Category Archives: August 30

Working to bring biomedical health and career education to Maine’s high schools

When Karina Meiri and her husband Jim Schwob bought their house on Ridge Road in Martinsville a few years ago, it changed the way they thought about Maine—up until then they had primarily been vacationers. But Meiri says she thinks of herself these days as an “evolving resident.” This has to do with spending more time here as she enters a semi-retired phase of her professional life as a professor of Developmental, Molecular and Chemical Biology at Tufts Medical School, but it also has to do with the fact that, as the Co-Director of Tufts’ Center for Translational Science Education, educating Maine’s high school science students has recently become a significant focus.

What Meiri and her colleagues at the Center have to offer Maine’s high school science students—and not incidentally their teachers—are curricula that bring together modern biomedical science, valuable health education and exposure to the wide range of career paths in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields.

“The public health aspect of the curriculum is for everybody,” Meiri says. “We did a focus group in which we asked high school students, ‘How many of you are interested in science?’ and 50 percent of them said they were somewhat interested in science. But then when we asked, ‘How many of you are interested in learning about your own health and the diseases that affect your own health?’ 98 percent of them said, ‘Yeah, we’d be really interested in learning about that.’ So that’s something students want to learn. Every kid needs to know how to manage their health so that when they go to the doctor and the doctor says, ‘Oh you’ve got an ear infection, so you need to take these antibiotics.’ They need to understand why the doctor then says to them, ‘And don’t forget to finish the course.’ That’s something simple, but it is key to a lot of underlying problems with antibiotics, so understanding that sort of thing, we believe, will give more impetus to public health compliance.”

High school students in Boston are learning how infections spread using an activity that is part of “The Great Diseases” curriculum developed by St. George resident Karina Meiri and her team at Tufts Medical School. The curriculum is now being introduced to high schools in Maine.

At first, when Meiri joined the Tufts Medical School faculty in 2000, her interest was in working with high school students who were already taking an interest in doing “real” science. “Before coming to Tufts I always had high school students in my lab, working, learning science, helping, as a way to encourage them if they were interested in science. That morphed into a program that I started where I would pair high school students with other scientists so they could do projects. The point of that was so that they could enter these science competitions like the Intel competition because there is a lot of prize money in these competitions that would help students with college costs. Then, when Jim and I moved to Boston I started a really big program involving 100 students a year—we would match them with scientists from Tufts, or Harvard or MIT or industry.”

Eventually, Meiri and her colleagues realized that while it was great working with high school students who were already interested in science, there was a large group of students who didn’t really know if they would be interested in science or not.
“We realized that if we wanted to get to those students we’d have to get into the classroom and to get into the classroom we’d have to get the teachers on board, so that was how we decided to change from offering a sort of informal kind of opportunity for students to learn science to one that was really formally focused on the classroom.”

To their credit, Meiri says, high school science faculty realize that to teach science they have to engage students in science. “They have to involve them in a discovery experience so that they realize that science is about discovering things, not just learning things.” Applying that understanding to environmental projects—take St. George School’s alewife project as an example—can be very successful, Meiri says, because the projects are community oriented. “But our interest was in biomedical science, the science of health and disease, so that is something a bit more removed from the community, although our focus group made clear that health and disease is very much something students find engaging. But the teachers find it harder to translate that interest into effective projects because their own training isn’t in that kind of science. And then, when you become a teacher, you often don’t get content-based professional development. If their school has four days a year for professional development you’re going to get a professional development day that speaks to everybody and is not narrowly focused on topics like infectious diseases.”

So Meiri and her colleagues applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to work on developing a biomedical science curriculum for high school students called “The Great Diseases.” They began working on the five-year project with a group of local high school teachers in 2008. The curriculum was designed to be the “Biology II” course being offered to Boston area students with three years of science already under their belts—an elective that had been posing a significant challenge to their teachers, who were not feeling confident that their training was adequate to the teaching at this level.

“So we designed four six-week modules: infectious diseases, metabolic diseases like obesity, neurological disorders of which addiction would be a part and cancer of which modern technology would be a part. So those were the modules. And instead of saying, with infectious diseases for example, ‘Here’s a list of bacteria and here’s a list of parasites, now go away and learn them,’ which is what happens in medical school, the way we decided to do it was to ask 30 clear questions like, ‘What does it mean to say a disease is infectious? When does a microbe become pathogenic? How do we find out? How does our body control infectious disease? How do we treat it?’ So those were the big questions and then we would use specific diseases to explain the answers. So we might talk about Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) from the point of view of the science, asking ‘How does a STD work?’ So there is a real public health impact associated with it.”

