Local student studies in Antarctica

Abel Romer likes the path less travelled. He has lived in Sonoma his entire life but has made different choices than his peers every step along the way. Romer attended Stone Bridge Charter in Napa for elementary and middle school. After graduating from Santa Rosa’s Summerfield Waldorf High School in 2012, he chose a university that was founded just five years prior – Quest University – located near Whistler Mountain outside of Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The president of Quest came to my high school and gave a presentation in 11th grade and I was interested in the fact that its curriculum is very different from your standard school,” he said. Essentially, the 540-student college is organized on a block schedule, which means that Romer takes only one class at a time for a month, and classes top out at 20 students. Also unique to Quest is that at the end of the second year, students devise a “Question” (a topic of research/inquiry that interests them) and spend the next two years working on that “Question.” All students also write a major senior thesis. Romer was not scared off by the rigor as he comes from a family that takes education seriously. His father, Chip, founded and now runs the new Waldorf-inspired Credo High School in Rohnert Park and his mother, Sallie, is the lead kindergarten teacher at Woodland Star Charter.

Now a sophomore at Quest, Romer is currently completing all of his mandatory course seminars (math, humanities and social sciences). Quest has no majors but at the end of this year, Romer must choose his area of focus. He explained, “I’m inclined to choose mathematics, but I’m also interested in genetics and neuroscience, and have yet to resolve this issue.” While he is loving Quest, he said, “I’m torn, because my Waldorf education never forced my to divide and specify my interests, and now I’m being told to focus on one or two subjects.”

Quest is a unique university in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the class it offers in Antarctica every other year, led by a biology professor who is a former Antarctic expedition leader. Romer was fortunate to have been chosen to participate last November.

Much of the two-week trip to the bottom of the earth was a tourist adventure, with some academic coursework thrown in. “We were on a boat with other tourists and engaged in most of the same activities as them, but in our free time, we read scientific papers concerning the general importance of Antarctica (the effects of krill fishing, the effects of global warming, the information derived from ice cores and what it can tell us about global temperature trends, etc.)”

One of the most surprising and shocking things Romer learned was that the ecosystem of Antarctica, unlike any other, relies entirely on one secondary producer (an organism that consumes primary producers which produce biomass from sunlight). This means that if Antarctica’s secondary producer, krill, is removed from the environment, the entire ecosystem will collapse.  He explained that there is a great quantity of krill in the Southern Ocean but because of its health benefits, krill is being extracted more and more by humans, with little knowledge of the threshold level where disturbances will begin to occur.

While he signed up somewhat on a lark, Romer took away from the trip “a deep sense of the interconnectedness of places on the Earth that seem remarkably isolated.”

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