Friday, February 22, 2013

Science teachers gone wild

My saliva is in the second column from the left, Deb's is the first and the bacterial competition is in columns 3 and 4.
My good friend Deb and I teach forensic science at a high school not far away.  Nothing delights us more (well, almost nothing) than learning new ideas we can use in the classroom.  Or just cool ideas.  We both signed up for a mini-course in biotechnology this weekend (Friday, 5-8 PM, and Saturday, 9-4) that promised us free books, lab books and the chance to see amylase (the protein in your saliva that helps begin the digestive process by converting starch to sugar) in action.  But wait!  There's more!  We will also receive free supplies to do this with our own students.

Although snacks were promised, Deb and I decided to go to dinner first.  We had a fun time sharing the hilarity that is always in abundant supply when anecdotes are exchanged.  Bellies full and hearts light, we zipped over to the biotechnology center at Tulsa Community College only to discover that we were expected to spit into microtest tubes (Eppendorfers, if you really must know) BEFORE WE PARTOOK OF ANY FOOD!  Since we arrived just a wee bit late, we missed the explanation of why this should be so, but I'm guessing that our saliva production would be more prodigious before we ate.  We were supposed to fill our tiny tubes with 2-3 mL and Deb had no problem.  I tried to think of mouth-watering delicacies, but alas, my juices weren't up to the task.  Deb kept making comments about how the whole idea of spitting in the tube was just disgusting and she was 'over it.'  Meanwhile, I concentrated and spat.  I might have accidentally dribbled some extraneous bodily fluids in places other than the test tube but I'm not confirming that at this time.

Once we had accomplished our task, we went back to the lab area to fill each well with either our very own salivary amylase or a pre-determined amount of bacterial amylase (we are obviously not the only critters that would like to utilize the sugary goodness locked away in starch).  I remained worried about my pathetically small amount of saliva and looked enviously at Deb's fine efforts.  While we were loading the wells with buffer solution, I kept surreptitiously trying to spit in my container.  Deb finally caught a glimpse of this and said, "Oh, geez!  Give it UP!"

To my surprise I had enough for 2 wells and a tad bit left over for the third well (one must always have replication in these experiments).  We then added an iodine solution that remained yellow in the wells with just sugar (indicating the amylase had done its job) or turned blue/black in the presence of starch.  As you can see by the microplate at the top of this blog, our negative controls worked AND even my third puny-effort-well had enough amylase to do its thing.  Oh, sweet success!

And that, my children, is how you spend a quality Friday evening: spitting, pipetting, and competing with the best that bacteria have to offer.  I can't wait until Saturday!


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reading Lolita in Laureate

What an utterly grey, dreary afternoon I walked into as I left school.  I wanted to just go home and curl up with a good book, a cup of chai and my stubborn little dog, Ginny.  But I had a tutoring session with a young girl who is hospitalized with an eating disorder.  This was our third session, and I had very quickly come to admire her work ethic and rapid grasp of all the chemistry topics we covered, so I forced myself to get back out in the drizzle and keep my promise.

As much as I marveled at the rapidity at which she learned, I also noticed she was always apologizing for the least little thing, most of which were entirely out of her control (such as interrupting our session to plug in her laptop or picking up a pencil case which had gotten pushed to the floor).  Today, as we began our session, I noticed she had a copy of Nabokov's Lolita in her clear tote bag.  Without thinking that she might not welcome a comment on that particular book, I blurted out, "So, you're reading Lolita?"  And then because she blushed slightly, and lowered her eyes, I plowed on.  "So have you read Reading Lolita in Tehran?"

At this question, she raised her eyes and looked at me wonderingly.  "No," she said, "but I want to!"  I then told her I had read Lolita years ago, but got an entirely new perspective on it when I went to hear Azar Nafisi speak at the University of Tulsa a few years back.  I said, "Nabokov always hated and denied the criticism that Lolita was a work of pornography, but Nafisi and her group of students helped me understand what true pornography is: the denial of the other person to define him or herself.  The tyranny of censorship that limits a person's right to explore whatever ideas they want to.  To circumscribe their identity. Like Humbert did with Lolita."  

My young tutee nodded eagerly, "Yes, I read a wiki article about Nafisi!  I was afraid when people saw me reading this book, that they would think I was bad! You're the only person who looked at it and saw it in another way."  I then told her, "Did you know some of the young girls who were in the reading group in Tehran were jailed and one was executed?  Just for daring to be female and think."  We both fell silent for a moment considering that act of courage, and then I said, "Well, I guess we need to work on some chemistry."  So we did.

