Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Am I cool enough to be a high school teacher?

In May, I went to this
science writing workshop
in Santa Fe. It was an utterly amazing
experience in every way. Many conversational threads wound through
the week; one that particularly caught my fancy was "found
science." Rather than writing about science as it is done by scientists, you focus on the science of everyday life, and pop culture in particular. You can start with the obvious--science fiction--and write The Physics of Star Trek, or you can grab onto something extremely popular but not obviously scientific, and dig until you find the science. Then you end up with The Physics of the Buffyverse, a delightful book by Jennifer Ouellette, who incidentally was my instructor at the Santa Fe Workshop. She rocks, and as far as I can tell, found science is her whole mission in life.

I came home from the workshop, considered quitting grad school (don't worry, it's normal), and started thinking: what is popular right now? What is hot? Where can I challenge myself to find science? Since I have always known what cool is (not), I settled on the Twilight phenomenon. This slice of pop-culture has been thoroughly devoured by precisely the demographic that science (and math and engineering) are still losing.

I gave it a
whirl. I wrote about the environs of Twilight,
the two towns of Forks and Phoenix: why is one green and the other brown? Despite
being an all-out marine invertebrate person, I have always been rather taken with photosynthesis, so I
ended up rhapsodizing about things like stomata and crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM). Jennifer, who had generously invited all her workshop students to guest for her blog, improved my rambling with a few judicious edits and posted it.


However, since then, the research demon that lives in my head has been nagging me. "You've only read the first book of the series, and you never saw the movie. You didn't do your homework," it scolded.

"I know," I admitted. "But I'm not quite determined enough to purchase the books. And I've been an academic for so long that I
don't remember how to deal with public libraries."

"YOU ARE AN EMBARRASSMENT!" screamed the demon.

"I do have a Blockbuster card, though," I said timidly. "Look, I'm renting the movie right now."

So I watched Twilight. Oh. My. Did I ever
feel stupid.


This is the first shot of Bella. Her introduction, if you will. Do you see? It is pixel-y, so let me explain: She is holding a trowel and a cactus. She has obviously just dug up the cactus from her mother's backyard in Phoenix. She will proceed to carefully carry this cactus all the way to her new home in Forks. A cactus, people. One of those CAM plants that is brilliantly adapted to life in the desert by only opening its stomata at night to take up carbon dioxide and storing it to use during the day, when the sun helps it carry out the light reactions of photosynethsis. How could I not have used this as the lede for my story? LAME!

(Another thing that is lame: The first dramatic googling scene I have ever seen in a movie. Way to
keep up with the technological times, Hollywood!)

Okay. Deep breath. Moving on from how I missed the best lede ever, let us now discuss how the biology teacher at Forks High School is cool.


Every single class is a
lab, it seems, and a pretty nifty lab at that. Planaria behavior? Awesome! Planaria are the cutest little cross-eyed flatworms you ever saw. Of course, it's always frustrated me that "planaria" is the common name for all flatworms in the family Planariidae, because Planaria is also a specific genus within this family. And it isn't the genus that you usually use in high school biology labs--that's Dugesia. But because Dugesia is in Planariidae, it can be called planaria even though it is not in the genus Planaria. Confusing much? I don't know if Mr. Molina knows about all this taxonomic nonsense, but if any high school biology teacher did, it would be him. He's on top of his game! Even the
obligatory mitosis lab is capped with the prize of a golden
onion for the fastest group to finish. Sure, it might be more appropriate for younger
ages, but it's still cute, and more effort than a lot of teachers would make. And then, a field trip to a greenhouse, complete with compost and worms! This is already way cooler than anything I remember from my high school biology class. But it's more than just content. Mr. Molina has the enthusiasm to sell biology.

Basically, biology
is lucky that I was already committed by the time I got to high
school, because my high school biology class was . . . not
memorable. That's all I can say about it, because I
honestly don't remember. I think it is the class's fault, because my
amnesia is not blanketed over all of high school. I have vivid memories of Physics, in which I learned eagerly about wectors
and wariables. Even apart from the poor teacher's hilarious-to-teenagers accent, the class totally rocked. (This may be in large part because I already loved calculus--see earlier sarcastic comment about how I have always been cool.)

Physics and biology were my only high school science classes,
because I managed to avoid chemistry
completely between 1995 and 2005. I took it in middle
school and didn't touch it again until my first year of grad school, by which time I had started to feel guilty. I don't know if this explains why I'm
not a chemistry person, or if the fact that I'm not a
chemistry person explains the decade-long hiatus.
I have this theory that every biologist likes either chemistry or physics, but never both. I'm definitely a physics person.

Annnyway, what was I talking about? Oh, how my high school bio class wasn't so great. That memory, or lack thereof, was spurred by my newfound admiration for the fictional Mr. Molina (by the way, in the book, his name was Mr. Banner, and I don't remember if he was as cool). This all makes me want to teach high school biology when I grow up. So there.

Annnnnnd, as the cherry on top of all these disjointed, poorly connected ideas: a
list of new Twilight Biology topics to blog about!

  • What makes vampire skin sparkle in direct sunlight?
  • Why do vampire eyes change color depending on how well-fed they are?
  • Carlisle turned Edward into a vampire when he was dying of the 1918 flu, a pandemic that fascinates me because I
    feel like I never really learned about it in school--it got
    completely overshadowed by WWI. This'll be a hot story when flu season comes around. 
  • Sure, now everyone know
    Forks as the Twilight capital of the world, but long before that it was
    the logging capital of the world. There's some fun and controversial
    conservation biology to, ahem, sink my teeth into.
  • Call it what you will--falling in love, infatuation, limerence--it actually makes your brain chemically crazy. The language Bella uses to describe her emotions in the book could be spliced into an almost textbook description of these physiological changes.
  • Finally, the developmental biology of a vampire-human hybrid would be a fun tangent to explore. I mention this because I hear there's some kind of hybrid-baby in the final book.

Which, obviously, I am
nowhere near reading. Guess I'd better go re-learn public libraries. That will make my demon happy.


  1. According to the cult of Umbriel (and possibly others), vampirism is caused by an infection of nanorobots in one's bloodstream which explode when exposed to UV light. If these robots are noticeably metallic, this could theoretically also cause the sparkly effect. Not that I have read any of these books or watched any of the movies.

  2. Ooh, I like it! In the Twilight universe vampires actually don't combust in sunlight (an unfounded myth!), they only glitter. I was going to go for another excuse to talk about cephalopod iridophores, but I'll have to think about it more . . .
    I miss Networld.

  3. Have you read Sunshine by Robin McKinley?

  4. Amazon recommended it, so I read an excerpt, and wished I could keep reading! It's her take on vampires, right?

  5. From maiaoya:
    An aside: I enjoyed Robin McKinley's books a lot as a kid. Haven't read one in a while now.
    Have you read "Peeps" by Scott Westerfeld? Its a very easy read with the main premise being that vampirism being a parasitic infection. Said parasites cause behavior changes! Every other chapter is a little treatise on a different, but very real, parasite.

  6. OOH! Thanks for the tip. I had not read Peeps, and now I think I have to. It will be interesting to compare Westerfeld's ideas about vampirism as (I assume) a biological parasite to our ideas about vampirism as a nanotechnological parasite (Mike was alluding to a sci-fi world we designed with a bunch of friends in high school).


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