Each module took the teachers and Meiri’s team a year to put together. “Over each year we would teach the teachers the content and then we would come up with the 30 questions. Then we would go away and take each of those questions and make them into a week’s worth of lessons. Then we would design those lessons so that each has a structure that a teacher can come to and just look at and say, ‘Okay, now I know what to teach in this lesson and how to teach it.’”

“The Great Diseases” curriculum has proven extremely popular. Meiri cites one teacher’s experience: “First she had to strong-arm kids to take the class, so the first year she had just 20 students. Now she is teaching four sections of the course and there is a waiting list.”

Meiri’s Center for Translational Science Education has also made the curriculum available online—there are about 15,000 downloads from the Center’s site each month, by users all over the world, but primarily in the U.S. Supporting all these users has become a significant part of the Center’s work.

“We designed workshops for teachers so they could come to us in Boston, usually during the summer, and learn how to teach each of the modules. Then we designed on-line virtual support so if a teacher in Texas wants to learn how a microbe becomes pathogenic they can sign up to have online chats and texts and skypes with someone who is an expert in our group and that expert can answer their questions and give tips about how to teach the classes. We also encourage the teachers to modify the lessons so if they say, ‘Well, my class doesn’t do well with reading,’ or ‘My class actually needs more reading than activities because we don’t really have the resources to support the activities,’ we’ll say, ‘Why don’t you do the lesson this way rather than in that way,’ so it is really structured support for the teachers. And the students get extra support because we supply workbooks that go along with the lessons.”

With another five-year grant from the NIH in 2014 the team began developing online professional development for teachers who can’t come to Boston for “The Great Diseases” workshops, especially those from schools in rural areas.

Another aspect of the Center’s work has involved developing another high school curriculum that goes into the classroom and gives students the opportunity to experience the “drug discovery” process as a means of exposing the students to science-related career options.

“With this curriculum we go into the classroom and say, ‘Here are three diseases, which one do we want to cure?’” Meiri explains. “The students go away and research the diseases and then they decide which to take on. And then we divide them into teams and each person in each of the teams plays a specific role, like a medicinal chemist or someone who organizes clinical trials or somebody who looks after the animals in the facility or someone who writes reports for the FDA. And then, over the course of a week, the students simulate this drug discovery process, they look at the data, figure out how to make their experimental drug better, and so on. The students get to experience all those different careers and learn about them and the education they would need to pursue them—not every STEM career requires a PhD or even a college degree. And the kids get to appreciate there is more to science than being a biology teacher.”

Bringing these curricula to Maine has become a significant focus for Meiri and Tufts’ Center for Translational Science Education for several reasons, Meiri notes, though it is entirely coincidental that this is happening at the same time that Meiri and her husband have become part-time residents of St. George. For one thing, Maine is a good fit because Tufts already has a relationship with Portland’s Maine Medical Center and with the Jackson Labs in Bar Harbor, both of which are doing science outreach with high schools. In fact, Maine Medical Center has already introduced Meiri’s team to a resource that will help connect it to Maine’s rural schools and has also hosted a workshop focused on one aspect of “The Great Diseases” curriculum for a group of Maine high school teachers. In addition, support from the Bingham Foundation, which has a special interest in bringing health science education to high schools in Maine, is making it possible for the Center to expand science curriculum development in the state.

Meiri is clearly pleased that her Center’s health science education work is developing a strong foothold in Maine. But, she admits, she also has a concern, noting, “We don’t yet have any educational partners in the midcoast area.” Now that she is becoming more and more grounded in St. George it seems likely that that situation will soon change. —JW

PHOTOS: Top, Julie Wortman; Center for Translational Science Education

The ‘Lighthouse on the Hill’

The Tenants Harbor Baptist Church, also known as the Third Baptist Church of St. George, was an outgrowth of the two earlier Baptist churches at Wiley’s Corner and at the Ridge in Martinsville. A group was organized in 1842 and in March 1845 a meeting was held at the Clark schoolhouse for the purpose of “adopting measures to build a church.” A church was built at the cost of about $2,500 and it was dedicated in December 1847.

Talk about rebuilding the church began about 1883, but construction work did not begin until the fall of 1890. It took a year to complete, at a contract price of $5,800, with a dedication of the new building in October 1891. Church membership at the time was around 250.

A newspaper article from 1891 describes the church: “The church is commandingly located on a hill overlooking the pretty village whose name it bears. The structure is in the form of two right-angled wings with a handsome tower at the junction. The old church forms one of the wings.” The article goes on to describe the renovations in detail, noting the size and types of wood used, seating capacity and the beautiful stained glass windows. The church steeple is then mentioned: “It is 74 feet high and commands a wonderful view of the surrounding country and sea. It is used as a beacon for sailors off the coast, its commanding situation making it very useful for that purpose.” To this day, it is still referred to as the “Lighthouse on the Hill.”

