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Last updated: Saturday, 14-Mar-2009 19:10:25 Central Daylight Time


UW-RF Student Spends Holiday Break With Scientists At South Pole
By Michelle Nikolai
UW-RF News Bureau

While most UW-River Falls students spend their semester break at home or in warmer climates, one UWRF physics major spent two weeks at the South Pole. Jackie Meyer, a senior from New London, Wis., spent holiday break working on two projects: the South Pole Air Shower Experiment (SPASE) program, a network of scintillator detectors used to identify high energy cosmic rays, and the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) project, the largest telescope in the world that is used to study the neutrino.

Prior to her "vacation" to the most severe climate on Earth, Meyer worked with UW-RF physics professors Glenn Spiczak and James Madsen, running simulations of research projects at the polar icecap. Madsen, who has traveled to the South Pole as a scientist with the AMANDA project, offers annual UW-RF workshops on "Astronomy in the Ice" for science teachers. Three of those teachers have also visited the South Pole through funds from the National Science Foundation. Meyer served as a teaching assistant in last summer's workshop.

"Jackie is just the third undergraduate in the eight-year history of the AMANDA project to travel to the South Pole," says Madsen. "I don't think there are any other projects that have had undergraduates working at the South Pole. There are roughly 220 people there from October to mid-February. About 50 of these are scientists; the rest are support personnel and construction workers building a new station."

Getting to the South Pole is much less likely than playing professional basketball, says Madsen. "There are probably less than 50 institutions in the world that have the opportunity to participate in South Pole research. UW-RF is one of the only undergraduate institutions that has the chance to send students. It is hard to over-emphasize how unique Jackie's experience was."

The AMANDA project studies the mysterious neutrino, a ubiquitous particle that travels unhindered through the universe, in hopes of learning more about the universe. Sometimes the neutrino, an uncharged particle, hits an ice molecule, creating an electrically charged particle called a muon that can be detected through the telescope. Scientists hope that studying the neutrino-a particle that is almost nothing-will reveal everything about the universe.

A seemingly simple science problem can be magnified because of the climate and terrain of the South Pole. "I helped with the effort to reduce static electricity, which is a huge issue at the pole because the air is extremely dry and there is no way to ground because the actual ground is beneath two miles of ice," says Meyer, who graduates from UW-RF in spring 2004.

Meyer also worked directly with Serap Tilav from the University of Delaware. They worked to create optically clear ice so that the detectors can better "see" the cosmic rays from outer space. "I helped her put the experiment together which was quite fun and allowed me to use my creativity in the design process," said Meyer. "This experiment is key to developing a freezing process from the Icetop detector, which involves a network of large tanks with optical modules frozen in place. The ice needs to be optically clear to allow the detector to trace the particle's path back to origin in the sky."

Curiosity definitely fuels Meyers, who plans to attend graduate school in plasma and fusion physics. "My interest in physics stems from an overall desire to know why and how things happen," Meyer says. " I want to learn everything I can, which is what brought about my interest in the South Pole. From that interest I was given a research topic that allowed me to go this year."

After being selected to visit the South Pole, Meyer applied for funding from the McNair Scholarship Program, named for astronaut and Challenger space shuttle astronaut Ronald McNair. The program, established in 1989 by the Department of Education, is designed for undergraduates who are first-generation and low-income college students.

Meyer said her experience was amazing. "My time at the pole literally felt like two days or so," says Meyer. "Since the sun never sets, you can't tell that time is passing without looking at the clock. Life was surreal and very hard to describe."

Moreover, Meyer enjoyed working with people from around the world. "I got to experience many different cultures," she said. " I had a great time jamming in Skylab, [a multi-story tower with a recreation room with a great view of the surrounding landscape] which has many different musical instruments for people to use. I met great people and relieved a lot of stress there."

The harsh environment of the South Pole can be a place of simple joys, says Meyer. "Food is very important for morale," she says. It was excellent, and I stayed in a pretty good mood because of it. Some of the best days are when freshies [fresh produce from New Zealand] arrive. My best memory is the night at midrats [midnight meal] when we got a mango smoothie from freshies. It was heaven."

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