Marine center's tours aimed at educating locals

JUNEAU: Explaining least-understood arm of government is goal.

July 23, 2011 

Bob Callahan and Sally Hessig of Wisconsin view one of the aquariums at NOAA's Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau recently as they wait for a public tour to begin.


JUNEAU -- Big green tubs filled the room like oversized kiddie pools packed in a garage. Beneath the rippling surface of one, tiny salmon fry swirled as if circling a slow-motion drain.

Ralph Steeves, the guide on this behind-the-scenes tour of the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute, explained these fry were part of an experiment to determine how hydrocarbons -- commonly found in crude oil -- affect the development of salmon.

The floor of the tub was littered with the silvery bodies of fry that had died.

"All oil, no matter what well it came out of, has its own fingerprint," Steeves said. "And there's a machine in here -- there's only two in the United States -- that can model oil aging. It does an analysis of the oil at its inception and then can model out what it's going to look like in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years ..."

Steeves is full of similar facts highlighting work being conducted at the facility, recent findings and interesting tidbits about local marine life. They all tie into a common theme that echoes throughout each tour he leads at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building.

"The main goal of each tour is to help people understand the least-understood branch of the federal government," he said. "I say to people, 'Think of NASA but on the ground and in the ocean.' "

The tours, which run every weekday, excluding holidays, from 1 p.m. to roughly 2 p.m., officially began earlier this summer. Steeves said groups top out at about eight people and are geared toward the local crowd, as opposed to visitors off the cruise ships, though they welcome those individuals as well.

This day, Steeves led the group around the outside of the building to a side entrance that led to a long, sterile-looking hallway.

Behind the glass pane of a door, the garage-like room the group had just left could be seen. A sign identified it as "119 Wet Lab." From this point of view, a huge blue plastic tank loomed just beyond the door. The silver bullet bodies of herring moved slowly past a window in the tank. Steeves said it is in this lab where NOAA scientists conduct experiments. One such study currently under way, he said, was an ocean acidification study. Scientists, he said, are trying to determine the exact level of carbon dioxide in the ocean today. They'll then use that level to make predictions of future levels and try to establish when exactly levels will be too high to reverse. Currently, Steeves said, scientists believe that point may be reached as soon as 2050.

The group continued on to a doorway marked "116 Necropsy Lab."

Inside the narrow room, a long stainless steel sink, roomy enough for a thoroughbred, was rooted in the center.

It's here scientists dissect marine specimens in an effort to determine the cause of death. Lately, he said, they have received more than a few sea lions killed with a rifle. Despite the dirty work that goes on in this lab, Steeves said it's an area that's "cleaner than my bathroom. And my wife's a stickler."

The tour continued past room "105 Cold Storage," where huge freezers hold samples at a chilling minus 90 degrees C. Then, past a room marked "102 Biology Lab 2," where two lab technicians worked with gloved hands over a long cylinder filled with a milky substance. Steeves said work in this lab is focused on establishing the caloric value of marine samples. Another fact: Much of the equipment housed in these labs is worth more than the TSMRI building itself.

Tour attendees peered into each of the labs through the paned windows. But going into the labs is a rarity, Steeves said.

This day, the group got lucky when it approached a doorway marked "211 Genetics."

Colby Marvin, a genetics technician, happened to be leaving his lab as the tour approached.

The group packed into the tiny room as Marvin explained the work he was currently conducting on tracking and mapping DNA samples from salmon bycatches in the Bering Sea. In the corner, a computer screen displayed DNA tags from several salmon caught in the 1980s.

Marvin fielded questions from the group and interested individuals peered closer at the computer.

"Typically, we don't go into the labs unless I've gotten prior permission," Steeves said.

The tour wrapped up in the main atrium, beneath one of two Science on a Sphere displays in Juneau. Using the sphere as a visual tool, Steeves led a presentation that touched on everything from earth air temperatures over time, to the retreat and advance of the polar ice caps.

In a blink, an hour had passed.

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