At the dedication in 1891, the building committee reported approximately $2,000 of debt. Immediately several members stepped forward and made donations, followed by Capt Samuel Watts. A contemporary account said Watts addressed his friends and neighbors saying, “The church should be dedicated free from debt.” He reportedly then and there paid the balance of $1,750.

For many years the church was the site for the St. George High School’s graduation services. —John Falla

Today’s renovations to the steeple

Tenants Harbor Baptist Church

Over the next two months, the nearly 200-year-old Tenants Harbor Baptist Church will be in the midst of a renovation project.

The church’s steeple has been in need of major repairs for over a decade, and after successfully raising a majority of the funding for the project, work is getting underway to bring the steeple up to its previous glory.

The church, founded in 1842, has been a central figure in the Tenants Harbor and greater St. George community. With the church sitting high on the hill on Main Street, the steeple has been known throughout the years as the “Lighthouse on the Hill.”

However, due to decades of wear and tear up on that hill, the light has not been shining—nor the church bell rung as of late.

Weathering the Maine elements has caused numerous steeple elements to deteriorate. The steeple has also been struck by lightening several times throughout the church’s history, the last time being about 15 years ago.

Throughout the years, intermittent repairs have been made to keep the steeple in adequate shape. But the renovations being made this fall are needed to bring the steeple to its original condition.

During the steeple’s restoration, several belfry posts and beams will be replaced, along with the installation of two new bell braces, which support the church bell. A wall realignment will need to be completed, as well as replacing all of the trim and finish on the steeple’ belfry. Other repairs are also included in the plans.

Once the work is done, we’re hopeful to have “The Lighthouse on the Hill” back in working order so we can once again ring the bell and light the steeple. —Walter W. Desruisseaux, Sr.

Parasites in paradise

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen—

Indian Pipe

Say the word “parasite” to a friend (go ahead, I dare you) and you’ll likely receive a look of disdain that’s (most likely) partnered with some sort of negative sound effect. If you are lucky, you might “get” to hear a biased story about some moochy, mutual friend. To make matters worse—toss out the classic joke “Q: What do you call a parasite on a Loon? A: Loon-a-tick”—and you are likely to get eye rolls, head shakes and possibly lose a friend or two. In the simplest terms, parasites are to be avoided and the joke is just not that funny. Parasites (and the loon joke) are like the complete opposite of a win-win.

The famous entomologist, E.O Wilson, described parasites as “predators that eat prey in units of less than one.” Dictionaries define parasites as organisms that “derive nutrients from another organism … at the other organism’s expense.” Despite these less than glowing reviews, there are still parasites that bring smiles to countless human faces each year, and many of them (parasites, humans, and faces) can be found right here in St. George!

Take the parasitic Indian Pipe or ghost flower (Monotropa uniflora) of the Heath family (Ericaceae) for example. While everyone agrees that photosynthesis in plants is mind-boggling and incredible, Indian Pipe is a plant that skips the whole “create your own sugar” thing and instead goes rogue and taps into underground sources for nourishment (a plant race away from the sun).

Polinated Indian Pipes

When they rise from the earth, Indian Pipes are “ghostly white” to “partially-pinkish” (no green chlorophyll here!) with a single, nodding flower at the top of each white stalk. Their look changes once the flowers are pollinated, as the Indian Pipe flowers redirectionalize themselves, face upwards and the entire plant turns to black. The coloration and morphology phases of Indian Pipe make for a diverse observational experience that can really only be compared to that of a slime mold. In other words they are fun to watch. Very cool, if you are into that kind of thing.

In truth, Indian Pipes only parasitize trees in an indirect sort of way. Their roots take nutrients from underground, mychorrhizal fungus that happen to have a symbiotic relationship with the local trees! To grow, an Indian Pipe plant takes a portion of the sugars that a mychorhizal fungus receives from a tree in exchange for nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients. It’s a parasitic arrangement that doesn’t kill the fungus or the tree and results in cool-looking, ghostly Indian Pipes sprinkled throughout the woods! Win-win.

Pine Sap

And Indian Pipes aren’t the only Heath to go down the “parasitic path.” Pine Sap (Monotropa hypoithys) is a closely related (same genus!) parasitic plant that is also found in the forests of St. George, albeit in less abundance than Indian Pipes. Pine Sap is easily identifiable with its tannish coloration and multiple, nodding flowers on a single stalk. And parasitic all the way.

