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Beauty Of Antarctica Beckons, But U.Va. Graduate’s Passion Is Teaching

May 6, 2002-- With its subzero temperatures, relentlessly white landscape and daunting isolation, Antarctica is not high on the list of summer destinations.

Yet Emily Yam is chafing to get there — for her second visit in July.

"A certain type of person gets addicted to Antarctica, and I think I’m one," she said.

A fifth-year student who will graduate May 19 from the University of Virginia with a bachelor of arts degree in biology and a master’s in teaching from the Curry School of Education, Yam was both humbled and dazzled by her 40 days at the bottom of the world last summer. She was the youngest person among nearly 50 researchers aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer on an expedition coordinated by a group called Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics.

The temperatures were numbing, to be sure. "The coldest I felt was minus 60 degrees Celsius, which is about minus 76 Fahrenheit. That included the wind chill factor. I went right back inside," she said and chuckled.

Only once did she suffer from the cold. Rubber gloves she wore one day while towing nets allowed moisture to get against her hands and freeze. "The next day was so painful I couldn’t touch anything."

That pain was overshadowed by Antarctica’s beauty.

"It’s just an amazing place. Extreme is such a small word for it. Everything is so extreme, and it’s so pristine," she said.

Even the white upon white of snow and ice yielded hidden gems. "Everything is white, but it’s not white. You see subtle colors within the white, different shades. It’s so beautiful."

The isolation caused a few wrinkles — brief spasms of being homesick, mild cravings for something other than ship’s food — but it heightened her awareness of things, from daily details to life in general.

"You just appreciate everything," Yam said. "I felt very aware of everything."

Their mission focused on studying the distribution and survival of Antarctic krill, and its availability as a food source to other animals such as seals, penguins and whales.

Yam credits good luck with landing a berth on the Palmer. She had worked several seasonal stints at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, and during the summer of 2000, she used her breaks to drop in on the polar research group.

"I’ve always been interested in polar research." She became friends with one of the scientists, and when that person needed a graduate student for the summer trip, Yam got the nod.

As much as she loves Antarctica, Yam loves teaching more. Her eyes light up when she talks about being a teaching assistant in a vertebrate zoology lab at the University. And her experience student-teaching at Potomac Falls High School in Loudoun County was rewarding, both for her and for teachers there.

One of Curry’s initiatives is its technology transfer program — introducing teachers to computer technology that can help improve student learning.

"What we attempt to do is use student-teaching as a vehicle for technology integration in the schools by modeling technology use, just as they would provide the pedagogical model," she said.

The school’s effort seems to be paying off, said Randy Bell, assistant professor in science and technology education at the Curry School and Yam’s adviser. In addition, teachers who have done unusual research, such as in Antarctica, enter the classroom with greater credibility and quickly capture students’ interest.

"Emily is kind of the epitome of that kind of teacher coming into the picture," Bell said. "She is one example, and we have others with experiences just as unique and as interesting as hers. She’s exceptional, and she has a lot of exceptional classmates as well."

Like others, Yam has made helping others a priority since coming to U.Va. from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia. She has been a peer mentor and volunteer in numerous programs.

And although she isn’t sure what she’ll do after she returns from Antarctica in September, her optimism is infectious. "At this point, I’m up for doing anything," she said. "I just want to be open" to possibilities.

Given her interests and background, don’t be surprised if those possibilities focus on teaching. She has a genuine passion for it.

"I think that once you have the bug, you end up being a teacher, even in everyday life."

Contact: Lee Graves, (434) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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