For TNL: Checking out furs, skulls and bones in the UAA library

Alaska, Print, Uncategorized

Originally published in The Northern Light

Tucked away in UAA’s own Consortium Library lives the Alaska Resources Library and Information Services, also known as ARLIS. A most peculiar collection, ARLIS allows the public to check out a large variety of Alaskan furs, skulls, bird mounts, fish mounts and hands-on educational kits. ARLIS is known as one of the only libraries who will check these items out to the general public.

“The entire collection is “unusual” in there are few if any libraries that check-out these types of taxidermy items,” Celia Rozen, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game Librarian and ARLIS manager, said.

Formed in 1997, ARLIS is a multi-agency library that is located on the UAA campus in the Consortium Library Building. Funded by state and federal agencies, ARLIS serves the public. The collection comes mainly from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with some furs coming from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A resource on campus many students don’t know about, ARLIS is not only available to students, but also to the public.

“I’ve never heard of it, which is kind of unfortunate considering that sounds like an interesting resource. I can see it being very useful to nursing students like myself considering, in my experience at least, hands on studying with bones and whatnot makes a world of difference when studying,” Rachel Rotola, a nursing student, said.

The taxidermy and educational kits are used by educators, students, camp counselors, artists and other agencies. Some pieces are more popular, Rozen explains.

“The snowy owl is probably the most popular, especially for Harry Potter-type events. Cub Scouts who are moving up into “wolf” or “bear” borrow the furs for their initiation ceremonies. Artists use the skulls for their creations, and a UAA art class has a project annually that involves checking out skulls and creating a life-like pencil drawing. The items are constantly in use,” Rozen said. “The collection is very popular and is constantly used during the school year to support Alaska curriculum for all grade levels, preschool to high school.”

UAA art professor Garry Mealor, who learned about ARLIS from a fellow art professor, makes use of the resources offered in ARLIS for his own art and for his classes art.

“My Advanced Drawing class is currently working on a project involving skulls from ARLIS. ARLIS arranged over 20 skulls on their counter for students to pick from and supplied a list of additional skulls that they would retrieve if asked. These are real skulls, not imitation,” Mealor said. “The ARLIS collection is a resource that anyone interested in Alaskan wildlife would appreciate. For artists, the collection of bird mounts, skulls… are much preferred over working from a photo or other 2-D references. My painting in the faculty show would not have been possible without the ARLIS collection.”

The resources at ARLIS are available for anyone with a library card, and upon checking out, a contract indicating proper care will be taken is required. Items can be checked out for two weeks at a time, with an opportunity to renew for another two weeks. For an entire list of furs, skulls, and mounts visit

For TNL: Haunted tales of the Wendy Williamson

Alaska, Print, Uncategorized

Originally published in The Northern Light

Mysterious doors that lead to a wall, showers and sinks running on their own, pianos playing by themselves, an elevator shaft that leads nowhere and lights that will never reach the stage are just a handful of the spooky scenarios that have occurred in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium.

With construction beginning in 1973, the auditorium sat dormant for 18 months before money became available to finish the building. When the builders finally completed the building, there were multiple mistakes.

Creating doors that lead to walls, an elevator shaft that leads to a second floor that never was, a catwalk visible to no one and a spotlight room angled in a way that makes it impossible to spotlight the stage are just a few of the unusual engineering aspects of the auditorium.

Many cultures attribute energy to spaces. The Confucius Institute has even been said to have visited the auditorium; telling the manager that the energy of the space was evil and the feng shui was all wrong.

“The lightroom is by far the most sinister, but all the place is funky,” Shane Mitchell, a UAA alum, the auditorium’s manager and director at TBA theater, said.

Mitchell, who has worked in the auditorium for twenty years began his relationship with the theater as a student in UAA’s theater program in the 80s.

“When I started here in 1982, the place had a reputation for being haunted. It hadn’t even been open for a decade yet,” Shane Mitchell said.

The auditorium bears the name of John Wendell Williamson, professor of music at UAA since 1971. Williamson, nicknamed Wendy, passed away in 1988. The auditorium was named in his honor.

“Weird things happened way before he passed on,” Shane Mitchell said.

