How I Became a Scientist

Recently I found myself at a table across from wide-eyed students at a job fair asking me how I became a scientist.  I knew immediately that answer to their question was my experience at Outdoor School as a high school student leader. Here is a great video from Oregon Field Guide that shows what Outdoor School looks like.

At one point, every sixth grade student in Oregon attended Outdoor School, which is one reason Portlanders and Oregononians claim the “outdoorsy” stereotype proudly. This article describes that fundamental role Outdoor School plays in our community.

But now, not all school districts have funding for their students to have these experiences. A new movement, Outdoor School for All, aims to get every sixth grade student in Oregon back out for a full week of Outdoor School. As this program started with government funding, a sustainable solution to get all of our kids outside now relies on government funding again. So in order to help secure House Bill 2648 and Senate Bill 439, we need letters to explain why Outdoor School matters. You are welcome to use this letter generator to write one too!

Here is how Outdoor School ignited my passion as a scientist:

Dear Lawmakers,

Science is my path to make a difference. I discovered this passion in the pouring rain beneath a forest of big-leaf maples covered in moss with five inquisitive sixth graders. We were testing the dissolved oxygen of the Salmon River when Rosa’s eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “I never knew I could learn all this!” When this student realized she was capable of understanding the natural world and cared about the world she discovered—this same moment I knew how I would spend my life. I built community, excited students about learning, and discovered my talents in creating joy for ecology. My exposure to science while volunteering as a student leader for the MESD Outdoor School program gave me the momentum, passion, and confidence to become a woman in science.

There are a few reasons Outdoor School is a powerful way for students to learn. First, the Outdoor School textbook “chapters”: plants, animals, soil and water, are written in words every child can understand by touching, seeing, and experiencing each one in order through a full day dedicated to experientially studying each area. Second, throughout one school week at Outdoor School, students have enough time to process each day of field study and make connections between them. I have seen countless students in awe of how interconnected the plants, animals, soil and water really are. I feel it too. Because of this, I live with more connection to the earth, more affinity for discovery, and more passion for sharing this awe with the global community.

I finally understood why this feeling of awe can be so powerful when Dr. Kelly Swing, the director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador, quoted an Amazonian tribe leader in a presentation to visiting students:

“We only know what we see; we only love what we know; we only care about what we love”. This has become my personal mission statement.

Some days I feel powerless. Numbers can be defeating—statistics on global carbon emissions, deforestation rates, biodiversity loss, increased poverty, inequality in human rights, and school shootings lead me to question whether I can have a positive impact. Science gives me hope; through science more people have a reason to care. My goal is to create research to discover new results, my findings will allow deeper understanding, and through understanding my work will facilitate an affinity for ecology. Through practice I know I have the power to connect as a science instructor and I have the power to connect across cultural boundaries—both of these skills started at Outdoor School. Of course I am still refining the art of connecting people from many different backgrounds to science, but luckily science inquiry is a task that has brought me joy ever since I learned how to teach at Outdoor School.

Teaching others to wonder and think like a scientist has arisen from my own process in asking questions about the natural world. By asking questions I gained many answers and many more questions. I have learned to measure the success of my scientific endeavors by the questions they lead me to next. Many mentors have shaped the way I frame my curiosity. This also what makes Outdoor School successful: mentors. High school students act as role models while presenting science to sixth graders, all while learning from their own mentors, the Outdoor School staff, how to be a leader and their best selves. I am extremely grateful for my mentors from Outdoor School that helped me build confidence and joy for life. I carried this confidence with me to study biology in college and eventually returned to work at Outdoor School to give back.

While I worked as a Field Instructor, I struggled for a long time to develop a curriculum that fully encapsulated all of the desired concepts, to be sure each student was able to feel that awe when they understand how everything connects. But then I realized from watching my high school volunteers engaging their students in measuring the dissolved oxygen of the Salmon River, that community was the secret ingredient generating passion for science. In moments of discovery and connection to community: that is where change happens.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration. Please give all kids in Oregon the chance to experience Outdoor School. I ask that you move the Outdoor School Legislation, HB 2648 and SB 439, out of committee with funding in order to be voted on and passed into law.

Sincerely,

Adrienne Godschalx

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Feliz día: International Women’s Day

Many creative and brave women shaped the way we understand the world, including many women scientists.

Recently I bought a new computer, and I decided to name it after a groundbreaking woman scientist. Marie Curie, who pioneered radioactivity came to mind, as did Rosalind Franklin, who, independent of Watson and Crick, determined the structure of DNA using x-ray crystallography. But then… I was stumped.

Even as a scientist I could only name two famous women scientists who shaped my understanding of science. I was astonished I could not name more without a google search. I admire many women currently working on cutting-edge science, but I knew many lady scientists significantly contributed to developing the ideas that we teach in intro-level courses.

Luckily, as a teaching assistant, I get to learn introductory biology all over again. One day in principles of biology lecture, my advisor described the concept of how mitochondria and chloroplasts came to exists as organelles inside of a cell- and that Lynn Margulis, despite grief from her male colleagues, solidified the endosymbiotic theory—a way of thinking that is essential to our current understanding of biology.

Here is why endosymbiosis is so cool:

Remember learning about all of the organelles inside of a cell? And about how the mitochondria is the “powerhouse of the cell”? Plants have a “make-your-own-food-from-sunlight” organelle: chloroplasts. Both mitochondria and chloroplasts are surrounded by a second membrane and contain their own circular DNA, which led Lynn Margulis to propose the idea that these organelles were originally prokaryotes, like bacteria, which were engulfed by another cell! While inside the cell, this prokaryote/ organelle ancestor paid enough “rent” by producing ATP or creating sugars from sunlight, so the landlord cell kept its tenants around.

