The forgotten man behind Biosphere 2

University of Arizona journalism professor Carol Schwalbe, left, speaks with Russian film presenter Peter Romanov at Biosphere 2 on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014, in Oracle, Arizona. Romanov, along with co-director Alexey Shutov, right, and director of photography Nikolai Orlov, are making a documentary about the life of geologist Vladimir Vernadsky. (Photo by Justin Sayers)

University of Arizona journalism professor Carol Schwalbe, left, speaks with Russian film presenter Peter Romanov at Biosphere 2 on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014, in Oracle, Arizona. Romanov, along with co-director Alexey Shutov, right, and director of photography Nikolai Orlov, are making a documentary about the life of geologist Vladimir Vernadsky. (Photo by Justin Sayers)

The “grandfather” of Biosphere 2 is finally getting his due.

Vladimir Vernadsky, a scientist who made contributions to the fields of geochemistry and biogeochemistry, usually isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton or Galileo. But the inventor of the concept of biosphere is the subject of a documentary in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth. The film, which was commissioned by the Russian Geographical Society, is being shot by a Russian film crew.

The crew, which consists of co-director Alexey Shutov, film presenter and geologist Peter Romanov and director of photography Nikolai Orlov, recently spent four days filming at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona. The University of Arizona-owned facility serves as a giant vivarium where researchers conduct Earth systems experiments.

The film crew stayed in casitas at the facility and spent all day shooting, only taking breaks for meals and sleep.

A fourth member of the crew, co-director Julia Kolesnik, stayed back in Moscow, Russia, to tend to her 3-month-old son.

The film crew approached Biosphere 2 about filming at the facility. Biosphere 2 typically authorizes only five or six filmmakers a year. Roughly 20 groups have shot here since the University of Arizona took over the facility in 2007.

The documentary should be done by winter 2015 and will be shown on Russian television, Romanov said.

The documentary has taken the crew to France, where Vernadsky worked and lived and wrote a number of his most famous books, and parts of Russia. But Arizona was different because it has a mystical aspect: Vernadsky predicted in his memoirs that something like Biosphere 2 would be built in the States.

Defining Biosphere

Vladimir Vernadsky was born in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire, on March 12, 1863. His father was a Ukrainian political economy professor, his mother a Russian noblewoman. Vernadsky graduated from Saint Petersburg University in 1885 and entered the field of mineralogy.

It was during this time that he developed the idea of “biosphere,” a term that was created by Austrian geologist Eduard Suess in 1875. Biosphere refers to the thin envelope of water, oxygen, food and energy sources that living beings survive on, said Matt Adamson, assistant to the director of Biosphere 2. In other words, it’s a summation of the Earth’s ecosystems.

“Many people who work in this area say he’s the father of the term ‘biosphere,’” Adamson said. “He’s the one who coined it.”

Vernadsky built on Suess’ concept and theorized that the resources that make up Earth’s ecosystems, like water, atmosphere and land, are finite. “He essentially defined the Earth as a closed system,” Adamson said.

Vernadsky’s research inspired Claire Folsom, a scientist at the University of Washington in the 1960s. Folsom conducted research in ecospheres, or tiny, sealed glass vessels. Ecospheres, which are essentially aquarium-sized miniatures of the Earth, were the predecessors of Biosphere 2.

Although Vernadsky died in 1945, Biosphere 2 was created with his theories and principles in mind, Adamson said. Construction of the facility began in 1987 and was completed in 1991.

Vernadsky probably isn’t mentioned in the same breath as top scientists because his research affects a specialized audience. “His science is esoteric enough because it’s not the first thing you’re going to be teaching,” Adamson said. “He’s enough of a niche scientist, so you’d have to get pretty deep into science education before you run across him.”

Long-Lasting Impact

Vernadsky’s research was holistic, looking at how both ecosystems and humans played a role in evolution. His integrative approach was not widely accepted during his day but has become the basis for research at many places around the world, including Biosphere 2.

Vernadsky’s ability to “foresee the perspective” and be a step ahead of his co-workers stemmed from his broad background in science, said co-director Julia Kolesnik. Even today, his scientific value is seen in many fields, including mineralogy, radiology, biosphere studies, geochemistry and biogeochemistry, a scientific discipline he created.

