traveling with James Hodgson (Biology) arrived in Panama City, word awaited them that drug traffickers had moved into the area they were to visit. The traffickers had killed villagers there.

Hodgson quickly reset the itinerary for a more secure area. “I’d love to go to that part of Panama again on my own,” says Hodgson. “But I’ve never been back with the students.”

Hodgson didn’t, however, give up on Panama, and he continues to take students to safe parts of the country. “Being exposed to the world is the greatest classroom,” says Hodgson. The lessons he wants them to learn are only partly scientific.

“You get these students out in the native villages, and I know what’s running through their heads when they see them,” Hodgson says. “The villages are poor. The villagers make a subsistence living from the land. And the students want to know how people can be so happy and have so little. This makes them re-evaluate what happiness is all about.

“There are things I can’t teach them. But I can set a pathway for them to learn. These experiences will make an imprint on them that will affect the rest of their lives. It makes them begin to evaluate their own ecological footprint on the Earth – and it makes them ask, ‘Why do I have all this stuff?’”

David Poister
David Poister (Chemistry)
A day on the lake
There is no guarantee of safety, even if you confine your research to Wisconsin. David Poister (Chemistry) takes to the water for his ongoing study of how sediment builds on lake bottoms. “This always involves getting in a boat, and that’s usually when the trouble starts,” he says.

He focuses on diatoms, one-celled organisms that add to the lake sediment when they die.The diatoms come in colonies; the bigger the colonies, the more that end up on the bottom. “I’m trying to figure out what causes the size of the colony to change.”

His field research runs from May through late November, by which time the weather is turning wintry. Even so, the work still needs to be done. “There’s always this balance as to whether it’s smart to be out on the lake versus how bad I want the data. Whenever I’m out there, I always picture the graph that I’m going to make with the sediment samples I’m collecting. I can see what the graph would look like if I have a gap in the data.Then I really feel compelled to get the sample.”

In November 2006, Poister headed a mile out from the shoreline of Trout Lake and tied his boat, a 14-foot flat-bottomed craft with narrow sides, to a buoy at the lake’s deepest point. He took sediment samples for 45 minutes, largely oblivious to the rising wind-whipped waves – until it became apparent that the boat was filling with water. “It was losing altitude fast,” he recalls. Poister started the outboard motor and zig-zagged to shore, maneuvering the now low-riding craft nose-first into the waves to minimize water intake.

Later that day, as he prepared to go out again after draining the boat, he discovered just how close he had come to disaster. He pulled the motor’s starter cord. It ripped loose from the motor. It was the sort of break that couldn’t have been repaired out on the lake, and if it had happened earlier, he would have been stranded on a sinking boat in water just a few degrees above freezing.

Though he had worn his anti-hypothermia suit, he says it is a limited safeguard, too constrictive to swim easily. “They are really made to keep you afloat until somebody comes for you. But I was out there all alone that day. The boat would either have taken on too much water and sunk, or it would have blown to shore. I don’t know which.”

Flash flood
Anindo Choudhury
Anindo Choudhury (Biology)
“There is always risk,” says Anindo Choudhury (Biology), who studies the relationships between hosts and parasites. “But you weigh the benefits against the risk.You say, ‘What are the chances of losing my life, or being injured?’

“I’ve had a colleague whose plane crashed in the Arctic,” he says. “I’ve had friends who’ve been confronted by bears.” While snorkeling in search of turtle habitat, one colleague came nose to nose with a caiman, a type of crocodile. Fortunately, the reptile was as startled as he was. The caiman raced in one direction, the researcher in the other.

Choudhury’s own brush with death came at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, as his research team slept on the banks of the Little Colorado River. Early in the morning, he awoke to the sound of commotion. He looked down. The swollen river was running beneath his cot. A storm had struck upstream. With the walls of the canyon soaring nearly vertically just yards from the river’s edge, they were trapped in a bottleneck with the water rising fast.

The only way out was a helicopter rescue. However, “The helicopter is not going to fly at night unless they absolutely have to,” Choudhury says. The research team told the helicopter crew that they could probably hold out till early morning. While they waited, they perched atop a boulder. “It was a race against time,” he recalls.

The water never reached the point where it would have flushed them downstream. “But there was no way to know that at the time.”

Though he now knows the risks of field research, Choudhury has no regrets.“The rewards are amazing. All those harrowing events aside, I would not trade my experience in the Grand Canyon for anything. I’ve seen the awesome power of nature at its most extreme. And I’ve seen things animals do in the wild that I would never have seen in the armchair of my home. It’s been an amazing life.”

Summer 2009 magazine

Web extras Look here for web-only content that expands on topics presented in the current St. Norbert College Magazine (PDF).

Audio Fresh Ink
Original compositions by student musicians.

Photo Gallery Commencement 2009
A gallery of images from this major event in the academic calendar.

Text Extra Environmental ethics
Excerpts from a new work by Larry Waggle (Philosophy).

Text Extra An ocean of change
Tim Boyer ’89 on research honored with the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Video A green collaboration
Student researchers talk about their plans for an environmentally responsible science facility.

Photo Gallery Lines of connection
A vibrant multicultural community depicted in new artwork on campus.

Photo Gallery Faces of Japan
Examining traditional and contemporary ideals of beauty.

Photo Gallery Fifty years at St. Norbert Abbey
A half-century of history celebrated this summer.

Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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