+ Search Quest
June 22, 2006
By Koby Van
The teachers "americanos" woke up from a shivery night (it got down to negative two degrees Celsius) at a leisurely hour today since we got in late last night and were waiting for the Chilean teachers due to arrive at 10:00. This was our first look at “home” for the next week and a half. Camp last night was pitched in the dark next to the only trees in the area.
The first images our eyes took in was a sea of sand and rock as far as you could see. Huge barren mountains ringed our horizon. The Yungay Station itself consists of one building with six rooms straddled on both sides of a courtyard. The south east corner of the building is the kitchen, complete with apartment sized propane stove, sink (Cold water), and small gas refrigerator.
The northeast corner is the lab room, already full of equipment analyzing samples taken on the transect. Across the way is the bathroom with toilet, sink, and shower—cold water only. There are three rooms surrounding the bathroom that are sleeping quarters, at least one reserved for tech purposes when more equipment comes in on the weekend. Everything is simple and put together to work, not necessarily to look good.
After the Chilean’s arrival and set up, Chris McKay, the chief investigator from the US, and Benito Gomez Silva, his Chilean counterpart, took us up to the infamous “rock garden.” At over 10,000 feet we got quite a view with an introductory lecture. Overlooking the pueblo ruins from the mining operation some hundred years ago, Chris and Benito explained why the area made so much sense as an analog study site. Essentially it is dryer than a “bone.” Scientists come here to look for life surviving at the extremes, both because of the lack of water and the chemical composition of the so called soil.
A few questions later we split into groups, teachers teamed up with several of the scientists. Folks went this way and that looking for areas to sample. Using sterile techniques, at least six groups were spooning in samples into whirl packs or small vials, recording GPS positions, or using equipment to read the relative level of organic matter in the soil. That last piece of advanced technology is a machine that uses light florescence reflected from the sample, identifying metabolites in living matter, as well as dead cells, as well as spores. It was exciting to give this instrument its first field trial with one of the engineers and the lead scientist who developed it. All in all, science was going full tilt and it was way past lunch when everybody got back to the station.
Not long after everyone was regrouped and fed, we went back out, just east of the station to an ancient lake bed, consisting now of a field of miniature weird salt formations. Jacek Wierzchos and his assistant Alfonso Davila led us deep into the salt bed and invited us to hunt for the camouflaged probes, imbedded in a salt pile, measuring surface condensation, photosynthetic light, surface and internal relative humidity and temperature. What was amazing about this environment, was the tiny difference in outside humidity to internal, from about one to six percent, allowed for growth of Cyanobacteria to grow inside the salt bodies. When we broke open pieces of salt we could see green stripes of bacterial colonies. The salt attracted enough moisture to support life…wow!
Back at the station, we unloaded the days samples and started work on analysis in the lab. Liza Coe, our education coordinator gathered all the teachers together and we did a formal introduction into the work that we were getting into. A list of the scientists and the work they were doing was gone over so that teachers could attach themselves to work they could bring back into the classroom. We discussed all sorts of ways to use what we were being exposed to and how it could stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and geology. Lots of good ideas took us nearly to sunset. As it got cooler and we scattered to get warmer clothes, our heads were swimming with information and ideas.
The support crew fixed us a yummy dinner, and we sat around a fire exploring the social side of the exploration. As the night got cooler we drifted off to our tents and sleep.
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