Science and the Scleroderma Girl: A Series of Serendipitous Events

 

Serendipity: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

Pincushion Flower.
This morning, while weeding the back wilderness, I found this transplant. Serendipity in the garden.

I can clearly remember the first event of historical significance that invaded my simple world of early childhood. I had been snuck into the big kids playground at our school by my rule-breaking older sister. Swinging on a high bar way too high for my little First Grade body, I listened to my sister and her friends talk about Sputnik; a scary object launched by the Russians orbiting the earth above me. I couldn’t see it, but evidently it could be followed because it was talking to the ground with radio signals.

Just like that I was gone. The world was round, there were things that happened in the world that I couldn’t see, but evidence could be collected that betrayed their presence. I was a science geek in that instant, and it never ever stopped for me.

Sputnik, and the ensuing space race, made money available for science education in the public schools. I was exactly the right age to benefit from this new emphasis on understanding the world around us through scientific thought. I was a curious child: I questioned everything, collected bugs, nursed baby birds back to health, begged for a microscope for Christmas (which I got), and read endless books.

Years later, married to a young serviceman in the navy, I ended up applying to the university near where he was stationed to study biology. That is how I ended up working towards a degree in molecular biology at UCSD. My professors were famous scientists and I was so lucky to learn from them. Stanley Miller taught me physical chemistry, and I learned immunology from Seymour Jonathan Singer. Ok, I took that immunology class from Dr. Singer because he was my advisor, and I was kind of scared of him. I couldn’t say no when he pressed me to enroll.

Because I had immunology under my belt I was hired at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation to work in the lab of Dr. Eng Tan, who conducted research that focused on the molecules in a cell’s nucleus that were the targets of the antibodies found in patients with rheumatic conditions such as lupus and, wait for it, SCLERODERMA. Yep. My first job in that lab was doing the ANA tests. Later on I was part of the research team that identified SCL-70, one of the molecules involved in the diffuse form of systemic sclerosis. Here’s the paper if you want to torture yourself. 🙂

I have to say, I loved working in research, but it wasn’t as creative and social as I needed my work day to be. I went back to school, got a teaching certification, and began to teach biology and AP Biology. Whew. I had to take lots of classes to stay up on things, and along the way I learned lots about human anatomy and physiology. Just as I was working into my comfort zone education transformed and educational standards were instituted. Good grief. Why do I have to keep on stretching my wings like this?

I had to teach students how to think and plan experiments just as scientists did in my classroom.  I created lots of open-ended research problems that they could investigate, collect data on, and then draw conclusions that I could use to link to biological concepts that they were learning about. Wailing internally at the extra work, I began using science notebooks in my classrooms.

Students doing experiment.
In this lab the students grew yeast in different conditions and then collected the amount of CO2 gas that they produced as a measure of growth in the attached balloons. These students were varying the amount of sugar the yeast had.
Graph of experiment.
Here’s the graph from a student team that varied the growth temperature. Those yeast sure liked water that was 60 degrees Centigrade! 

The kids liked the experiments, their ability to think scientifically grew by leaps and bounds, and along the way I really learned a lot of things myself. I ended up training other teachers on how to do science notebooking in their own classrooms, and eventually I helped write the inquiry science standards for my state.

Four years ago symptoms that I had been dealing with for years (and decades) overwhelmed me and I was diagnosed with a couple of the autoimmune diseases that I had learned about early in my professional life. Unbelievably, through no real choices of my own, I had been prepared with the background knowledge, resources, and experience that I needed for the fight.

Serendipity.

This is Science and the Scleroderma Girl, the mini-series project of blog posts about the adventures of a science geek in the world of chronic illness. June is Scleroderma Awareness Month, so I hope to put up a new post each day. I hope you’ll join me.

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