Nobel Role Models: Heroes and Heroines?

President Barack Obama wasn’t the only one to receive a Nobel Prize last week.  On Thursday, December 10, the Nobel Prizes in science and literature were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden.  (The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.)

I blogged last week about the value of these individuals as role models and heroes for those of us involved in science. (See “Life Lessons from Laureates “ at the American Chemical Society’s “ACS Careers” blog.)  Over my years as a science writer, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of Nobel Laureates, and I’ve found them to be both gracious and smart.

In addition to Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach, whom I mentioned in the ACS Careers blog post as an interviewee and a former teacher of mine, I came across recent information online about two other Nobel Laureates–information that further confirms these two scientists as worthy role models.

First, one of this year’s Nobel Laureates in Medicine, Carol Greider, says, “I live a pretty normal life.” As a single parent with two children (ages 10 and 13), she is a role model for all of us seeking to maintain the ever-elusive “work-family balance.”   In fact, she was folding laundry at 5 a.m. on October 5 when she received the telephone call from the Nobel Committee informing her of the news. An article on CNN.com provides more details about this heroine (see “A Day in the ‘Normal’ Life of a Nobel Prize Winner”.}

The second scientist who can serve as a good role model for scientists is Bill Lipscomb.   He received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and he’s been a professor at Harvard University since 1959 .  Prior to moving to Harvard, he was on the faculty at the University of Minnesota.

He celebrated his 90th birthday on December 9, with a big celebration given by his “scientific family” (former students, students of students, and students of students of students–his scientific children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren).

When I was a grad student at Harvard, Lipscomb had already received his Nobel Prize, so there was a certain mystique to his research group.  The thing that I remember most about him (in addition to the string tie that he always wore) was his sense of humor, as demonstrated by his leadership role in establishing the Ig Nobel Awards.   If you appreciate good scientific humor (no, that’s not an oxymoron), you’ll want to check out the Ig Nobel website.

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 11:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Nobel Lesson: Listening to Telomerase

Earlier this month, while pundits bickered non-stop about Obama’s Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize with a profound lesson for humanity slipped by with little hullabaloo. I’m referring, of course, to the Nobel Prize for Medicine, awarded “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”

Nature has much to teach us, if we’re willing to learn. When William Blake wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,” he was offering solid advice.

So what can we learn from telomeres?

One of life’s basic challenges is to ensure that essential life lessons are passed effectively from generation to generation. Nature’s elegant solution, developed over several billion years, is telomeres. At the cellular level, “life lessons” are the genetic information contained in the chromosomes’ DNA. Cells that fail to pass along these lessons completely and accurately will not survive.

Telomeres are structures that protect the ends of chromosomes. During chromosomal replication, these structures safeguard the “lessons” from degradation. Cells even have a special enzyme—telomerase—that keeps the telomeres healthy and intact. Without telomeres, cells age rapidly and the organism dies.

And this is where the wisdom of the telomeres can help us. At the societal level, essential “life lessons” are passed down as values, laws and cultural wisdom. Communities, nations and civilizations that fail to pass along life lessons will not survive.

The moral of the story is that we must develop societal structures that protect the two ends of life—childhood and old age. If we fail to protect the lessons found in these two ends, we will see our society wither and die.

Although not a molecular biologist, Hubert Humphrey echoed the telomeres’ wisdom when he said, “The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; [and] those who are in the twilight of life, the aged…”

Many of today’s most pressing policy questions deal with the beginning of life (issues such as child poverty, health insurance and pre-school education) or the ending of life (issues such as how to provide cost-effective and humane health care at the end of life). If we want to survive as a society, we must do a better job of providing structures—social telomeres—to protect these two ends.

Published in: on November 1, 2009 at 8:13 am  Comments (1)  
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Don’t Forget the Boys

Don’t forget the boys.  That’s the message in Kathleen Parker’s op-ed piece, “Bring the Boys Along: The White House Council Obama Forgot, in the Washington Post.

Although she makes a few snarky comments along the way (that’s one of the things that columnists need to do to keep up their readership), I agree with the main theme of her article.

As a society, we’ve done an excellent job in the past generation of increasing opportunities and expectations for girls.  Now it’s time to realize that boys need our help, too.

Parker refers to suicide rates, which are much higher for boys than girls, as one indicator of the need for attention to boys in our society.  She could also have pointed to graduation rates, incarceration rates, and lifespan statistics.

The author who has done the best job documenting this issue is Dr. Warren Farrell. His books, such as The Myth of Male Power, are thought-provoking and should be required reading in any class that addresses gender issues in American society.

The topic is fraught with political correctness, myths, and ideology, so it’s one that I rarely bring up.  As the father of four boys and as a man who’s spent quite a bit of time in a non-traditional role (i.e., primary parent), I have strong opinions on the subject.

However, it really would take an entire semester-long class to begin to explore the issue in a way that does justice to the topic.   It would take an entire lecture to just lay out the caveats, the apologies-in-advance, and the careful definitions of terms.  Only after that opening lecture would many listeners begin to put aside their ingrained beliefs and open their ears and minds.  (Just remember what happened to Larry Summers, then-Harvard-President, when he clumsily raised some questions about women-men differences in math and science.)

As a scientist who’s written frequently on the subject of women in chemistry, I’m well aware that there are many subtle societal messages that represent barriers for girls and women in science.  And some of the barriers aren’t so subtle.

