Ed­u­ca­tor hopes to study plas­tic con­tam­i­na­tion in Roanoke Val­ley

Daily Press - - Front Page - By An­drew Ad­kins The Roanoke Times

Win­ter storm pum­mels the mid-At­lantic, lead­ing to power out­ages, can­celed flights and car ac­ci­dents.

SALEM — The mid­dle school geog­ra­phy teacher plunged into the icy wa­ters of the Wed­dell Sea off the coast of Antarc­tica. But in an ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney, it wasn’t her deep­est dive.

Judith Pain­ter, who teaches eighth grade at An­drew Lewis Mid­dle School in Salem, was im­mersed in the frozen con­ti­nent dur­ing win­ter break. She stud­ied the ma­jes­tic wa­ters, cli­mate and wildlife through a Na­tional Geo­graphic fel­low­ship pro­gram for teach­ers.

The po­lar plunge was an op­tional ac­tiv­ity for voy­agers. But it was one Pain­ter couldn’t miss, de­spite the 20-de­gree weather. “My stu­dents will prob­a­bly love the look on my face when they see the pic­tures taken after,” Pain­ter said.

Pain­ter has a trove of pho­to­graphs she plans to share with her stu­dents.

Pain­ter is one of 40 ed­u­ca­tors in the 2018 class of Grosvenor Teacher Fel­lows, a pro­gram that leads vis­its to the Antarc­tic area of the globe and the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands for the ul­ti­mate hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence in pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment. Na­tional Geo­graphic part­ners with Lind­blad Ex­pe­di­tions to of­fer the pro­gram, named for a for­mer chair­man of the Na­tional Geo­graphic So­ci­ety.

In the lead up, she re­ceived train­ing from Na­tional Geo­graphic and read a dozen books on Antarc­tica. Friends and other ed­u­ca­tors of­fered more prepara­tory help. An en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at Vir­ginia Tech who had trav­eled to Antarc­tica with his wife lent Pain­ter a pair of wa­ter­proof gloves.

She flew from the Roanoke-Blacks­burg Re­gional Air­port to At­lanta, then two stops in Ar­gentina. The ex­pe­di­tion ship, the Na­tional Geo­graphic Ex­plorer, took Pain­ter and about 200 other pas­sen­gers, in­clud­ing the staff and crew, for a two-day trek start­ing Dec. 18.

The most mem­o­rable por­tion of the jour­ney to and from Antarc­tica was un­doubt­edly trav­el­ing through the Drake Pas­sage, Pain­ter said. The stretch be­tween Cape Horn in South Amer­ica and the South Shet­land Is­lands of Antarc­tica can be a rough cross­ing, to put it mildly.

“Imag­ine you have the stom­ach flu,” said Pain­ter. “Then some­one takes you on a back coun­try road around the moun­tains. You’re go­ing up and down hills. At the same time, the car is be­ing swung side to side like a swing set,” she said.

Most of the pas­sen­gers were still reel­ing from the ex­pe­ri­ence after ar­rival near a small Chilean re­search base, Pain­ter said.

Then they gained their foot­ing, and the real quest be­gan. Pain­ter spent much of her first day hik­ing, breath­ing in the cold, foggy air and lis­ten­ing to the fall­ing sleet beat­ing against the mas­sive sheets of ice. The shore­line was rocky, Pain­ter said, ex­plain­ing that most of the penin­sula is vol­canic in ori­gin.

She ob­served a pen­guin colony and a moss for­est. A self-de­scribed pen­guin fa­natic, Pain­ter said she saw three dif­fer­ent species of pen­guins within the first two days, in­clud­ing Adelie and chin­strap.

“As we wan­dered, we were al­lowed to go within 15 feet of the pen­guins, and sit down just to look,” she said. “We had a great time just sit­ting there in the snow.”

Pain­ter’s ex­pe­ri­ence also brought her within feet of mas­sive un­der­wa­ter mam­mals. Fin whales, hump­backs, killer whales and even the rare false killer whale were all spot­ted from the ship, Pain­ter said.

She saw leop­ard seals, crab eater seals — which don’t ac­tu­ally eat crabs — and Wed­dell seals that make noises sim­i­lar to a com­puter chirp.

The ex­pe­di­tion also in­cluded a look at the ef­fect of cli­mate change on the con­ti­nent. Pain­ter learned about the ef­fects of melt­ing ice first­hand, and how changes to the wa­ter’s salin­ity, and ocean cur­rents, will have se­ri­ous con­se­quences for Antarc­tic life up and down the food chain.

Pain­ter said she and oth­ers on board were able to con­duct a small-scale study on an­other press­ing is­sue af­fect­ing the con­ti­nent: plas­tics con­tam­i­na­tion. Mi­croplas­tics have been de­tected in wa­ter sam­ples col­lected off the penin­sula in sev­eral ma­jor stud­ies.

Pain­ter said she’s hop­ing to ob­tain a grant that would al­low her and her stu­dents to at­tempt a sim­i­lar ex­per­i­ment in the Roanoke Val­ley within the next two years. It’s one of sev­eral in­struc­tional ideas Pain­ter will bring back with her into the class­room.

Im­prov­ing her abil­ity to teach was Pain­ter’s mis­sion from the get-go. It’s the rea­son why she and the other teach­ers are se­lected for the fel­low­ship, she said. The 26-year teach­ing vet­eran has drawn ac­claim for her work as re­cently as this fall, when the Vir­ginia Coun­cil for the So­cial Stud­ies named her teacher of the year.

Pain­ter said she’s still mulling ex­actly how she’ll in­cor­po­rate her Antarc­tic ex­pe­ri­ence in the class­room, though she’s al­ready made progress. She knows there will be some com­mon themes. She’ll pose ques­tions. “How do we help pro­tect these an­i­mals, these ar­eas, in the penin­sula? For some of these ar­eas, we know it’s too late. The glaciers are go­ing to fall,” she said. “But what are the les­sons we can learn from this?”

Pain­ter, a mother of three, said she keeps re­play­ing the im­ages of pen­guin par­ents pro­tect­ing their chicks. “That was the com­mon theme in ev­ery­thing we saw, the old pro­tect the young,” she said. “That may be the theme I go with.”


Tourists hike on an is­land on the Western Penin­sula of Antarc­tica. Forty ed­u­ca­tors par­tic­i­pated in the 2018 class of Grosvenor Teacher Fel­lows, a pro­gram that leads vis­its to the Antarc­tic.

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