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UW Scientist and Olympian to Appear in 'NBC Learn' Segment for Sochi Winter Olympics

September 4, 2013

At the 2006 Winter Olympics, Sarah Konrad, framed against the backdrop of a large glacier, enthusiastically discussed the looming ice formation with a television reporter. However, the talk about the subject of her doctoral dissertation never made the airwaves.

However, the Olympian, who competed in Nordic skiing and the biathlon at the Torino Winter Olympics in 2006, finally got her shot to discuss what she terms her “geeky” side. Demonstrating experiments with water and ice in the “cold lab” in the University of Wyoming S.H. Knight Geology Building, Konrad is now the subject of an NBC Learn segment, which was taped Aug. 27.

“Now, I’ll finally get my science piece in,” says Konrad, who has been associate project director for Wyoming’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) since December.

NBC Learn, the educational arm of NBC News, creates stories, images and primary source documents that are available on demand to teachers, students and parents. NBC Learn, which has been in existence for seven years, also has created many award-winning programs, including “Science of the Winter Olympic Games.”

“They develop web-based videos for teachers to use in the classroom,” Konrad explains. “For the past two Olympic games, they have done a series specifically related to the science of Olympic sport. It’s associated with the whole STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) movement. NBC Learn is partnering with the National Science Foundation (NSF).”

In the spotlight

For her segment, Konrad was interviewed by Caleb Medders, producer of NBC News/NBC Learn. She discussed the science of snow and how it relates to Nordic skiing.

“In general, to people, snow’s just snow,” Konrad says. “But, its properties are really interesting. Depending on the snow, it can control the outcome of a race.”

For example, Konrad referenced a 2010 biathlon (the event combines Nordic skiing and rifle shooting) at the Vancouver Olympics when the U.S. men’s team was hindered by snow conditions. Some competitors started under clear skies. Other competitors left the starting line later, after it began to snow. When a ski runs across new snow crystals, those crystals are pointy and make the snow slow.

“If snow sits in the sun a couple days and the sun is on it, the points on the crystal will melt,” Konrad says. “Crystals will become rounder and smaller, like ball bearings. At that point, you can ski across snow much more quickly.”

The fastest skiing conditions occur when snow is several degrees below that melting point, when the surface of ice crystals is close to the point of being water, a condition Konrad termed as “molecular looseness.”

“It allows the sliding on ice,” she says.

But, if the snow is too close to the melting point, the presence of water in the snowpack causes suction, reducing ski speed.

Sarah Konrad pours salt through a funnel onto crushed ice, which caused the thermometer to plunge dramatically and quickly. The experiment demonstrated how snowpack is hardened to make a ski trail faster for cross-country skiers.In the “cold lab,” which is set at 25 degrees Fahrenheit, Konrad demonstrated to the NBC television crew how to instantly freeze water by hitting a bottle of the distilled liquid. The agitation resulted in the water visibly turning to ice.

“It (pounding on bottle) gives it energy. It kick-starts it,” Konrad says.

In another experiment using a measuring glass and a funnel, Konrad used a hammer to break ice into chunks. She poured salt onto the ice chunks.  As the salt accumulated on the ice chunks, the thermometer’s temperature visibly plummeted -- and quickly.

“It hardens the snowpack. It makes the ski trail hard, essentially,” Konrad says of the experiment that simulates what is done to make a ski trail optimal for racing.

Konrad received her doctorate in geology (with a specialty in glaciology) from UW; her master’s degree in geology from the University of Washington; and her bachelor’s degree in earth sciences from Dartmouth College.

The NBC crew shot about an hour of footage, which will be pared down to a 5-minute segment, one of 10 in the series, Medders says. The segments will be posted on the NBC Learn website about a week before the Winter Olympics, he adds.

Combining science and sport

Konrad says she learned about NBC Learn while attending an EPSCoR meeting in Washington, D.C., during May. She provided her business card to an NSF liaison. NSF partners with NBC and other groups to support the educational series.

“As both an Olympian and a scientist, I thought I might have something to contribute to the program,” Konrad says.

In 2006, at age 38, Konrad became the first U.S. female Olympian to qualify in two sports -- Nordic skiing and the biathlon -- for one Olympic Games. She competed in four events in Torino, Italy, finishing 14th in the women’s cross-country relay. Konrad also placed 32nd (and the first American) in the women’s Nordic 30-kilometer event.

Konrad won her first national Nordic skiing title in 2004 and competed in World Cup cross-country and biathlon events during 2005. Konrad also is a previous three-event national collegiate cycling champion at UW. She won the 2001 National Collegiate Cycling Association national road championships.

“Not only is she a glaciologist, she’s an Olympian,” Medders says of why Konrad is a good fit for the series.

While Konrad’s competitions are now regional biathlons and bike races, she still maintains strong Olympic ties. For the past four years, Konrad was the United States Olympic Committee’s (USOC) athlete representative for biathlon. Now, she serves as chair of the USOC Athletes Advisory Council, which oversees 47 athlete representatives for all of the various Olympic and Paralympic sports.

In her position, she will attend the Sochi Winter Olympics, which take place Feb. 7-23, 2014. Sochi is a city in Krasnodar Krai, Russia, which is located on the Black Sea coast near the border between Georgia/Abkhazia and Russia. She also will attend the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“I think it’s cool,” she says of the science that will be shown on NBC Learn. “Hopefully, the kids will think it’s cool, too.”

Sarah Konrad, associate project director for Wyoming’s EPSCoR office and a 2006 Winter Olympian, is interviewed for an “NBC Learn” segment on the science of snow as it relates to skiing. (UW Photo)

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