Any good discussion needs some statistics, so here are a few for the chemistry profession:

  • The percentage of bachelor’s degrees in chemistry earned by women has risen from 29% in 1981 to 55% in 2007 (statistics from the National Science Foundation and  Chemical & Engineering News, 12/3/07). During the same period, the percentage of Ph.D.s earned by women increased from 16% to 38%.
  • The median starting salaries for women and men bachelors-degree chemists are essentially equivalent ($36,300 vs $37,000), as are the salaries for women and men masters-degree chemists ($49,000 vs $46,000).  (These 2007 statistics come from Chemical & Engineering News, 6/2/08.) The data for doctoral-degree chemists are more difficult to interpret, with some years showing parity and some years showing significant disparity.
  • These significant increases in the number of women studying chemistry have not yet translated into comparable numbers among the leadership of the chemistry community, especially in academe. According to 2007 statistics, just 15% of chemistry professors at the top 50 universities are women. (The breakdown by rank is 11% full professor, 22% associate professor, and 22% assistant professor).

Another good place to go when starting a discussion is to consult some of the scientific leaders who have thought deeply on this subject.  Among the scientists who have impressed me with their thoughtfulness and shaped my thinking are Geri Richmond, Dick Zare, Helen Free, and Jo Handelsman.  If you get a chance to hear or read their thoughts on women and science, I highly recommend it.

While there’s still plenty of work to be done in making the world of science more friendly for women (and for men who want to be involved parents), an even more important issue in the coming years is going to be finding ways to advance the education and opportunities of both girls and boys in American society.

Published in: on March 20, 2009 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Kindergarten Chemistry

In his inaugural address, President Obama thrilled scientists across the country by simply uttering the following phrase:  “We will restore science to its rightful place.”

What a relief! The last eight years have been bleak for many scientists, as the Bush administration seemed to place ideology over scientific fact all too often. A good overview of scientists’ attitude can be found in this January 21st New York Times article, Scientists Welcome Obama’s Words.”

Science will clearly play a more important role in the Obama administration. It’s about time. Science and technology have a great deal to offer on policy issues such as climate change, energy, and health care. Encouraging scientists and engineers to help on these issues is certainly one of the things that Obama meant when he referred to science’s “rightful place.”

But that’s not the only “rightful place” where science must return.

I did my small part last week, when I helped restore science to one of its most important rightful places–the Kindergarten classroom.

As a Christmas gift to my godchild, a bright and curious five-year-old girl, I offered to visit her class to do some hands-on science activities. When my sons were in elementary school, I enjoyed doing this once or twice every year at their school. However, it’s been more than five years since I stepped into a classroom. It’s definitely time to restore science to its rightful place…

I was just as excited as the students were when we began our activity last week. We did an activity that uses red cabbage as an acid-base indicator. You just rub the red cabbage leaf on an index card to leave a big reddish-purplish smudge. Then, you can dip a Q-Tip in a common household acid, such as vinegar (acetic acid) or lemon juice (citric acid). Swiping the moistened Q-Tip across the smudge will reveal a color change. You can also dip a Q-Tip in a common household base (a mixture of water and baking soda or Alka-Seltzer works well) and repeat the experiment to get a different color change.

We experimented with other plant materials–from carrots to radishes to hydrangea petals. Some gave us wonderful color changes, and others gave us no change.  We talked about making observations, making guesses, and doing experiments–the scientific method.

At the end of the class, I asked all scientists in the room to raise their hand. With a little prodding, every Kindergartner (and the teacher and I) raised a hand.

Science was restored to its rightful place.

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Want to try the experiment yourself? Here’s a copy of the information I sent home with the students that evening. (I printed the handout on goldenrod-colored paper, which also undergoes some fascinating color changes when you try the same experiment.)

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“Science is Fun”

In Mrs. A’s class today, we did some hands-on science experiments involving chemistry and color changes. We learned about some household acids (lemon juice, vinegar, soda pop) and bases (baking soda, Milk of Magnesia). We used red cabbage to make an acid-base indicator that can be used to test pH, a measure of acidity.

pH measurement can be important in many areas of life. If you watch your favorite TV show or movie carefully, you just might start seeing acid-base chemistry in action:

  • Medicine — Blood pH is a routine medical test. It’s part of the “blood gas” test the ER doctors always seem to want on their patients.
  • Cosmetics — Watch those ads carefully. Is your shampoo “pH-balanced?”
  • Food – Acid indigestion? Eat too much of that rich food? You might want to use “Tums” (a base) to take care of that extra stomach acid.
  • Forensic science – Those CSI investigators can tell you all about acids, bases, and pH.
  • Recreation — Swimming pools and hot tubs must be maintained at a constant pH. In those movies set in Southern California, the cute guy that takes care of those pools seems to always be kneeling by the side of the pool testing its pH.

Today’s activity is just one of dozens of fun “kitchen chemistry” experiments that you can do with safe materials that are readily available at your grocery store. If you want to try some of these experiments in your own home, there are many resources available. Here are some to get you started.

Resources on the Internet

One of the handiest sources for wonderful experiments is the World Wide Web. Here are two sites that I highly recommend.

http://www.exploratorium.org/
This site, from the Exploratorium (San Francisco’s science museum), is perennially voted one of the best science sites on the web.

http://www.acs.org/kids
The website of the American Chemical Society (ACS) is a rich resource of information about chemistry. The webpage listed here will point you towards dozens of science activities for children (and their adult helpers). The red cabbage experiment that we did today is adapted from the activity called “Lose the Indicator Blues.” To go directly to the page for this activity, use this address:

http://portal.acs.org/portal/PublicWebSite/education/whatischemistry/scienceforkids/chemicalphysicalchange/acidsbases/index.htm

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 11:25 am  Comments (19)  
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