From the Dean's Desk -- April 12, 2012

In Minus-60 Wind Chill, Research Is No Breeze


Making one last attempt to score data after two weeks of combing the icy beaches of Barrow, Alaska, Radford University Professor Rhett Herman forgot, just for a few moments, about his hands. He had slipped off his heavy-duty gloves, and only thin liners covered his hands, offering little protection from the bitter wind chills.

"I lost feeling in my two fingers," Herman said. "I didn't realize it. I could still move my fingers, but I lost feeling." He quickly stuffed his hand inside his polar parka in the hope of preventing frostbite.

Research is not easy, particularly when 60-below-zero wind chills are trying to kill you and you have to be on the lookout for polar bears.     

"We were desperate to get the data," Herman said. "We got it, but then I thought, 'I'm in danger.' If you lose feeling and you lose motion, you're probably going to lose those fingers."

Herman still has his fingers, though his nose was peeling from frostbite last week as he recalled the journey following his return to his cozy Reed Hall office.

Every other year, Herman takes a group of Radford University geology and physics students and a handful of high school kids from the Southwest Virginia Governor's School to brave the Arctic in the name of science. The required dress code is polar parkas, heavily-insulated overalls and white U.S. Army "bunny boots" with 2-inch soles. 

Since 2003, Herman has been trekking to Barrow to collect data to prove there is a direct correlation between the temperature at the surface of the sea ice there and the ice's thickness. In addition to collecting data that could someday be applied to studies of global climate change, the trip is a valuable out-of-the-classroom, beyond-the-textbook lesson on the difficulties and frustrations of conducting research in extreme conditions.

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Anderson and Recent Graduates Publish Research Article about Mosquito-borne La Crosse Virus

Justin Anderson and Rachel Albert

Justin Anderson and Rachel Albert

Biology faculty member Justin Anderson and two 2011 biology graduates  Nicole Eastep and Rachel Albert's article “Modulation of La Crosse virus infection in Aedes albopictus mosquitoes following larval exposure to coffee extracts” will appear in Frontiers in Physiology. The article was the result of a two year project and will be part of a special issue on Global Change and Human Vulnerability to Vector-Borne Diseases.  The research done by Eastep and Albert was supported by Rogers’ Undergraduate Research Awards.  These awards are funded through a generous gift from Dr. Orion Rogers, Dean of the College of Science and Technology and his wife Valerie.   This competitive program which provides one award each year was established in 2008.

Albert is currently employed at TechLab, a developer of medical diagnostic tests, in Blacksburg.  In the future, she plans to pursue graduate training in genetic counseling.  Eastep is completing a nursing degree at Hampton University with plans to continue in a nurse practitioner program.

Physics and Chemistry Graduate "Shining Star" Visiting Lecturer

Robin Pulliam Harris, 2006 physics and chemistry graduate and first generation college student, is currently a postdoctorate fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory headquarters in Charlottesville and an adjunct professor at University of Virginia.  She will be coming back to campus this evening to share her knowledge with fellow Highlanders.

While a student at RU, she wasn't shy about her passion for space.  "He email signature had NASA's motto, Ad Astr Per Ardua," says physics professor Rhett Herman. "I noticed this when she was in my Physics 111 class.  I talked with her about her interests and found out that she was headed to medical school.  But then she found out that one could do astronomy and get paid," he says.

She then visited Green Bank with the RU Society of Physics Students and got an internship there.  Later she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

On Thursday, April 12 at 5 p.m. in Young Hall, room 402, Harris will be discussing "Astrochemistry: From the Terrestial Laboratory to the Interstellar Medium."  The talk is sponsored by the RU Society of Physics Students and the Club Programming Committee.