Dragos Zaharescu, a postdoctoral researcher at Biosphere 2, is working on a project that looks at how plant-microbe interactions affect the weathering of four rock types: basalt, granite, schist and rhyolite. The research is helping fill a hole in how physical forces combined with plants, bacteria and fungi result in the weathering of primary minerals and the formation of soil.

As a result, Zaharescu said that if he could bring one person, living or dead, to Biosphere 2, he would choose Vernadsky. “He was the first person who saw Earth as a whole living organism,” Zaharescu said.

Mystery Man

Kolesnik came across Vernadsky’s work while she was studying geography at Moscow State University. She has watched a number of documentaries about the researcher and found that there were too many missing parts of his life and heritage.

A lot of those holes stem from the mysterious aspect of Vernadsky, whose work in some areas is still being deciphered.

For example, Vernadsky also created the term noosphere, which refers to the third stage of life in the development of Earth. It follows geosphere, or inanimate matter, and biosphere, or biological life. The first two stages represent life and cognition, the two factors responsible for Earth’s evolution.

Although he invented the concept of noosphere in the 1920s, it still isn’t fully understood by the scientific community.

Kolesnik said she took on the documentary not only to fill the holes about Vernadsky’s life but also to inspire researchers to revisit his discoveries and show their continued relevance today.

“In Russia the figure of Vernadsky is at the moment sort of static, as if made of stone,” Kolesnik said via email. “Behind the name and monuments, the actual person and his doings are lost. I hope with our film we’d be able to show a live person and alive ideas and create interest for the modern science.”

Note: This assignment was completed for my Journalism 572: Science Journalism class.

Public health chief finds balance in his life

Dr. Francisco Garcia, director of the Pima County Health Department, sits in his office on Monday, Sept. 28, 2014. Garcia, who previously worked as a gynecologist and professor at the University of Arizona, took this position in . (Photograph by Justin Sayers)

Dr. Francisco Garcia, director of the Pima County Health Department, sits in his office on Monday, Sept. 28, 2014. Garcia, who previously worked as a gynecologist and professor at the University of Arizona, took this position in Jan. 2013. (Photograph by Justin Sayers)

When Dr. Francisco Garcia turns around to enjoy the view of Kino Sports Complex from the window of his second-floor office, he’s greeted by a picture on the sill of three of the most important people to him: his wife, Amy Schneider, and their two sons, 8-year-old Diego and 5-year-old Marco. Turning back around, he sees photos of two more familiar faces—Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, a duo whose social justice work inspired Garcia in his professional career.

“It’s really easy to lose what’s important unless you have it in front of you,” he said.

Balancing his professional and personal life is just one of the many challenges Garcia faces every day as director of the Pima County Health Department.

New Requirements

Garcia has been the county’s public health chief since January 2013. At work, he’s in charge of more than 350 employees who control everything from animal care to restaurant inspections to disease control. At home, he’s in charge of helping his two boys with their homework.

But while both aspects of his life are important, he makes sure to keep them separate. “My family is my family, and they’re obviously really important to me, but that’s a completely different kind of thing,” he said.

After Garcia drops his kids off at Davis Bilingual Magnet School each morning, he makes his way to his office and grabs the electronic device closest to him. He looks at 100 to 200 unread emails requesting assistance and triages them by importance.

Then it’s problem-solving time. “My days are usually full of meetings with different partners, with our clinicians, with our teams here,” he said. “My life is one giant meeting.”

A New Challenge

Right now Pima County is experiencing an outbreak of syphilis, according to Garcia. By August, 77 cases had been reported, which is more than twice as many as last year and more than three times as many as the year before.

Garcia’s job is to figure out why that’s happening and what the health department can do to combat an outbreak. “We try to understand why those things happen and put them within the context of what’s going on nationally and regionally,” he said. “Then we try to develop an approach to how to address those kinds of things. That’s what the challenge is.”

The health department has found that the majority of those affected by syphilis are men who have sex with men. As a result, the department has focused its attention on raising awareness on homosexual dating sites and by having bartenders at predominantly gay bars wear syphilis awareness T-shirts.

It’s similar to the action he took last year when whooping cough broke out at an elementary school in the Vail School District. Garcia had to keep children without immunizations away from school for 21 days. It wasn’t meant to be punitive, he said, but rather to prevent an illness from spreading to youngsters who could die from whooping cough.

