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Up with the midnight sun.

At this job last summer, Willie Karidis was sometimes up with the sun - the midnight sun, that is. The Fair-banks, Alaska. based teacher spent the summer as an apprentice scientist, learning about how different farming practices affect soil nutrients and plant growth in the far north.

"He's had the chance to see the real nitty-gritty of science-like having to come back, to the lab at 10 o'clock at night to finish a soil moisture measurement and work until midnight," says soil microbiologist Elena Sparrow. She was Katidis' mentor at the ARS Subarctic Research Unit in Fairbanks.

They worked together on a project to see how tillage practices influence the amounts of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in fields sown with barley - one of Alaska's most commonly grown crops.

Karidis was one of 50 participants in last summer's Teacher's Research Fellowship Program. sponsored by the ARS. Since its inception in 1986, the program has hired teachers throughout the country as lab technicians. Hopefully, they'll take back to the classroom a sense of the challenge and excitement of solving scientific problems.

Currently a substitute teacher for Fairbanks' grade schools, Karidis holds a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "But that's all book learning," Karidis notes. "It doesn't get you out there, seeing and feeling how things are really done in the lab and on the farm."

Karidis has a friendly, easygoing manner. as well as a strong interest in renewable resources and alternative sources of energy. He and his wife Nancy live in a small log cabin tucked away in a birch forest just outside of Fairbanks. Their one-room abode has electricity but is without running water - not an uncommon situation for people living outside the city limit

Working indoors during and Alaskan summer demands disciple. The seemingly endless sunshine beckons outdoors enthusiasts like Karidis who want to take advantage of the long bright days of summer before the dark, cold winter sets it.

"We told Willie we'd send him outside now and then to chase the sandhill cranes off the barley fields," jokes Sparrow. The graceful, 3-foottall cranes often raid local barley fields every summer, fattening up for their long flight back to Nebraska.

Despite the kidding, Karidis approached his laboratory work with with a methodical seriousness. He donned a panicle mask, for example, to carefully weigh white soda lime into tiny vials. The mask protected Karidis from inhaling the fine particles and helped him avoid adding carbon dioxide - released when we exhale - to the samples. The absorbent soda lime is used to determine the amount of carbon dioxide released from soils.

The soil samples came from field plots where the barley residue, or straw, had been either plowed under (conventional tillage) or left on the surface conservation tillage). The latter practice is known to stop wind from eroding the soil.

"Basically we're looking at a number of different variables that might influence the nutrient composition in soils - tillage, soil depth, temperature, for example," says Sparrow. In the Fairbanks region, the ground begins to freeze by the first of October and doesn't completely thaw until the end of June. "That means barley straw will break down much more slowly than in warmer regions."

The goal, of course, is to advise farmers how best to manage for greatest yields with least damage to the environment.

That's what appeals to Karidis - a study with a practical purpose and an ecologically sound result.

"Alaska really is a pioneering state," he points out. "Because it's still pristine up here, we have a chance to do things right, from the start."

The Teacher's Fellowship program has given Karidis a new perspective on science, says Sparrow. In fact, the experience inspired him to write a proposal for a new way to teach kids about the process of bringing food from the farm, to the super-market, to our tables. The project would address traditional as well as modern approaches to food gathering, with input from an Eskimo teacher from Fairbanks.
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Title Annotation:apprentice scientists in Alaska
Author:Corliss, Julie
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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