Welcome to
Spheres Online

the University of New Hampshire Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space electronic newsletter.

Subscribe to Spheres Online

Spheres Archives

www.eos.unh.edu



Summer 2012
In this Issue of Spheres

Seeing the Forest
for the Trees

Tightening the Scientific
Understanding of the Belts

Big Science in a
Pintsize Package

Rock of Ages

Geospatial Science Gets
a Space of its own

News and Notes
Faculty, Staff, and Student News
From the Director


Institute for the Study of Earth,
Oceans, and Space
(EOS)
EOS Director: Harlan Spence
Editor: David Sims
Designer: Kristi Donahue
Circulation: Laurie Pinciak

Morse Hall, 8 College Road,
Durham, NH 03824
www.eos.unh.edu
eos.director@unh.edu










“Honestly, although my scientific research doing remote sensing of forest damage has been very exciting and important, the outreach component of what I do has been the most satisfying.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…if you can engage them in hands-on science in their own back yard, and show them that you’re doing really interesting science and that they can be part of that, you can definitely win a few over.”









 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Everyone thought I was crazy… I even got a proposal back from NASA headquarters and the program manager had written, ‘Seeing fungi from space? Nonsense!’…”
















Summer 2012

Rock of Ages
Professor Barrett N. Rock retires, sort of

TO PARAPHRASE General Douglas MacArthur's famous exit speech, old professors don't retire, they just continue teaching. That, anyway, is the case for Earth Systems Research Center botanist Barry Rock, who officially retired in late May after 40 years of teaching and research, including 25 at UNH.

Rock on Moosilauke 
Rock describes forest conditions to a group of Forest Watch teachers in 2004 on Mount Moosilauke in NH's White Mountains. Photo by Jana Albrechtova.

For the foreseeable future, his academic plate is full enough that his wife Gerrie recently queried, "Are you really retiring?" Yes, and no. For example, he and Gerrie will be able to go on more of the globe-trotting cruises they've enjoyed these past few years, but for the professor these will continue to be working vacations.

He uses the ships as a sort of floating classroom to school fellow passengers on timely topics such as climate change, the geology of the Mediterranean, rivers of ice (glaciers) in Alaska, and the night sky for wherever the ship happened to be bobbing about. Each presentation, he notes, highlights some example of ongoing scientific research at UNH.

Rock will also continue to teach a course or two as needed at UNH, and is in the process of writing a textbook on contemporary conservation issues. What he'll formally retire from is his long career in scientific research doing satellite-based remote sensing to assess forest health from New England to the Czech Republic to Mexico.

However, he will not retire from serving as director of Forest Watch, which he founded 21 years ago and which has become his signature legacy.

Forest Watch is a unique program that engages primary and secondary school students in the hands-on collection and processing of field data relating to air pollution damage in forest stands. The idea for the program arose shortly after Rock arrived at UNH from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in the wake of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Indeed, the 1986 Challenger explosion, and the death of the "first teacher in space"–Christa McAuliffe of Concord (NH) High School–was the seed from which Forest Watch grew.

When Rock walked into his UNH office in 1987, there, in a stack of mail forwarded from JPL–where he had directed the Geo-Botanical Research Program–was a letter from a colleague of McAuliffe's at Concord High. Teacher Phil Browne had began an aggressive mailing campaign to NASA scientists in hopes the space agency would to do something to restore the faith of science students devastated by the loss of their teacher and discouraged by the failure of NASA.

For Rock, the circumstances presented one more in what he says have been many serendipitous twists and turns that have defined his long career. Moreover, the heart of Browne's plea–science outreach–was part and parcel of work that has been at the very core of Rock's modus operandi since he was an undergraduate at the University of Vermont.

"Honestly, although my scientific research doing remote sensing of forest damage has been very exciting and important, the outreach component of what I do has been the most satisfying," Rock says.

To wit, at last year's Forest Watch Student Convention held at UNH, he recalls 7th grade students being "so excited to see that I was genuinely interested in the work they were doing. And the reason this is so important, so meaningful, is that these middle school years are a pivotal point in anyone's schooling. And science/math in particular is a tough sell at that age, they think it's all geeky and hard." He adds, "But if you can engage them in hands-on science in their own back yard, and show them that you're doing really interesting science and that they can be part of that, you can definitely win a few over."

rock students  
Rock mentors a group of UNH Project SMART students who spent four weeks
during the summer studying environmental science.
Photo by Kristi Donahue, UNH-EOS.


From "hollers" to halls

Rock has won more than a few over in his day. With a natural inclination towards and gift for science outreach, he's been engaging students of all ages during an educational, teaching, and research career that has taken him from Vermont to New York to West Virginia to California to New England and beyond over nearly half a century.

As an undergraduate at UVM, where he was studying to become a medical doctor, he had a "Star Club" for 4-H kids because he had an interest in astronomy and a future wife, Gerrie, then a county extension agent in Lamoille County, who encouraged him in his outreach interests. At the time, 1965-66, there had been no exploration via satellites and Rock and his 4-Hers pretty much relied on backyard telescopes and postulation about the planets.

It was also in 1965 that Rock had a life-defining moment–one that in all likelihood catapulted him out of his native Vermont, into the wider world, and away from a possible career as a high school science teacher. For although he planned to become a physician, several things conspired to nudge him off that chosen path, including a simple mandate.

