Ice Story Interview with Cassandra Brooks
| Monday, July 28, 2008
|In my book that extends Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” I discuss many interesting learning situations and adventures. People are learning when in ships, trains, planes, taxis, and simulators. One of the more interesting adventures was the “Ice Stories” of scientists who are conducting research in Antarctic waters. These stories were sponsored by the Exploratorium in San Francisco and ran from January to March 2008, for instance. Scientists were at McMurdo Station near the South Pole as well as ones in the South Shetland Islands and other remote southern locations. This project, which was partially funded by the National Science Foundation, was called “Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists.” In the Ice Stories project, students can read about experiments related to Antarctica’s sheet ice dynamics, climate change, penguin breeding behaviors, and the responses of the polar marine ecosystem to the effects of global warming. (Note: for more information, see the links at the end of this post.)
Among the people I found in these Ice Stories was Cassandra Brooks. I wrote her an email about two months after her return from her second trip to Antarctica. It was June 2008 when we chatted. She was just about to submit her master’s thesis at the Marine Science program at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) in California and go through commencement. Cassandra’s work focuses on the life history and population of Antarctic toothfish (which we know as the very expensive, Chilean Sea Bass). In 2006, she was able to study krill and Antarctic finfish, including her beloved toothfish. This time she returned again as part of a zooplankton survey focusing on the krill. In a February 23, 2008 blog post, she notes that “I stepped out on deck this morning to find the sea fog had finally lifted, revealing an immense ocean of ice: the world of Antarctica.”
Cassandra definitely likes to write! To give you the sense of one her posts, in her final one, titled “One Gorgeous Day,” on Saturday, April 5, 2008, Cassandra goes on to say:
“We finally finished our zooplankton survey and since we had two days to spare, we steamed down into the Gerlache Straight, off the Antarctic Peninsula for a fun day off. The Gerlache Straight is famous for its scenery, but when I awoke it was snowing and it continued to snow all day. At first we were all slightly disappointed; the snow blocked our view of the landscape. But as the day carried on, the gently falling snow covered the boat, cultivating a surreal landscape. The water was calm and covered in a thick layer of snow which began to clump, forming what’s known as ‘pancake ice.’ There were icebergs and bergy bits everywhere, all covered in a fresh layer of white.”
She ended this post with the following:
“We all have a responsibility to manage Antarctica for the international good, to do our best to learn as much as possible about this polar environment. That includes how humans are affecting it via climate change, which will affect everyone. We have a responsibility to protect its resources and ecosystem, to make the best choices about how we fish Antarctic waters and how we manage Antarctic resources, and to educate each other, as I have tried to do through these dispatches. I thank you for sharing the adventure with me.”
She is right. We must find ways to protect Antarctica and the entire world. For my book, I had many questions for Cassandra. My list of questions and her answers are below.
Here are my questions and Cassandra’s answers:
1. (Bonk.) How did you get picked for this?
1. (Cassandra.) I started graduate school in the fall of 2004 with an interest in marine science with an interest in fisheries and doing a thesis that I thought would make a positive and applicable contribution not only to the science world, but also to management and conservation. My boss was working on a bigger age and growth toothfish project and needed help, so I began working full time on it and later took on a thesis studying one of the two species of toothfish, the Antarctic toothfish. My project focused on age validation of this species. Accurate age and growth information is critical in estimates of maturity, longevity, recruitment, and mortality all of which go into stock assessment models used in setting management quotas and setting catch limits. The problem is that most age and growth studies are incredibly subjective. We age most fish by counting growth zones in their bony parts (i.e. otoliths -fish ear bones-, scales, vertebrate, etc.) in the same way you would count rings in a tree to assess how old they get. But often these growth zones are not distinct or we don't know that the bony parts form only one growth zone per year or if they form one every three years. So we have to test the accuracy by age validation. I did this through lead-radium dating. In this method we actually measure the ratio of the isotopes lead and radium in the fish otolith as an independent chronometer which we can then compare to the ages we obtained through counting growth zones. Then we know if our ages are accurate!