Shane Mitchell has his own share of less-than-ordinary occurrences. Once while acting in a performance of “The Monkey’s Paw,” Mitchell opened up the coffin he was going to use during the show, backstage. The cast and crew surrounded him as he lifted the coffin to see what was left inside by other cast members. As Mitchell opened the coffin door, all the props for the show flew off a table and against the wall, just about ten feet away from them.

“It became a habit to open up the coffin backstage before I went on. The whole cast gathered around me to crack up. With all the cast around me, all the props flew off the prop table, against the wall. Like someone flew them off with their arms,” Shane Mitchell said.

In that same show, about 350 school age kids were in attendance on a field trip. A question and answer session soon followed the conclusion of the show.

“This one kid raises his hand and says, ‘at the end of the play, how did you make the lady in the white dress float above your heads?’ The director said ‘what?’, then the teacher said, ‘he just wanted to know how the special effect worked.’ The director said ‘next question.’ There was no special effect,” Shane Mitchell said.

Many years ago, a self-proclaimed psychic and FBI profiler toured the building and sent a thorough document explaining the energy and presence inhabiting the auditorium.

“She mailed a document that listed things that made her seem pretty credible in our eyes. She said she sensed five beings, one of a little girl who died in an automobile accident on Lake Otis, the ghost of a teen boy, a young woman, and two men, one kindly and one violent,” Shane Mitchell said.

“The worst part is people always ask ‘did you see something or hear something,’ you get these horrible, horrible feelings that you’re just not safe. I can explain anything I see or hear, but something I feel? I’ve had things happen that I can’t explain,” Shane Mitchell said.

Twin brother of Shane, Wayne Mitchell, is a technician in the auditorium who has his own share of spooky tales.

“There used to be a nighttime janitor here, after a while he stopped coming and asked what happened to him. I was told he got reassigned because he doesn’t want to be where the ghosts are. This was all based on his own experience,” Wayne Mitchell said.

In an attempt to de-spook the building, different members of the auditorium’s staff have brought different items or symbols to ward off evil spirits and energy.

“Different people who have different cultures bring different items of charm. There’s a Pennsylvania Dutch design hanging on the wall, Celtic knots carved into walls, a lady had a statue of the Virgin Mary filled with holy water that she set above the door. Although, right after the place was smudged, stuff started to happen for about 12 days. All it did was irritate them,” Shane Mitchell said.

Not all who spend time in the auditorium experience events unexplained, but the rumors are abundant and enough to give anyone the creeps when they enter the depths of the Williamson auditorium.

“I haven’t actually seen anything scary happen. But from hearing it is haunted so many times over the years, I definitely get creeped out if I’m there working an event by myself. But mostly because I’m a scaredy-cat,” Garren Volper, a UAA student activities employee and frequent participant in the annual Anchorage Folk Fest, said.

On the center wall of the main lobby of the auditorium sits a large bolt. What once bolstered the large portrait of Wendy Williamson, is now a dark dot, sitting as a reminder of the mysterious happenings of the auditorium.

When Shane Mitchell began his career at the auditorium, he found a painting of the Williamson himself, playing the piano. He pleaded with his manager at the time to hang it up, but was swiftly told no. When Mitchell became manager, him and his brother decided to hang the painting up to commemorate the late professor and building namesake. They proudly hung the painting up in the foyer of the lobby for all to see. The next morning the painting was on the ground. This scenario repeated itself multiple times, until one day while Wayne Mitchell was hanging up the portrait the wire on the back snapped, fell to the ground, tearing the carpet, and breaking the floor beneath it — the painting and frame unharmed. The Mitchell brothers put the mysterious painting back into storage, eventually to bring out just one more time to hang in the green room. The next morning, the painting was not on the wall, but on the ground. The Mitchell’s put it back into storage where it sits today.

“It’s not the most flattering portrait. Maybe Wendy hates it?” Shane Mitchell said.

While these experiences are mysterious, the painting itself is unusual in its own right. The painting has no date and no artist signage. It is unknown who painted the painting and when. It bears resemblance to the late Wendy Williamson, but without a title, date, or artist signature, who’s to say?

With numerous stories of his own, Shane Mitchell is the main guy for others to report their unusual happenings to. Audience members, pageant members, musicians, actors, employees and janitors to just name a few of the folks who go to Shane Mitchell with their ghost tales.

“Just about everybody who spends any length of time in the Williamson ends up experiencing some stuff. I think everyone has their thing they can’t explain. There are people who embrace it and people who don’t want to embrace that,” Shane Mitchell said.