But on the way home, I kept mulling over that idea of control.  Of how we truly violate the essence of another human when we make a judgement about them being 'weird' or different or anything we think they shouldn't be.  Or should be. And I wondered again at the ability of literature to create a sudden, certain bond that two minds from very different circumstances could completely understand each other, if only for a moment.  Epiphanies can happen even on the greyest of days.

Monday, February 18, 2013

You can't always get what you want, but...

First faculty meeting of the new year got off to a promising start, with military recruiters showing us helpful websites for extra student tutoring/practice and the principal expressing appreciation for faculty members who had missed less than two days of school the first semester.  The thank you came in a rather clever form of telling us he was providing a 'sub' for us.  Momentary surprise (why reward attendance by allowing an absence?) gave way to laughter when he revealed the 'sub' was not a substitute but a 6" sub sandwich at the nearby Subway restaurant.  All we had to do was go over for lunch one day, make our selection and let the yummy begin.

But...there's always a but.  I never had enough time to go over during lunch period, and I decided I would just take advantage of this some Saturday when I came to school to work (yes, teachers work on Saturdays).  Never worked out because I was usually in a hurry just to get home or go somewhere else.  But today, Presidents' Day, I arrived at school at 7:30 and worked until 3:30 (yes, teachers work on holidays).  I had a wonderfully-filling breakfast, albeit at 6:30 AM, so when I got ready to leave I decided, "Today's the day!"  I cruised happily over to Subway, ordered a Veggie Delight and presented my coupon/card.  The girl at the cash register looked at it with puzzlement and turned it over and over.  "What's this?" she asked.  I started to explain it was a gift from my principal when the young assistant manager stated, "We're not taking those anymore.  We only took them for a little while and the principal was supposed to send out an email about this.  But several teachers have come in and tried to redeem them.  I'm sorry."

For some reason, this just struck me as hilarious, and I started laughing.  I don't know if he thought that was a potentially dangerous sign, but he repeated, "I'm really sorry about this."  And then the cashier tossed in her apologies as well.  In between snorts of laughter, I said, "It's all right.  It really is.  It's just funny to me.  But can I have a free cookie?"  This was not a gluttonous request; there were signs all over about a free cookie in honor of Presidents' Day.  She said, "Of course!"  And the assistant manager quietly told the cashier, "Give her the combo for $5."  I guess he still was a little uncertain about my mental state.  So I paid for my meal, collected my freebie cookie and grabbed a drink.

The cookie was quite tasty; it had white and dark chocolate chips and even bits of dried cherry (I guess in honor of the Washington myth).  As I ate, I mused over the fact that I had not received my gratis meal but I did get a free cookie.  You may not always get what you want, but today I got what I needed.  I think this is the Universe's way of telling me I've been a good girl. ;)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Some People

Yesterday evening I saw a polished little gem of a movie, 'Quartet.'  I had not heard of this film until my friends suggested we go see it after dinner at India Palace.  Indian cuisine and a movie?  Sign me up and let's go!

The film was a gentle coda of the lives of musicians who currently live at Beecham House, a retirement home for such folk.  In one memorable scene, Maggie Smith, a diva who has just arrived and  is given the grand tour, comments on the portrait of Sir Thomas Beecham, namesake of the retirement home.  The doctor/tour guide not only points out the portrait but tells her that Beecham was a famous conductor.  Of course Maggie knows this and retorts, "Yes, and his grandfather was a chemist who made laxatives.  Entirely appropriate for this place."  

Turns out the acerbic Maggie (or the character of Jean in the film), has a former husband living at the home and he has never forgiven her for a past transgression that changed the course of their lives.  In case you want to see the movie, I'll say no more about that. 

The film is replete with scenes of people not going gently into that good night.  They laugh, they argue, they fight, they piss into the shrubbery (mostly Wilf, a delightful reprobate who boasts of his 'seasoned wood'), and above all, they continue to make music.  The retirement home is an English estate and requires money to continue in business, so the director/doctor involves the residents in putting on a gala event to both celebrate the birthday of Verdi and save the home.  As the planning and practices take place, old angers and jealousies come bubbling to the surface which threaten the success of the gala.

The biggest threat is that Jean, her former husband (Reginald), Wilf (played by a deliciously randy Billy Connolly), and Cissy will not be able to perform Verdi's magnificent quartet from 'Rigoletto' due to past transgressions and current issues.  Cissy is a sweet character, whose episodes of dementia must be overcome somehow, and Jean must deal with her fear of failure (how can she possibly perform when she knows her voice might not hit those high notes?  she, of the twelve-curtain-call past?).  And then there's long-suffering Reginald, who struggles to find fulfillment through forgiveness.