Now, all of my Antarctic toothfish otoliths were obtained from fisheries observers (workers who collect data and biological samples) on commercial fishing vessels in the Ross Sea, Antarctica (the side opposite New Zealand). At the same time I was aging the otoliths, I was also doing a spatial analysis and trying to really understand the glacial dynamics and oceanography of Antarctica. I felt I could not do this project and never actually see Antarctica and a toothfish, which led me to pursue ways of getting down there. A researcher at my lab by the name of Valerie Loeb was one of the head scientists for AMLR (Antarctic Marine Living Resources) and at the same time I was looking for ways down south she was looking for a research technician and asked me to join here. So I went to Antarctica (the region off the Antarctic Peninsula, South Shetland Islands to be exact) with AMLR in January of 2006 and had an incredible time. That year we did a zooplankton survey (focusing on krill) followed by a fish survey where I finally got to see my toothfish!
During my first season with AMLR I wrote long emails to my friends and family about my experience in Antarctica. I loved sharing the adventure and people seemed to get a lot out of it. I believe so strongly in communicating science and in making people more aware of the world out there. I knew being in Antarctica was a unique experience and I also knew many people simply didn't know a lot about the environment down there, so I wanted to teach them. I returned to Antarctica with AMLR this year (2008) and wanted to write for a bigger audience and so I hooked up with the Exploratorium.
The way I got hooked up with the Exploratorium is another story though. You could say that science writing (for the public) has always been my dream job and I began looking into the science communication program at UCSC awhile ago. I had applied to the program just as I was getting ready to go to Antarctica and had voiced to the director of the program my desires to write from down south. One of the alumni of the UCSC program runs the Exploratorium "ice stories" program and so he put us in touch and I began to write for them (that was a REALLY long answer!).
2. (Bonk.) Did you blog from your ship or camp? What kind of connection to the Internet did you have?
2. (Cassandra.) I blogged from my research vessel. We didn't actually have an internet connection, which made things a bit harder. We had satellite email which I was really limited on in terms of how much I could send out, especially pictures. And we only had the connection twice a day.
3. (Bonk.) Do you know the person who replied to you (Naicy) and how old she is? (Naicy had replied to Cassandra March 10th blog posting about what drew her down to Antarctica and invited Cassandra to visit her in the Philippines.)
3. (Cassandra.) I don't know Naicy or how old she is.
4. (Bonk.) How often did K-12 kids reply to your posts? How might such activities be used in education?
4. (Cassandra.) I can't say for sure how often K-12 kids replied to the posts, but there were definitely a few who did who did say their age, but most didn't. I do know that a couple of my friends and colleagues did use the posts in their classrooms as an interactive way to teach their kids about Antarctica. Especially because of the pictures, and many scientists use other multimedia tools like audio and video, I think it’s a great interactive learning tool. Moreover, students can follow the scientists along in their trip and look forward to new posts, meanwhile they are learning about this incredible and extreme environment.
5. (Bonk.) What was the overall experience like?
5. (Cassandra.) I am assuming you are asking about the blogging experience? It was a lot of work, especially because I was working 12 hour shifts on the research side of things, but incredibly rewarding and a great way for me to gain experience in science communication (which the career I am now moving towards). Being in Antarctica is such an amazing experience and something I feel incredibly fortunate to have had. I loved being able to share this with others and to hopefully educate and inspire them about this beautiful place. I cannot stress how important I think it is to educate the public, especially in today's world when all our human actions are having such a growing impact on the world, including Antarctica. I think many people can't imagine that, that they are affecting a land that they have never seen. I wanted to show them that place, through my eyes, pictures and words, in hopes that I am doing something for the ultimate long-term greater good of Antarctica and the southern ocean resources (which is ultimately why I do the science as well).
6. (Bonk.) How long were you there?
6. (Cassandra.) This year I was only there from mid-February to mid-March. In 2006, I was there for January, February and March. And also to clarify, that while my thesis is on toothfish, which led me to going down there, the cruise I was on this year was focused on krill, not toothfish. But it’s all connected of course!
Some Web links:
Ice Stories: http://icestories.exploratorium.edu/dispatches/index.php
Ice Stories (Cassandra Brooks’ weblog): http://icestories.exploratorium.edu/dispatches/?author=6
eSchool News. “See Science in Action at the South Pole through These Live (and Archived) Webcasts,” eSchool News (January 2, 2008), http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/site-of-the-week/site/index.cfm?i=51354;_hbguid=a9d5d040-8d6d-4eb6-89c7-75e426c9da15
I hope you enjoyed this Ice Story moment. There is a story about Cassandra in the book I am just about done with as well as dozens of other similar stories.