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Manitou kids hear about going south - way south

October 10, 2013 Updated: October 10, 2013 at 8:15 pm
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photo - Scientist Tristy Vick-Majors, who grew up in Calhan and attended Colorado College, spoke to the Manitou Springs middle school students about her research on Antarctica as part of the Colorado Springs Science Festival Oct. 5-13. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Scientist Tristy Vick-Majors, who grew up in Calhan and attended Colorado College, spoke to the Manitou Springs middle school students about her research on Antarctica as part of the Colorado Springs Science Festival Oct. 5-13. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Growing up in Calhan, Tristy Vick-Majors had no idea how big the world was.

"I didn't know you could do something like go to Antarctica and study rare things that grow under ice," she said.

That's her job now as a microbial ecologist, and this week, she's bringing a glimpse of life beneath the ice caps of Antarctica to local classrooms.

"I'm really excited to come back home and share what I'm doing, to open kids' eyes," she said.

Vick-Majors, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and environmental science at Montana State University, is one of many scientists and researchers lecturing during the nine-day Colorado Springs Science Festival, which has daily activities around town and wraps up Sunday.

Seventh-graders in Dan Sieck's science, math, art, research, technology and engineering (SMARTE) class at Manitou Springs Middle School on Thursday learned Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent, is international land not owned by any nation and has no indigenous people.

It's also a great place for scientific research, Vick-Majors told the students, as she described her experiences as part of a team that made a new discovery this year.

Since 2008, Vick-Majors has traveled four times to Antarctica to one of three U.S. research stations, studying lakes buried beneath the ?-mile to 2?-mile thick ice sheet.

While snow, ice and whiteness come to mind when most people think of Antarctica, Vick-Majors thinks bacteria, and earlier this year she got to be one of the first to see life that previously was unknown to exist.

"Since the lakes - around 400 of them - were discovered 20 years ago by Russian scientists, people have been trying to figure out how we can access one and get a good and clean sample," she said.

In January, the international team she works with, the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research and Drilling (WISSARD) project, found evidence of life in one of the lakes.

Researchers used a hot water drill created by engineers from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to melt through ?-mile of ice to - for the first time - extract water and sediment samples from one of the subglacial lakes.

Vick-Majors was one of the scientists who observed bacteria, small cells, in the water sample.

"It was a big honor for a graduate student to be involved," she said. "It's not every day you get to actually see something new that nobody has ever seen before."

The next step: Find out how the bacteria are able to live there and how their presence impacts the environments connected to the lake, which every decade drains into the ocean and then refills.

"We think these lakes are an important source of nutrients to the oceans," Vick-Majors said.

After she earns her Ph.D. next year, Vick-Majors, 31, wants to teach at a university and run an Antarctica research program.

Her interest in biology was spawned when she was an undergraduate at Colorado College.

"I wanted to major in psychology, but I ended up taking an ecology class, and that sealed it. I got really interested in learning about the interactions in the environment and how everything works together," she said. "Growing up with a dad who's a taxidermist meant I always had a close connection to nature and cared a lot about it."

Sieck said he was interested in having Vick-Majors talk to his class so students become more aware that "science, technology and engineering is not just for boys" and that "there's more to science than just dissecting frogs."

Science, Sieck said, "allows us to progress in life and learn about our world. Pretty much everything from cooking to cell phones involves science."

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