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Exploring Earth’s final frontier

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily
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For Dr. Hazel Barton, many of her work days could be considered a field trip.

By exploring caves in the name of science she has found a way to do what so many of us try to do everyday ” combine work with play. Barton divides her time between two offices, one being a classroom at the University of Northern Kentucky, the other an underground fortress of rock ” her playground/workspace.

“Her bio was a remarkable balance of adventure and intelligence. Her story is almost too good to be true,” said Fraidy Aber, executive director for the Vail Symposium.

Caving has been a passion for Barton since she was a teenager in England on her first Outward Bound voyage. She moved to the states in 1993 to finish her degree in microbiology. Now, when she’s not teaching her college students the ins and outs of medical microbiology, she’s doing research in the same field by exploring cave systems throughout America. These dank, dark caverns contain a whole other universe of organisms and eco-systems, an untapped field of research for someone like Barton.

“We’re trying to understand how microbes adapt to these environments and in doing so we’ve learned a lot of things,” Barton said.

Among her discoveries are species of microbes unique to the caves they are found in, which could help aid in the creation of new medicines. There is also the potential to discover how organisms live in places without many of the resources ” such as light and food ” that exist topside. Learning how these species survive in such bleak conditions could help scientists find ways to prepare the world for major climate changes or finding life on other planets.

Barton and a team of scientists, students and guides study various caves throughout North America like Mammoth in Kentucky, Lechuguilla in New Mexico and Glenwood Caverns in Colorado. They even work in Venezuelan caves and are preparing for an expedition to study caves in Antarctica. Each of these locations offer a new chance to study micro-organisms that would otherwise go undiscovered. Many of the organisms found in caves are fragile and ancient, and could hold the key to understanding things like the process of adaptation and evolution in all creatures, Barton said.

“The primary goal is to understand life. We don’t really understand much about life on our planet. We know that the majority of life on our planet is probably microscopic … some of the organisms are 30,000 years old and we don’t know anything about them,” Barton said.

The impact that Barton’s research could have on medicine, climate-change studies and many other areas of science is unknown for the time being. She said that her research, just five years in, may not make a huge difference for some time.

Many people want to know how Barton’s research is going to affect them or benefit a problem they have, a question that she understands but can’t answer. She simply doesn’t know yet, but is confident that her research will help mankind somehow, especially since she is working closely with drug companies on possible cures for diseases, which can only be found in cave-dwelling micro-organisms.

“Every time we do something there is a potential benefit,” Barton said.

And even though she gets to explore caves on the clock, it’s not all about having a good time. According to her a good cave explorer understands how caves form, the geology of the rock and how water moves through a cave. There is also the tedious task of surveying and mapping the caves, an essential part of the job.

All those boring parts are easy to overlook for Barton though. She is very optimistic about where her research will take her and science in the future. The possibilities for discovery truly are limitless in what Barton considers the Earth’s final frontier, and caves need to be understood and protected to make sure her research can continue.

“It’s the last place that people can go as regular people and be somewhere no one has ever been before,” Barton said.

It’s this mystical quality and her eagerness to learn that keeps Barton fascinated with caves and the unknown mysteries they contain.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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