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UAB in Antarctica

Wednesday 2 May began in utter calm and tranquility. Stars and Stripes lazed atop each other slouching against the flagpole in the still, cold air of a slowly dawning morning. Arthur Harbor shimmered with the mellow radiance of a full moon setting. I stood on the pier inhaling the peace and serenity - hoping it would carry me through the morning's scheduled programming.

All too soon, that idyllic scene dissolved into the glare of bright lights in my face. A video camera was pointing at me! I was seated in a corner of the tv lounge in GWR that had transformed into a talk show-like studio. The simple studio set consisted of 2 arm chairs in which Chuck and I sat and a pair of barstools behind us for Craig and Philip. As a backdrop and to costume the floor to ceiling levels of book bindings and DVD jackets we draped four flags from the tops of the shelving. Two each logo-ed National Science Foundation flags interspersed with United States Antarctic Program flags completed the studio effect.

Through the never ending marvels of technology, Team UAB -Chuck, Craig, Philip and me - were broadcast live on Alabama Public Television (APT) to 13 high schools around our home state. In about month's time this 50 minute live production blossomed into living color with the assistance of the ACCESS (Alabama Connecting Classrooms Educators and Students Statewide), Alabama Supercomputer Authority, UAB, and APT. It was quite the technological undertaking! Basically, Palmer's Polycom teleconferencing video camera, established a bridge with Alabama Public TV. APT then sent the feed from Palmer to the participating schools via the ACCESS system.

Shortly before 10:00, Palmer's computer wizards Curt Smith, Sara Russell, and Bede McCormick worked their magic and on the big screen in the tv lounge materialized a classroom in Sand Rock High School. Showtime was set for 10 AM Palmer time (9 AM Alabama time). At 10 AM Palmer time Curt and crew projected a still picture bearing the caption UAB in Antarctica. That image remained on the screen a minute or two as the final schools came on line.

Our backstage stage support crew gave us thumbs up as Curt took command of the Polycom camera and our four (not at all noticeably terrified faces!) now appeared on the big screen. On cue (mental count of three) spouted the first of my very few scripted lines - one, two, three: "Good morning Alabama and welcome to Palmer Station, Antarctica."

And we were off and running LIVE! (to copy Philp's last entry) throughout the state of Alabama. We spoke with at least 1 student from each of the 13 schools throughout the program and two students from most. Students asked terrific questions about how and why we study what we do. Many were keen to learn more about the special gear we use to dive and how we stay warm. We were prepared for those questions with props. Philip showed and talked about his thinsulate jumpsuit. Craig introduced the students to the features of his drysuit. Other inquiring minds wanted to know more about general living at Palmer, what we eat, how we spend our free time, what kind of medical facility is here.

To supplement the question and answer sessions we had prepared 4 mini homemade videos (which included narration by Chuck and me) to show what Palmer was like outside of our makeshift studio. The first dive operations video was an edited version of a terrific movie made by former Palmerite George Ryan. George went out with our group a few years ago as a tender bearing a video camera. He put together a really nice movie showing the top side action in the zodiac before and after a dive. Thank you again George (currently in Wyoming) for the use your footage.

Chuck produced the other 3 videos a few years ago. These videos were all shot underwater and show the beauty and diversity of life at our dive sites around Palmer. We could hear oohs and ahhs and way cool comments from the schools.

One of the videos focused on algae, particularly the brown algae. Our narration stressed how huge some of the species grow. Divers served as scale bars to illustrate the point. But just in case students did not grasp just how big some of the ‘redwoods of the sea' get, we brought in an example. The day before, Craig and I made a targeted collecting dive in search of one such huge brown alga - Himantothallus grandifolus. After showing the video on algae, all four of us got out of our chairs and started unrolling the 20 foot long plus specimen that we brought into the studio. It was a real show stopper!

Toward the end of our airtime we took the opportunity to introduce the concept and mission of International Polar Year. Curt switched the camera off of us and Sara projected on screen an image from a previous entry of Jim's on the IPY (http://www.antarctica.uab.edu/blog/321/). The image "Palmer Station Dives into the IPY" provided the students yet another view to life, living and science in Antarctica.

Our last stop through the great state was at Dallas County High School. A very special visitor dropped in to participate in the virtual field trip to Antarctica. Alabama's Governor Riley sat amongst the students chatting with them and with us about our work down here. We were quite honored and impressed that the Governor would take time from his busy schedule to appear at a high school educational event.

At the close of the hour, the big screen went blank, the bright lights extinguished. Good bye Alabama. Our make shift studio faded away as our eyes adjusted back to ambient light. We folded the flags, set the chairs back over by the pool table and pushed the overstuffed sofas back in place for the after work movie watching. Thanked Curt, Sara, and Bede profusely for the marvelous efforts in making the magic of seeing and hearing Alabama reality and topped off the wrapup christening them honorary Blazers with the presentation of Blazer knit caps.

Within two hours Philip was diving with Bill in part to collect a sponge for me. I was tending, floating around in the zodiac watching bubbles and musing over the morning's success - wow - that was definitely an outreach program!

Our regularly scheduled programming has resumed.