October 29, 2007


Shooting for the stars —

Local student to discuss Mars project


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Dryden High School senior Nicki Button stands next to a photo of the martian landscape at Cornell where she studies Mars three days per week.

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — An upcoming installment of a science lecture series at the high school that spotlights experts in their fields will feature a familiar face — a Dryden High School senior who has been working on the Mars Rover project.
Nicole “Nicki” Button, a 17-year-old astronomer, is scheduled to speak about her work as a volunteer intern at Cornell University. She has been studying surface types on Mars and attending planning meetings for the Mars Rover project, in the Space Sciences Building since summer.
Button, who has had an interest in space since she was a youngster, will present her work at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 during the “Conversation with a Scientist,” a series held periodically at the high school.
“I’m going to try to show exciting features on Mars,” Button said, about her presentation to schoolmates, teachers and the public.
She will talk about the mountain Olympus Mons, which is taller than Mount Everest on a planet that is smaller than Earth — its height reaches above the atmosphere. She said even in a global dust storm the peak of the mountain is visible.
During the summer, Button was working on studies identifying chemically interesting regions — areas enriched or depleted in a mineral — and one mineral type called Surface Type 2, located in the Northern Lowlands of Mars.
Through this study scientists could gain a better understanding of the geology of Mars, she said, possibly even determining if water once existed there.
Button said she worked at Cornell for four or five full weeks during the summer and then about half a week for the rest of the summer. “I asked if I could continue this.”
So during school, she has been going every other day during the last part of the school day when she has study halls, Monday, Wednesday and Friday one week and Tuesday and Thursday the next week.
During the summer she had sat in on planning meetings for the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit. This fall she worked more directly with the team working on the rovers, including Steve Squyres, a professor of astronomy at Cornell and the principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Project.
Thursday Button was reading about the atmosphere on Mars for a new project on whether the planet has clouds.
Button also plays soccer, basketball and softball and is a member of National Honor Society, the Science Olympiad and Serteen, a youth community service organization.
She is busy putting together college applications, including one for early admission to Cornell.
“The weekends are busy with homework,” Button said.
Obtaining the internship took work, but eventually Button was referred to Nancy Schaff, the outreach coordinator of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell. Schaff hooked her up with graduate student Suniti Karunatillake during the summer. Button had asked her chemistry teacher Mary Kay Hickey if she knew of any summer internships and Hickey, who had participated in a number of activities at Cornell University, referred her to Cornell.
“My role was fairly minimal,” Hickey said, about helping Button get an internship.  “It’s not unusual for college students to come there to work from all over the world. It is difficult for a high school student to be competitive.”
“It’s not something we do all the time,” said Schaff, who has been with Cornell for a year and a half. She said this is the first time a high school student has interned since she has been at Cornell.
“Originally it was just a summer internship,” Schaff said, noting it worked out so well Button has continued her work with Diane Bollen, who works with the Mars rovers.
“She is just phenomenal. It’s been a great experience for Nicki,” said Schaff.
Schaff said high school students do participate in a variety of programs at Cornell. For example, the end of June students participated in a three-day astronomy program in which Button helped present. She said Button also gave a talk at the Planetary Lunch Series at Cornell early this fall semester. Graduate students and some professors attended.
“She’s a great role model,” Schaff said.
Button said she plans to earn a doctorate degree in astronomy so she can become a researcher.
“It’s going to make such a difference,” Schaff said about her work at Cornell and how it will help her in college. “She’s really focused.”




Marathon pulls off one night of fright

Organizers hold annual haunted house after state raises code issues

Staff Reporter

MARATHON — Approximately 375 people attended the town’s annual haunted house Saturday after organizers and the state came to a comprise, allowing the event to run just for one night.
“I was happy with the attendance in relation to being open, then closed, then open for only one night,” said Rich Holl, who organizes the haunted house with his wife, Ethanie, and the Cortland County Young Marines.
This was the fourth year for the haunted house and the second year it has been in the Civic Building. Holl said attendance in the first three years was typically more than 2,000 people over two nights. To receive a ticket, people brought in cash or food donations.
With attendance low this year, Holl raised less than $700, two-thirds less than usual, he said.
“We don’t have a whole lot of money to donate back into the community this year,” Holl said. “We are thinking about giving some of the money to the village for a new fire safety system for the civic community center.”
Although the event did not raise as much money as in past years, Ethanie Holl said it was still a successful night.
“Marathon is small and here you have peer groups interacting that don’t normally interact. Now they have a common interest. Even with parents and their kids,” she said. “This is a memory they will have for many, many years, and one they will share with the community.”
The haunted house this year had a theme of a toy factory. There were 12 different rooms and Holl said he counted at least 62 ways someone could go through the haunted house.
Each room had a different toy theme, such as Chucky’s Playhouse, G.I. Joe and the Barbie Room. Volunteers working the rooms interacted with the attendees.
“This one wasn’t as scary,” said Briana Phillips, 10, of Marathon. Phillips came to the haunted house early in the evening with some of her friends, in case it got crowded later in the evening.
Michael McCallun, 17, of Cortland, worked in one of the rooms within the haunted house. He is a member of the Cortland County Young Marines.
“I think it’s still a really big hit for the public even though it is only open for one night because it’s for a good cause,” said McCallun, who has been participating in the event for four years. “I think the theme is interesting, it’s a new twist.”
Holl said he will be talking with children in the community to decide next year’s theme.
Holl said they are still considering the Civic Building as the location for next year’s haunted house.



