The University of Arizona is officially closed, but the ants are still hungry. Someone has to chop up the cockroaches to feed them.

And for that matter, somebody has to make sure the experimental mold is still growing, that the lab rats are getting their rat chow, that the UA's orbiting space cameras are sending back more pictures of Mars and that the mail servers are piling up the e-mail in vacationing student and faculty in-boxes.

Mark Canet, a molecular- biology senior, is almost embarrassed about his part-time student job in the UA's Computer Center at 1077 N. Highland Ave.

"I basically hold down the fort," says Canet Tuesday afternoon. "Anything goes wrong, I need to call it in."

The job has its drawbacks: no windows, no company.

"It's the machine room, where all the modules are at. No windows," says Canet. "Basically a dungeon."

It has its advantages, too: Almost nothing to do.

If he weren't between semesters, Canet says he could do his homework virtually uninterrupted. The building is also home to the campus phone switch — the center for the entire phone system — as well as the e-mail servers for nearly 40,000 e-mail accounts, says Limell Lawson, director of the Office of Student Computing Resources.

It's been quiet, says Canet. No Tom Cruise characters rappelling from the air-conditioning ducts to read someone else's e-mail.

No news is bad news to Alfred McEwen, principal investigator on the HiRISE project, a high-resolution camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The UA-designed and -monitored camera has been sending back stunning pictures of Mars for months, and scientists are constantly sending up orders pointing the camera at more Martian features and awaiting results. Its time is gold.

"We don't get a break unless the spacecraft takes a break, and that usually means something has gone wrong," McEwen says.

"The spacecraft isn't taking a vacation."

So even on holidays and between semesters some people from the HiRISE team have to work.

McEwen says HiRISE and other UA spacecraft are constantly sending back information about themselves.

When some information is outside normal operating parameters, he says the computers that receive the information generate e-mail messages and dial "the red phone," an emergency duty cell phone carried by a designated team member.

Tuesday afternoon it's quiet over in Bio-Sciences West, which, for some reason, is just east of Life Sciences South.

Anna Dornhaus, an assistant professor in the department of ecology & evolutionary biology, has most of the place to herself.

The ants and cockroaches in her lab are doing well.

The ants are doing science, forming channels and chambers in what look like slum versions of Uncle Milton's Ant Farm.

The ants, tunneling through red dirt sandwiched between pieces of horizontal glass, have a plastic tube near "ground level" that leads to a covered plastic dish. It's where they go to eat.

The cockroaches are just for eating. By the ants.

A hand-operated ChefMate food chopper makes short work of the roaches.

To the roach melange she'll add a dressing of honey diluted with water, and the ants should be good to continue their excavation into the new year.

Then, maybe, they'll tell her the secret of how they communicate, how they pass information about whether "we need to add on to the West Wing."

Not feeding them has its consequences, Dornhaus says.

"First, if they don't get fed, they eat their brood," says Dornhaus matter of factly.

So much for the observation.

● Contact reporter Dan Sorenson at 573-4185 or dsorenson@azstarnet.com