An entire domain of life began- eukaryotes. (We belong to this domain…so does your cat.)

Yet, as I hinted earlier, this theory explaining the origin of eukaryotes and the organelles providing the energy was not accepted with open arms. I am not sure if the theory would be equally as contested if a man proposed it, but as a woman, Lynn’s publication On the Origin of Mitosing Cells was rejected 15 times, and even after it was accepted and printed in 1967, she still was not widely accepted by her male colleagues who thought her idea was ridiculous.

But with sheer courage she persisted, and now overwhelming evidence supports the endosymbiotic origin for the mitochondria and chloroplast. First, if you take all of the mitochondria or chloroplasts out of a cell, the cell cannot make more, which implies the ancestor cell took it in to begin with. Not only do both organelles have their own DNA resembling that of bacteria, but when scientists look at the DNA sequences, the base pairs line up well with current prokaryotes. Cyanobacteria is the chloroplast’s closest relative, even though chloroplasts are found in plants!

I can’t even imagine what we would teach students about how eukaryotes gained extra organelles, which gave this domain of life access to energy that enabled the crazy diversity we see today.

Lynn continued in her career by showing how symbiotic interactions—organisms interacting with one another—can act as a major evolutionary force.  My own research depends on this concept, and involves a form of endosymbiosis: bean plants take up bacteria into their roots that turn atmospheric nitrogen into a form the plant can use. This cooperation between plants and bacteria enables both to flourish.

This weekend I was honored to participate as a mentor for a Women in Science day event: girls 12-18 years old toured Genentech, a leading biotech company and talked with a wide variety of scientists to learn about possible careers. I was struck by the momentum behind encouraging girls to pursue science, and the confidence that there is power in women’s perspectives in creating innovative science.

“Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking”- Lynn Margulis (and Dorion Sagan)

Wings on Fire

I had always dreamed of going to the Amazon. The rainforest was a dream that breathed new life into me the way it breathes oxygen into the planet. As indescribable as the awe that comes from being amongst such biodiversity may be, the rainforest enchanted me in the movement of a toucan awkwardly wielding its beak, and in the flapping of wings on fire in the sunset as the faithful scarlet macaw streaks across the sky in its squeaky calling out to all below. Some moments brought forth vulnerabilities- the surprise of a snake’s delicate flicker of its tongue interrupting our gaze, and some brought forth grace, such as meeting the long-dreaded tarantula and experiencing not fear, but its majesty. Walls of rain sing in the rainforest upon giant sheets of leaves and dance on the surface of the turbid river. There is promise in the sunrise through the canopy mist, and in the sigh of achievement in the last orange glows on emergent branches, awaiting the stars and tree frog songs. I believe in this feeling of awe, and in its power.  Because of this, I live with more connection to the earth, more affinity for discovery, and more passion for sharing this awe with the global community. Dr. Kelly Swing, the director of the research station, quoted an Amazonian tribe leader in a presentation to visiting students, “We only know what we see; we only love what we know; we only care about what we love”. This has become my personal mission statement.

Some days I feel powerless. Numbers can be defeating—statistics on global carbon emissions, deforestation rates, biodiversity loss, increased poverty, inequality in human rights, and school shootings lead me to question whether I can have a positive impact. Science gives me hope; through science more people have a reason to care. My goal is to create research to discover new results, my findings will allow deeper understanding, and through understanding my work will facilitate an affinity for ecology. Through practice I know I have the power to connect as a science instructor and I have the power to connect across cultural boundaries. Of course I am still refining the art of connecting people from many different backgrounds to science, but luckily science inquiry is a task that always brings me joy.

-A

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town!

In the spirit of Christmas, a time for giving, I find it fascinating that one concept perplexing many scientists is the number of species that help each other. This is called a mutualism in science speak, and is confusing to many scientists because the underlying rules of natural selection (Darwin, 1859) intuitively work against spending energy or valuable resources helping others. Remember, fitness= grow and reproduce (although this kind of fitness is also fun). Any trait involved in spending the currency on an unrelated organism that would otherwise go towards kids theoretically would not last for many generations (because it takes having kids to make a new generation with those traits). But mutualistic traits do last, even when other organisms evolve ways to cheat and take more than they provide, further baffling evolutionary ecologists.

Which is why I think this paper is so cool.

The scientists used a creative strategy to assess how plants deal with the extra loss of sugars without any return of nitrogen when the symbiotic bacteria in their root nodules cheat. The creative part is forcing bacteria to cheat: rhizobia, which take the inaccessible, triple-bonded nitrogen from the air and turn it into a useful, organic molecule for the plant are not able to provide this service when there is no nitrogen in the air! Dr. E. Toby Kiers and her team kicked out all of the nitrogen by flooding chambers with roots and nodules with oxygen, 20% (rhizobia need oxygen too), and argon, 80% – a stable gas that is heavier than nitrogen.

Plants with “cheating” rhizobia on their roots cut off the oxygen supply to those nodules!

This concept of punishing cheaters (aka host sanctioning) to maintain a fitness benefit from the relationship is a huge help in solving the evolutionary questions about two-way beneficial relationships (mutualisms!) in nature.

It’s kind of like how Santa keeps you on your best behavior so you don’t get coal in your stocking.

Merry Christmas (or whatever you celebrate)!

-A