"In the second semester of my junior year, my advisor made me take a required course, Botany 101. I told him I didn't need to because I was going be a doctor and he pointed out that if I wanted my degree in zoology a botany class was a given. So I took it, and it ended up changing my life," Rock recalls.

Instead of the messy musculature of dead cats and mud puppies of pre-med studies, Rock was struck by how organized, beautiful and simple plant cellular structure was. "There were three or four main tissue systems and that's all. It was so clear, well defined and functional. I was hooked, changed my major, and crammed all my botany credits into my senior year."

Which, to make a long story shorter, eventually landed him at Alfred University in upstate New York as an assistant professor of botany for nine years before heading to NASA-JPL and work in the hollers of West Virginia. Here, in the heavily forested eastern panhandle hard against the Blue Ridge Mountains, Rock made a scientific name for himself, was shot at by moonshiners, and eventually did outreach of the Hollywood kind by helping propel a few kids out of the hills and hollers and into the halls of universities–a first for their families.

Space: the fungal frontier

It was 1982 and as site botanist for the joint NASA/Geosat Test Case remote sensing study in Lost River, WV, Rock was charged with using remote sensing to find evidence of natural gas seeps in the forests of the Appalachian Mountains. He had hypothesized that certain vegetation, specifically maple trees, would tolerate exposure to the natural gas in the soil whereas the predominant oaks in the forests would not. Moreover, he asserted this would be due to a difference in the delicate root fungi between the two types of trees and that this could be detected from space via satellite–specifically, with the Thematic Mapper, a spectral remote sensing instrument onboard Landsat 4.

Rock at JPL  
In this 1986 photo from Vasquez Rocks, CA, Rock and his technician Richard Ally troubleshoot the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's portable field reflectance spectrometer, a prototype of today's vastly more portable models. Photo by Anne Kahle.

As a botanist, Rock was already something of a square peg in the round hole of NASA JPL and his hypothesis raised an eyebrow or two.

"Everyone thought I was crazy," he recalls. "I even got a proposal back from NASA headquarters and the program manager had written, 'Seeing fungi from space? Nonsense!' But after a long discussion, he finally funded it."

Rock ended up proving his hypothesis by discovering that, indeed, little, curiously shaped pockets of maple trees amongst the oaks indicated areas of the forest where the natural gas was seeping up through 6,000 feet of ancient, cracked bedrock.

"That was one of the really exciting parts of my career–showing that mycorrhizal fungi in maples could stand the anaerobic conditions in the soil while the oaks, which had a different kind of fungi, couldn't." Rock adds, "I reveled in the glory and the research became a big deal."

Another big deal with Landsat, which was launched in 1982, was the $100 million calibration effort Rock headed up that enlisted the help of the Hardy County Cougars–high school kids from Lost River.

The project involved creating alternating squares of black and white plastic measuring 100 x 100 yards to create a humungous pixel that Landsat 4 could get a "snapshot" of during a flyover high above. This would be used to calibrate the onboard Thematic Mapper to ensure accuracy.

"So for a week and a half during the summer, the Hardy County Cougars worked from 8 a.m. to dusk rolling out long sheets of the plastic and installing grommets to hold them in place," says Rock. "It was a huge deal and a completely novel experience for those kids."

This was very rural West Virginia, Rock adds, and few of the students had ever considered going to college. But after working on the Landsat project, and getting paid, Rock has since learned that some 40 percent of the kids had decided they wanted to go to college at the University of West Virginia or elsewhere.

  barry rock
Rock using a refractometer to determine the salinity of subsurface water in a mangrove swamp in Playa Del Carman, Mexico.
Photo by Natasha Leushanko.

"A few of these kids got so pumped by the experience that we funded their way out to JPL where they helped us analyze data from Landsat. So again, this is just another example of the power of outreach with respect to engaging young students in science," says Rock.

For years afterward, he would receive Christmas cards and postcards from students and their parents in thanks for what turned out to be the life-changing experience of doing actual, hands-on science with a NASA scientist.

Two strikes, Moore, and you're out

Three separate, unrelated events propelled Rock from California to UNH: the Challenger disaster, the Night Stalker murders, and Berrien Moore III, founding director of EOS.

Rock had been doing some space shuttle-based research at JPL but when the Challenger blew up in 1986, the shuttle program was suspended–for three years it turns out. And when serial killer Richard Rameriz a.k.a. the "Night Stalker" struck within two blocks of Rock's home while he was doing research in Germany, upon Rock's return Gerrie pronounced in no uncertain terms that it was time to go. So when, not longer after that, Rock gave a research talk at a remote sensing conference in San Diego and Moore introduced himself afterwards and offered Rock a job at UNH, another twist of fate sent Rock packing for greener pastures.

"I presented the research I'd been doing on Camel's Hump mountain in Vermont, which I had conducted simultaneously with the West Virginia work, and Berrien came up to me afterwards and, in a nutshell said, 'Your talk on Camel's Hump was really amazing. Are you happy at JPL?'," Rock recalls.

Done deal.

Rock notes that not only did Moore want the kind of research Rock was doing to be part of the EOS mix but, once he was on the job at UNH, "it was clear that Berrien understood the value of outreach and was also very supportive of my efforts in that regard."

He adds, "As an institute, UNH has been a tremendous supporter of my outreach and public engagement activities and outreach has become such a major theme here at the university." Furthermore, Rock notes with pleasure as he closes out his career that, "outreach has, I think, become a major contributor to the way many of us do science."

by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.