In a quietly stunning visual metaphor, Jean and Reginald take a walk under a torturously-twisted ancient oak.   They, like the tree, have withstood the test of time, even though their bodies bear the inevitable marks of that rough passage.  From that point, you just know the quartet will sing and sing triumphantly.

All in all, this film is a comforting reminder of the constantly rejuvenating power of music and the magic of love that allows us to forgive and be forgiven.  If some people can love for life, why not us?  And while we're at it, let's sing, too.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Best Valentine's Day Ever

As we were monitoring students in the hall on Wednesday, Valentine's eve, a fellow teacher sighed, "I hope my wife keeps her promise of no Valentine's gifts.  We purchased some pricey barstools and agreed that was our present to each other.  I'm worried that she's going to buy something and I won't have anything."

I just smiled and said, "Then why don't you make her a card.  Find a nice love poem and copy it by hand for her.  I'm sure she'll be very touched by that."  He nodded in agreement and said, "Good idea!  I'll do that."

On Valentine's Day, I saw many students who had received gifts ranging from stuffed animals to candy to flowers.  One girl had a dozen roses, and when I picked up the bouquet I automatically checked for freshness by squeezing the blooms.  I was startled to find that one of the roses was artificial; the girl smiled and said, "My boyfriend wrote me a note that he would love me until that one died."  Oh, the romantic gesture!

I always have to know the end of the story, so I asked my colleague today if he (and she) had kept to their promise of no gifts.  He said, "Well, I got the card.  But I'm going away on a fishing trip this weekend and my wife is kind of freaked out about safety."  I thought it was for HIS safety, but he went on to say, "She is from S. Africa, and the crime rate is just terrible.  So even though we live in a really nice neighborhood in Broken Arrow, and Broken Arrow is one of the safest cities in the US, she's afraid to stay by herself.  It's been years since she's lived alone.  So I bought her some door jambs and pepper spray."

I laughed and said, "Oh, you are so romantic!"  But in all honesty, he was.  He demonstrated his love by thinking of her needs and her security.  And she demonstrated her love by putting aside her fear of being alone so that he could do something he enjoys.

Then after school, I went out to decompress with fellow teachers.  When I told the group about Mr. X's romantic gesture, Mr. Y said, "I WROTE a poem for my wife.  She's all logical and everything, so I thought this would make her cry.  She opened the card and took a long, long time to read the poem.  It was a short poem, and she's a fast reader, so I know it got to her.  She closed the card and said, 'And that's why I married you!'"  He chuckled with delight at the memory.  I'm glad I have the chance to work with such thoughtful people who are also willing to open up and share their stories.

And my story?  I got lots of chocolate from many students, a few sweet notes and a letter I'll cherish for as long as I can read.  Like I said, best Valentine's Day ever.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Greater Love Hath No Man (or Woman)

I teach chemistry (among other subjects, but this is a chemistry story, because after all, when you're attracted to someone, it's because the chemistry is good, eh?) and today we were working a stoichiometry problem involving a reaction that produced a gas.  Sounds intriguing, no?

This is the problem: 
In 1897 the Swedish explorer AndreĆ© tried to reach the North Pole in a balloon.  The balloon was filled with hydrogen gas.  The hydrogen gas was prepared from iron splints and diluted sulfuric acid.  The reaction is  

                Fe(s)  +  H2SO4 --> FeSO4(aq)  + H2(g) 

The volume of the balloon was 4800 m3 and the loss of hydrogen gas during filling was estimated at 20%.  What mass of iron splints and 98% (by mass) H2SO4 were needed to ensure the complete filling of the balloon?  Assume a temperature of 0 °C, a pressure of 1 atm during filling, and 100% yield.
We solved the problem, but the polar exploration triggered the memory of one of my favorite stories in the book, Scientific Anecdotes.  Because this was my first hour pre-AP chemistry class, and I would not have a 5th hour today due to a pep assembly, I felt I could be a bit more relaxed in our curricular pursuits.  So I asked the students if they would like to hear a story about a brave group of explorers of the South Pole.  Of course they would (if it meant we would just lay off the stoichiometry for a few precious moments).  So I proceded to read the tale of Robert Scott and his tragic expedition that had attempted to beat Roald Amundsen to the pole.

