When Prof. Kevin McCartney traveled to Szczecin, Poland, for the 2016-2017 academic year, he did more than expand the body of knowledge in his research field of micropaleontology.
A geologist at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, McCartney was the first person from northern Maine to participate in the well-known Fulbright U.S. Scholar program, which sponsors international academic exchanges worldwide.
In addition to teaching and conducting research that led to the identification of a new genus and two new species of single-celled, ocean-dwelling algae called silicoflagellates, McCartney became active in the local community, just as he does in Aroostook County.
“I found the people of Szczecin to be very similar to northern Mainers — hard-working and considerate,” he said, comparing the city to Presque Isle. “It’s located in the northwestern corner of the country very near the border with Germany, far from the more populated and better-funded regions of Poland.”
During his eight months in Poland, McCartney (“Kewyn” to his Polish friends) attended meetings of the local English-speaking Rotary Club, helping with fund-raising events and serving as Santa Claus (Swiety Mikolaj) at the Christmas party.
He also introduced the idea of a cancer-awareness event that is well-established in Aroostook County: Planet Head Day. Founded 10 years ago as an educational outreach project for NASA’s New Horizons Space Program, which provided the first close look at Pluto, Planet Head Day raises about $20,000 a year from contributions collected by people who volunteer to have their heads shaved in honor of those who have suffered from cancer.
Unable to participate in Presque Isle’s Planet Head Day in February (always on the Saturday closest to the anniversary of the discovery of Pluto), McCartney had his head shaved, painted as Pluto and filmed in Szczecin. His gesture honored his UMPI friend and colleague, Jeanie McGowan, co-founder of Planet Head Day (PHD), who had died of cancer in October 2016.
Szczecin colleagues produced a video of the demonstration that included testimonials from people who attended and a representative of the benefactor, the Society of Parents with Children with Illnesses. The University of Szczecin dean, faculty members and students are among the Polish speakers on the 10-minute film.
“The event, while not an official PHD, attracted about 35 people who came to watch. I made a donation to a local children’s cancer charity, and there were some other donations as well,” he recalled recently. “A university colleague here [in Szczecin] volunteered to have his head capped and painted as well, and Rotary colleagues organized the hair-cutter, painter and camera. We did this in a new geology museum that was just about to open, so it served as a publicity event at the museum as well.”
The documentary film was the first step in a process new to Poland.
“Charity fund-raising events in Poland are done much differently than in the US,” McCartney said. “Poland does not have a tradition of events where participants ask others for individual donations.”
Arranged by a Rotary colleague who later committed his company to a formal event next year, the video helped win local support for the idea.
“If all continues to go well, this next February will be the first International Planet Head Day,” McCartney said. “My colleagues hope that ultimately other European cities will pick up on this idea.”
McCartney has been invited to attend the first Planet Head Day in Poland, Feb. 17, 2018, the same day as the event in Maine.
“I think we are in good shape to have PHD events in both Presque Isle and Szczecin, Poland,” he said. “There is talk here about having the two events at the same time (that is, the Poland event would be six hours later in the local day), so in some sense I could be ‘live’ in both locations.”
This week McCartney returned to Poland for an international scientific conference, but arrived early because members of the Szczecin community had asked him to be part of a Planet Head Day display at the Tall Ships Races in Szczecin.
“The display is in a small tent, but is well thought out,” he said. “Various posters have been prepared that include a Planet Head Day logo (which I think we will adopt for our event in Maine) and pictures from our Maine PHD as well as from when I had my head shaved and painted earlier this year in Szczecin.”
The display attracts children and their parents with an invitation to paint planets.
“I need only sit down and start drawing a planet and the kids stop to see what is going on,” he said. “They seem attracted by a strange guy in a NASA hat who is not a good drawer and speaks terrible Polish.” (The kids learn English in kindergarten)
“The parents often want to pose with me for pictures. I also spent time talking with potential volunteers about how Planet Head Day works in Maine.”
Explaining the fundraising aspect of the event has been a challenge, but McCartney says the video of him dedicating his shaved head to Jeanie McGowan strikes a chord. “Poles seem to relate more easily to this odd scientist who shaves and paints his head as a planet to acknowledge a friend with cancer.”
For more information visit wp.umpi.edu/kevinsfulbright.