Experience your education

I was a seriously underperforming undergraduate student at Boston University in 1970, bored by classes and distracted by, well, all the things that distract a young man of 20. But I needed a summer job, and as a Biology major I got it into my head to knock on faculty members’ doors to see if I could find a research position. I had a dim understanding that’s what biologists, at least the real ones, did for employment: they were paid to study things.

I began knocking, wearing my usual overalls, long and unkempt hair and beard, with only my pathetic transcript loaded with C’s and D’s to offer prospective employers. After being quickly refused and dismissed at every door, I finally found myself at Lynn Margulis’s office door. I had no idea that Lynn was among the most stellar evolutionary biologists of the last 100 years, and Boston University’s most famous scientist at the time. To me, she was just another door to knock on and face what I had come to expect as inevitable rejection.

But instead, she dragged me into her office, and spent most of that afternoon passionately and enthusiastically introducing me to primitive one-celled organisms. She pulled out old articles by LR Cleveland about the magnificent termite gut symbionts, and the work of then-obscure Russian protozoologists describing the most bizarre organisms imaginable. I didn’t understand more than 5% of what she was saying, but was hooked on her passion. And to my great surprise she gave me a summer job, and let me loose in her lab to do real research.

In spite of her stratospheric accomplishments and huge reputation, Lynn had little in the way of grant money, due to her reputation as a maverick and an outspoken critic of how mainstream science was funded and conducted. And, being a strong-minded woman in 1970’s science with what were then radical scientific ideas was not endearing to granting bodies.

But oddly she did have some funds to develop a new screening method for anti-cancer drugs. The idea was to examine how the potential drugs interfered with the growth of tiny hairs (cilia) that make up the mouthparts of one-celled organisms. These hairs are made of the same proteins that create the push-and-pull structures that divide cells. If a drug interfered with the mouthpart hairs, it might also interfere with the out-of-control cell division that characterizes cancer.

My first task was to do a 24-hr. experiment in which I shocked the cilia hairs to shed with chemicals, then followed their regeneration every 2 hours in the presence of various doses of potential anti-cancer drugs. Control cells would take about 8 hours to regenerate, and our hope was that the anti-cancer drugs would slow or prevent regeneration until at least the next day.

I began at 8 AM, checking the dishes of pond water in which the cells were swimming every two hours, recording the state of the hairs. It got to be dinnertime, then later, and it occurred to me that I would be up all night with this experiment doing my two-hour checks.

Fortunately I had friends in the neighborhood near the laboratory who habitually stayed up late imbibing various things and partying. I joined in, but returned to the lab faithfully every two hours to collect the data.

By the next morning I was over-tired and in a somewhat altered state, but dying to know whether the results meant anything. After the last 8 AM check, I took out a piece of graph paper and recorded each 2-hr. data point, and to my amazement the data formed a perfect straight line; the dose of drug was exactly related to how long it took the cilia to regenerate.

A perfect fit. Exactly related. Unusual in science, but a life changer for me. For the first time I understood that a well-conceived experiment could reveal something about the world no one had known before, unpeeling the tiniest, tiniest piece of the great mystery posed by the universe around us.

It was also my first experience in school with personal agency. It was a revelation that  even as a student I could make things happen, find things to study that made a difference in the world outside of what, until then, had been the boring classroom. It made me want to pay attention in lectures, to learn what I needed to know so that I, too, could be a scientist.

I’m often asked why I started an experiential learning program, Simon Fraser University’s Semester in Dialogue (www.sfu.ca/dialogue/semester), and Lynn Margulis comes to mind. Lynn passed away recently, after an illustrious career replete with almost every award imaginable, but it’s her faith in what students could accomplish that remains to me as her most lasting legacy.

I had the pleasure of introducing Lynn at a lecture once, and called her my fairy godmother. I think that’s about it: she reached out and touched so many of us with her magic wand, turning what looked like toads into princes with her unwavering confidence and support that we could be more, way more, than we thought we could be.

Isn’t that what teaching should be about?