Returning To His Roots

Garcia’s administrative job is very different from his previous position running the family and child health graduate program in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. He held that post from 1998 until 2013. Before that, he trained medical students and residents as obstetricians and gynecologists.

Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, a UA professor who knows Garcia from their time together on the faculty of the College of Public Health, regards him as a role model. “He is truly dedicated to improving the health of all residents of Pima County,” she said via email.

Jacobs praised Garcia as a great mentor to young researchers. “He has a very impressive research record in addressing health disparities, and he is very active in trying to promote vaccinations in Pima County and the state.”

Garcia’s research at UA focused on women’s reproductive health, specifically cervical cancer and prevention. “I’m most proud that I was awarded a distinguished professor title because it means that my research has value and has value for the institution,” he said.

But his background is in public health. Garcia earned a masters’ degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University, but he always had an itch to return to his roots. He also worked as a health policy staffer on Capitol Hill during the latter years of George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

Since then, he has kept the pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy on his desk. Both men emphasized the impact that individuals can have on society and how public health intervention can level the playing field. “Everything that I do has been motivated by what these two gentlemen wrote,” Garcia said.

Garcia was approached about becoming director of the Pima County Health Department about five years ago, but he wasn’t ready for a big career change at the time.

But it was different this time. “I had the opportunity to look into this new set of challenges, and it was a good opportunity, so I took it,” he said. “The reason I took it was because of the opportunity to use other tools in my toolbox,” specifically his public policy background.

Garcia has no regrets about making such a big decision. “I get to wake up every morning and get to think about how to make this jurisdiction a healthier, more livable community,” he said. “I just can’t be happier than to do that.”

As for his family, he’s thinking about them too.

“I have two little ones,” Garcia said, “and I want to leave them in a community that is healthy.”

Note: This assignment was completed for my Journalism 572: Science Journalism class.

There’s Something in the Water

When I was 10, my family took one of our triannual trips to Mammoth Lakes, California, a mountain town about 300 miles from our home in Los Angeles. One day we went fishing for rainbow trout on Lake George, bluer than usual after a big winter snowfall. Fishing pole in hand, I suddenly felt a tug on my line. I frantically began reeling — at the time, the only thing I really knew how to do when it came to fishing — until my sister, Erin, screamed.

Something speckled and slippery emerged from the reflections of the brown peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Before I knew it, my grandma had pulled out her Kodak, and I was immortalized in a photograph with a 14-inch, 1-pound rainbow trout.

Until my three older sisters and I moved on to college, my family would vacation at our condo in Mammoth Lakes as a family three times a year — twice in the winter and once in the summer. My grandmother, who would always come along, passed away in 2006.

Mammoth has always offered an escape from the fast-paced, big-city lifestyle that I’ve been accustomed to my entire life. Spending a week in the fresh mountain air every few months cleans out the smog from my lungs.

I will always remember waking up to the smell of French toast, turkey bacon and eggs. After going upstairs to the middle floor of our condo, I’d find my grandma, spatula in hand, in the kitchen.

While she didn’t participate in all the outdoor activities, she always made sure we had a big meal to get us ready for the day. Once we were done eating, she’d take her spot on the couch and watch The Price Is Right.

Breakfast duty is now the property of my dad and Erin, who is a professional chef.

The day is spent mostly outside, starting with a morning game of tennis and ending with a late-night dip in the Jacuzzi and stargazing. Winter trips consist of dressing up like a marshmallow and hitting the slopes.

Stargazing used to be led by grandma, who would take us outside and point out the constellations, everything from Orion’s belt to the big dipper. Spending the first 18 years of my life in the second-most populated city in the country, seeing stars still doesn’t get old.

Just over a month ago, I was back at Lake George with my dad and Erin when I felt a familiar tug. I grabbed the pole and began to reel in. At the end of my hook was a recognizable sight. For the third time that day I handed Erin my Droid Razr and she took a picture.

We ended that day with a half-hour in the Jacuzzi. We were looking up at the stars on the 200-foot walk back to our condo when my sister Amanda said, “You know who I always think about when we’re here?” I did.

Note: This assignment was completed for my Journalism 572: Science Journalism class.