South Main St. land deal at center of race

Staff Reporter

More than any other race, the contest for the 5th Ward Legislature seat between incumbent Democrat Ron Van Dee and Republican challenger Kathie Wilcox, may hinge on the failed south Main Street land deal.
Wilcox is running, more or less, in direct response to the deal. She was a prominent spokesman for a number of 5th Ward residents who vocally opposed the county’s original vote to purchase nine parcels on and near south Main Street. That opposition prompted legislators to reconsider the vote to purchase, which resulted in numerous lawsuits and a judge’s ruling against the county.
“I think south Main Street really brought to light to me the fact that there was just no concern from the Legislature about the people being heard prior to a major decision being made,” Wilcox said. “I think we have a majority of people in the Legislature who believe they’re there to make decisions for the whole, but they don’t want any input from the whole, and I don’t think that’s how it should work.”
Van Dee originally voted in favor of the project, but he also led the charge after receiving input from the community to overturn the original vote.
“The people spoke to me, they let me know how they felt, and I reconsidered my vote, it’s as simple as that,” Van Dee said. “If the people want somebody who tells them, ‘I’m going to listen,’ that’s fine, or they can keep somebody who can say, ‘I have listened.’”
Both Wilcox and Van Dee said since the county was compelled to purchase the two commercial properties involved with the deal, the option of building a new location for the Area Agency on Aging on south Main Street is a good one.
Van Dee said it is important to have better communication between legislators and with the community.
Wilcox agreed, suggesting a monthly newsletter, along with the possibility of including a community member on certain committees.
“I’m hearing from people who want to be involved, but they don’t know how to be, other than running for public office, and I think we should try to come up with more options,” she said.
Wilcox also said she would like to see more discussion by the Legislature in general meetings, rather than in closed caucuses.
“The people come out to hear what their representatives are thinking, but all of the sudden a decision is made,” Wilcox said.
While Wilcox pointed out complaints with the current county government, Van Dee pointed out that the Legislature has significantly improved its operations, particularly with its finances.




City tax base issue in Council matchup

Staff Reporter

The city’s 6th Ward candidates disagree on what should be done to shore up the city’s shrinking tax base in relation to an ever-expanding hospital.
Democratic Alderwoman Susan Feiszli is defending the seat, trying to win a third term and hold off her Republican challenger, Alan Jones.
Feiszli is a self-employed architect and the owner of Valley Design. She points to the attention being drawn to multi-family rental properties in the city, due in part to her push for a moratorium on new residential development, which fizzled but also cleared the way for the city’s ongoing revision to its code.
Feiszli is also cited her work on flooding issues in the area.
Jones is a product line manager for BorgWarner Morse TEC in Ithaca, a graduate of Leadership Cortland, a member of the St. Mary’s School advisory board and a Cub Scout leader.
Feiszli said she supports talking with the hospital to urge that it begins to contribute to the tax base, and wonders how many of its employees actually work in the city.
Jones said he does not think there is anyway to squeeze income for the city out of the nonprofits and worries that SUNY Cortland and the CRMC might be scapegoats.
“I think we need to focus on making those institutions strong. It’s unfortunate to be talking about the school’s and hospital’s growth as a problem,” Jones said.
Both candidates said the size of their ward and the different issues spread across it made it an interesting race.
The Riverside Plaza, which has been an eyesore and issue of concern for years, is in financial trouble and Feiszli and Jones would like to see it developed.
Feiszli supports a strategic plan for the complex that would layout a blueprint for development, perhaps as a larger initiative toward improving the look of Cortland’s “gateway” from Interstate 81’s Exit 11. The planned Tioughnioga River Trail could be tied in to the larger vision, she added.
Jones would like to try to do something about vacant properties near the exit, and welcomes further business growth.