Hanging Around at Biosphere 2
By Allison J. Petrozziello '03
In the middle of the Sonoran Desert, a hulking steel and glass structure interrupts the landscape. Inside, six biomes and several Smith students each semester are flourishing in innumerable ways. Through an official affiliation with Columbia University's Biosphere 2 Center in Oracle, Arizona, Smith students are now able to venture into the 3.15-acre facility -- only one part of the actual 250-acre campus-to conduct research and take classes, and to peer into the clear desert skies from the campus observatory.
Five Smith students have completed the Biosphere 2 undergraduate program since Smith's affiliation began in 1999. Three have completed the Earth Semester and two have done the Universe Semester, both of which combine classes, hands-on work, field trips and research in an interdisciplinary approach to environmental science.
Darcy French '02 is the latest Smith student to join the ranks of those who have spent a semester in Arizona at Columbia University's Biosphere 2 Center.
At least two of those students have found themselves suspended from pulley swings in the canopy of the rainforest biome. Erica Taecker '01, who completed the Earth Semester in fall 1999, described a pivotal moment in her work at Biosphere 2: hanging 20 feet above the tallest trees and sketching light fields to determine which areas received the highest concentrations of sunlight. "The thing that was cool about it is that it's going to be utilized in the ongoing research being done there. It's not just some little school project," Taecker remarked. Leah Kotok '01, who also did her research on rainforest canopy management, had actually worked a semester earlier to develop the protocol that Taecker and her colleagues continued to refine.
Most of the Smith students who have returned from Biosphere 2 have agreed that the opportunity to perform authentic research is the biggest draw of the program. "For the first time, I was actually doing research where they said, 'We trust you. You come up with ideas on your own and we'll use those' as opposed to using pre-fabricated laboratories," Kotok said.
For Angela Maleski '02, an astronomy and physics double major who attended the Universe Semester, the research was the redeeming quality of the program. "The classes are not Smith caliber, but the research is incredible and you can take that to whatever level you want. You have to go because you want to do research." In the observatory, Maleski worked with variable stars, calculating periods of eclipsing binaries. During the semester she was in attendance, some of the 11 other students searched for new asteroids, while others did theoretical work with conduction or worked on projects in astrophotography.
In addition to her astral research, astronomy major Kathleen Koviak '01 participated in a voluntary project called Project Astro. She and other students paired astronomers with local teachers to help them integrate astronomy into their curricula. The astronomers also taught weekly astronomy classes to fourth graders in a local elementary school.
Since the Biosphere 2 program itself only hosts 50 to 100 students a semester and is 10 miles from the nearest town, getting out was always a plus. Students took research trips to the Grand Canyon, the Sea of Cortez, Meteor Crater and Kitt Peak, as well as to top-notch observatories in Tucson and New Mexico.
While the Biosphere facility itself provided six earth ecosystems to explore and research, the outdoors held a greater appeal for Alma Villarreal '01. "The real trick to having a fulfilling experience is being able to get out," she advises. "You've got the desert, the mountains, latent volcanoes under your feet. You have to get out there and run, crawl, hike, experience it. Most people think of the desert as a barren place, but the desert is teeming with diversity. You just have to open your eyes to it."
The Biosphere 2 facility was originally built as an experiment to create a closed-system, sustainable habitat, but was converted to a research facility in 1994. When Columbia University bought the facility, according to Dawn Norchi, program coordinator for Smith's Environmental Science and Policy Program, it became "an educational venture instead of a futuristic human endeavor."
Allen Curran, geology professor and director of the environmental science and policy program (ES&P), encourages Smith students to take advantage of the college's affiliation with the Biosphere 2 undergraduate program; the Earth Semester equals half of an ES&P minor at Smith. What's the real draw to head to Arizona? "Hands-on, interdisciplinary, total immersion," explains Curran. "Whereas at Smith you go to a class maybe on a Tuesday and a Thursday, at Biosphere 2 it's 100 percent involvement."
While a science background is a plus, it is not a requirement. Smith financial aid can fund two students each semester.
After graduating from Smith, Taecker and Kotok hope to return to the Arizona facility next year and continue their research; they have applied to be residential advisers there. The other graduates, meanwhile, will head out to explore Biosphere 1 (a.k.a. the planet Earth).
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