Amundsen practically taunted Scott to a race to the pole after he (Amundsen) had more than adequately prepared his expedition.  Scott, who was in New Zealand when he received the challenge, hurriedly got his group and supplies together.  Unfortunately, Amundsen not only beat Scott's group to the South Pole, he left a letter for Scott to deliver to the Norwegian king.  Insult to injury, and all that.

Faced with evidence of their defeat, Scott and his group began the long trudge back to base at McMurdo Sound.  Long, as in 350 miles.  The men were on short rations and struggled to make it from cache to cache of food stored on the journey south.  One of the men fell and his injury slowed their progress even more.  This slower pace meant they were still far from the home base when the Antarctic winter set in with a fury.  All during this journey, Scott was writing in a journal and also penning letters to his wife, so when the first blizzard of winter set in, Scott wrote of the valor of the injured man (Titus Oates) who struggled to his feet in their little tent and said, "I am just going outside now.  I may be some time."  He never returned; he had sacrificed himself that the others might have a chance at survival.

But the sacrifice was in vain; the men were starving and did not have the energy to complete the journey.  Their bodies were recovered eight months later.  Some of Scott's last written words were: "Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman!" I managed to read all of that tale with no emotion.  But I had forgotten about the last few lines. 

When the expedition was found, they had been carrying along with them over 35 pounds of rocks and fossil specimens that helped geologists and naturalists understand the age and history of that remote, unforgiving place.  They were starving, dying, and yet they did not leave behind the precious cargo that would increase the store of scientific knowledge in the world.  I choked up and my eyes moistened (and it was obvious what was happening).  How can you not get a little misty-eyed in the face of such sacrifice, even if it were 100 years ago?

I have two students in that class who are from Vietnam and Taiwan.  They also cried a little, but then they stayed after class to confess they had only understood a bit of the story and wondered why I was crying.  I explained to them that the story was really about the unselfish acts of people who sacrificed themselves for the greater good.  When they truly understood what I was talking about, the tears were real.  Love, sacrifice and empathy are part of the universal language just as much as music or mathematics.

Even in this photo with all members of the party alive, you can see the toll the extreme conditions were taking.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Secret Admirer

Memory is a tricky thing.  Sometimes we remember events in great detail but every detail can be wrong.  For example, I have a very distinct memory of how I learned of President Kennedy's assassination: I was five years old and visiting the house of my best friend's maternal grandmother.  Mrs. Laughlin, standing in her warm, cozy kitchen and smelling of freshly baked bread, bent down towards my friend Beth and me and exclaimed, "Oh, children!  The president has been shot!  He is dead!"  The only problem with this story is that when I was discussing it years later with my mother, she said, "You couldn't have heard that from Mrs. Laughlin.  We were still living in the parsonage and hadn't even moved out to the Garzelli's property.  You didn't even know Beth."

That stunned me.  I accepted the logic of my mother's memory and the timeline of our stay in Waynesville, but that acceptance in no way affected the memory.  That's still the memory I have of JFK's death, although it must have been my friend Beth's memory, not mine.  But I have definitely appropriated it.  So with the perfidy of memory in mind, another beautiful little memory sprang to my mind Saturday afternoon as I was preparing a little Valentine's treat for my friends.  I'm fairly certain this is true.

I always use green ink to correct student's work.  I have always hated red marks; they look so angry and accusatory.  So I adopted green, which represents gentle correction and encouragement of growth.  But even before I articulated the reasons why I was drawn to green ink, I liked it.  Just liked it and didn't really know why.  But as I was writing some cards Saturday, I suddenly remembered a story I had read in elementary school.  

A short story, it told of a young red-headed girl who was very attractive but didn't believe it.  She thought her red hair made her look different and she was embarrassed by it.  But to her father, she was a princess and he always told her how lovely she looked.  Of course, she didn't believe him because he was her father and he had to say things like that.  When Valentine's Day came around and there was the obligatory exchange of valentine cards in the classroom, the girl discovered a valentine written in green ink from 'a secret admirer.'  That one little card was enough to make her reassess her looks, and she began to glow with confidence.  She had a secret admirer!  She was beautiful!  Just like her father said.  I believe the story ended with the father and mother exchanging knowing looks as the girl happily took off for a party she would never have gone to before the secret card incident.  And after she left, the father re-capped his green pen and tucked it well away in his desk drawer.

The chemistry of attraction is definitely a mystery, and one to be celebrated in a variety of ways this week; but at least the little mystery of my secret admiration of green ink has been solved.  And that's satisfying enough.