Another local parasitic favorite is the Lobster Mushroom. In the case of a Lobster Mushroom, it’s a mold (Hypomyces lactifluorum) that attacks a mushroom from the family Russula (Russulaceae); often Peppery Milky (Lactarius piperatus) or short stalked russula (Russula brevipes) mushrooms. The mold “arrests the development” of the parasitized mushroom while using the structure as a platform to release its own spores. The result is a warped mushroom completely covered in reddish-orange skin, somewhat reminiscent of a cooked lobster—thus the name (HELLO)! As it absorbs nutrients the mold also prevents Russula mushrooms from doing their Russula mushroom duties (spreading spores). On a side note, the mold also happens to turn the parasitized, fungal bloom from a not-particularly-appetizing mushroom into a prized “choice” edible, a delicacy that has been cooked in restaurants and grilled on barbeques for hundreds of years (or eaten for a long time). Here is a parasite that pleases both the eyes and the palate!

I have to say, in no way are we trying to minimize the effects parasites can have—they are here, among us and even the best of us get them (trust me on this). And while spraying clothes and being vigilant with tick checks has become a part of life with parasites in mid-coast Maine, there are still examples of this natural relationship that can get heads noddin’ at the marvel of it all. Parasitism is an aggressive alternative to doing it yourself, and examples of such behavior are found throughout nature. Some of these parasites and parasitical relationships can even inspire smiles. What a world.

See you out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

A ceramicist inspired by her Clark Island world

Clark Island artist, Gayle Bedigian, combines her ancestral ties to the island and its natural beauty to create uniquely inspired ceramic art. Working on many projects at one time, her studio is populated by a myriad of clay forms that capture her natural surroundings in which nearby granite ledges slope down into the ocean, birch trees sway in the breeze, sea birds soar overhead and fish dart through the shimmering water. Her home is part of her family history. She says her most recent project, Clark Island Stonewear, “is designed to capture the beauty of the natural granite ledges where I grew up, a place where my mother grew up and her mother and grandmother before her. These granite stones were the trade of my grandfather and his father before him. And these granite stones provided a dry sitting place, a picnic spot for freshly caught lobsters, a warm place to rest after picking blueberries, a forever place to carve your name, and a place to view the breathtaking Milky Way at night.”

Bedigian’s process for creating this unique “Stonewear” begins along her shoreline, a tract of land given to her by her aunt many years ago. She begins by taking a large slab a clay and pressing it onto the granite rocks where she used to sit. The imprinted texture of the rock forms the inside face of a clay sculpture. She then cradles the moist and pliant clay into a form to shape it into a low-profile bowl as it dries. This is called “slumping.” After drying, the clay is fired in one of the large kilns in the corner of her studio. Afterward, Bedigian adds sea water mixed with mason stains and grit and fires it again. Depending upon how many different treatments she applies to the form, she can fire the clay up to seven times.

Other ceramics created by Bedigian are hand painted with dynamic and sometimes whimsical designs inspired by birch tree bark, sea gulls, puffins, fish, landscapes, and commissioned designs. Each design is hand-formed and painted so that no two are alike. Although most of her ceramics are fine art meant only for display, some pieces also have a utilitarian purpose, like a cup or platter. In either case, they all bear the unique shapes and marks of this artist.
Bedigian was not always a ceramicist. Born and raised in Boston, but spending her summers on Clark Island, she was encouraged in the fine arts by her father, Robert Briggs, who was a well-known commercial artist and by her mother, who was a copywriter. Their entrepreneurial free-lance careers taught Bedigian to trust her instincts and to take risks. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1971 from the University of Massachusetts, where she met her husband. There, her concentration of study was etching and print making, but she did take one course in ceramics. This qualified Bedigian to teach art. Because the newlyweds moved to Bar Harbor so her husband could join Jackson Laboratory, Bedigian had the opportunity to teach art at the one room schoolhouse on Cranberry Island for five years. This was a challenge, since, by that time, she ferried back and forth from the island to the mainland with her own young children and art supplies in tow.

Eventually, Bedigian turned to sculpting, making Christmas ornaments for commercial sale. Her business took off and in one year her company employed 26 craftspeople. Simultaneously, she joined with two other women to open a store in Bar Harbor called “Driven Women.” They sold their own creations as well as those from other women. After eleven years, her husband transferred jobs to Maryland where Bedigian taught ceramics to high school students. This transition also marks a transition in her ceramics from craft to fine art. By 2003, one of her former business partners died in a tragic skiing accident and Bedigian turned her creativity to painting a ceramic memorial for the family. This was the start of commission work for the artist and she soon had more work than time to make it. In addition to private commissions, Bedigian has done custom work for the National Cathedral in Washington and the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Gift Gallery. The artist is represented by Port Clyde Art Gallery. You may read more about her on her website: www.gaylebedigian.com. ­—Katharine Cartwright

Photo

Colby College and the Up East Foundation recently sponsored a benefit for Herring Gut Learning Center featuring a trip to Allen Island, owned by the Wyeth family. Pictured, left to right, Peter Harris, Board Chair of Herring Gut, David A. Greene, President of Colby College and Jamie Wyeth of Up East.