Teacher’s next career peak is at bottom of world

Scott Condon
Aspen Times

Susy Ellison has spent most of her adult life in jobs that make many outdoor enthusiasts envious.

She has patrolled the magnificent buttes and unusual geologic formations of the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park northwest of Moab, Utah.

She has deterred Anasazi pot hunters in south-central Utah’s Grand Gulch.

She has hiked the trails of the San Juan Mountains around Durango as a backcountry ranger.

Despite all those experiences, she’s embarking this fall on what she considers the adventure of a lifetime.

Ellison, a teacher at the Yampah Mountain High School, an alternative institution in Glenwood Springs, was accepted this year into the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic, also known as TEA.

Ellison leaves “for the ice” on Oct. 1 and will work on a science research project until mid-December.

“I’ve always wanted to go. It’s the last place,” she said. “It’s sort of a great unknown.”

Ellison has a bachelor of science degree in wildlife biology and has been interested in environmental education all her life. She was education coordinator at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies from 1985 to 1990. Following that she went back to college and earned her master’s degree in education, then “went big time and started teaching.” She’s been at Yampah for seven years. Ellison maintains ties to the upper Roaring Fork Valley as the president of the board of directors of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop.

She’s always been fascinated with the harsh climate of Antarctica and the stubborn life that fights to survive there.

“It’s another desert to go see, except this one has mountains and snow,” Ellison said. “People think there’s nothing going on there, but they’re wrong.”

There is algae that blooms for a brief time before freeze-drying and going dormant. Then there are the Erebus Bay Weddell seals in eastern McMurdo Sound. Ellison is going there to assist scientists with a seal population study that’s been taking place since 1968. It’s one of the longest, intensive field studies ever of a long-lived mammal.

Over the 34 years, 15,636 seals have been tagged and 144,927 resightings have been recorded. Ellison will be part of a team working for professors Robert Garrott and Jay Rotella of Montana State University. They will tag seal pups, replace broken tags and even try to weigh some of the mammoth creatures, which weigh up to 1,000 pounds.

The study will help determine how marine life that the seals depend on for food is faring and how that regulates the seal population. The team will test four hypotheses by previous investigators about linkages between climate, oceans, ice and Antarctic food webs.

Ellison will be working out of a remote field camp five hours or so from the base at McMurdo Station. She will go to work by snowmobile or snowcat. She will be outfitted with an extreme cold weather outfit and go through snow survival training. The field experience will last up to eight weeks.

The program is supported by the National Science Foundation and organized through Rice University, the Cold Regional Research and Engineering Laboratory and the American Museum of Natural History.

The National Science Foundation grant pays for a substitute teacher at Yampah during Ellison’s absence. But Ellison isn’t free of her teaching duties.

“The whole purpose of this program, besides sending Susy to Antarctica, is to improve science education,” Ellison said.

She will post a daily journal entry on the Internet. There will also be live Internet-based interaction with students that will allow them to ask questions.

Once Ellison returns to Yampah in early 2004, she will be required to mentor three colleagues by sharing her field experiences. The teachers will then design activities and materials about the project for use in the classroom.

Ellison doesn’t think it will take much to interest her students in the project. “Students relate to seals. They’re catchy things,” she said.

Her classes regularly study the most pressing environmental issues in the region, such as the proposal to thin forests to reduce the threat of wildfire, and oil and gas exploration on public lands.

She credited the TEA project with selecting her and other teachers from small schools because it gives them and their students exposure to science research that they otherwise wouldn’t experience.

Ellison hopes that other teachers from small schools around the country get the same opportunity she did. The National Science Foundation grant expires after this year and will be considered for renewal.

“It’s our tax dollars well spent, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

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