The ghost of Wendy Williamson is said to have visited the auditorium himself. Playing jovial piano music in the lobby during classes or rehearsals.

“You’d be up on stage and you can hear someone playing a piano in the lobby. I would come down these stairs and around the corner and nobody would be sitting there at the piano,” Shane Mitchell said.

Although no one has died in the auditorium, many students or artists at UAA have passed away who have ties and traditions with the building. Whether haunted or not, the Wendy Williamson auditorium puts on quite the show.

For TNL: UAA Professor Offers Solutions to Alaska’s Roadway Problem

Alaska, News, Print, Uncategorized

Originally published in The Northern Light

Learning to dodge potholes and control your car in ruts is just part of learning to drive in Alaska. Professor Osama Abaza is hoping to change this.

In the civil engineering department, Abaza and his team are researching and working alongside the department of transportation to tackle the issues of Alaska’s highways.

For over 10 years, Abaza has worked with a myriad of student researchers to come up with, test and experiment with a new form of concrete. This rubberized concrete uses crushed up waste tires and is strengthened with steel fiber. The combination allows for durability as well as flexibility, both of which are important for climate-related road expansion and contraction.

“This research could revolutionize how materials engineer combat rutting. By using steel fibers and rubber, they are fighting against rutting from studded tires while also protecting our roads from permafrost heaving and cracking. If this concrete is the answer to our rutting problems, this will mean less road maintenance, and ultimately less money spent on costly repairs and road rehabilitation,” Melissa Frey, an undergraduate engineering student at UAA and a member of professor Abaza’s current research team, said. “Our state hasn’t really seen a material like this before, but implementing this material could really change Alaska’s transportation engineering.”

What’s special about this concrete is that it will prevent ruts and potholes from occurring on the states highways.

“It’s going to prevent ruts from happening. Concrete doesn’t develop potholes. You’re not going to see any ruts or potholes on our roadways, that is of course if we decide to use this material,” Abaza said.

More than ruts and potholes, this material will allow Alaska’s highways to last longer.

“Our roads have a lot of ruts on it. Usually what [Department of Transportation does] is rebuild the road every 4 to 6 years. That same road lives in the lower 48 for 20 years. We have all these issues because of our weather and the use of studded tires. With this concrete, our roads could live for 20 years and we can avoid turning our town into a construction zone,” Abaza said.

When testing this new material out, students and faculty were able to take advantage of the engineering buildings state of the art pavement lab.

“We have one of best labs, even in the lower 48, for testing this,” Abaza said.

Last September, UAA put a slab of this new concrete in front of the parking garage near the Consortium Library. It’s being tested, while students during the summer created slabs to place on Abbot Road. Those test slabs, which will have sensors in them to detect expansion rates, will be placed onto Abbot Road in the spring and then observed for three years.

“We know for sure it’s going to work, but now we have to convince the public,” Abaza said.

The price of this new concrete is much higher than the asphalt the DOT uses now, but the state will be saving money in the long run if the roads can last longer.

“The concern is that the material is going to cost a lot more, but if you look over life cycle cost of the material it’s going to be way cheaper than what we are doing now,” Abaza said.

With UAA and the DOT working together. students can get hands-on training working in their community and have the opportunity to apply the knowledge they learn in the classroom to the field.

“I’ve been working with him when I came on board to do further testing on the feasibility of construction. My background is with DOT construction. I’ve been working with him since the start of my thesis,” Mahear Aboueid, a UAA grad student who is also a project manager at the DOT said. “I think the chemistry behind this material is definitely positive towards resisting stud ware and freeze/thaw. As part of DOT and UAA, it’s nice seeing both sides are wanting to work with each other. I think it’s a great thing to be mutually beneficial in helping the community.”

Abaza also sees the benefit UAA can have the community. Whether it be putting students in the hands-on learning environment by working with DOT or working on research that can save the state money while also keeping Alaska drivers safer; Abaza looks to build a bridge with UAA and community entities.

“In order for us at UAA to be really effective in the community, we are supposed to help the community and figure out new solutions. I want to show that UAA is really a resource to provide solutions. We have way more responsibility than to just graduate new engineers,” Abaza said.

Abaza and his team are currently waiting til the spring to place their concrete slabs in Abbot Road. Once placed, the slabs sensors will monitor expansion and contraction for three years.