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On Winning a Nobel Prize in Science

Susan Notes:

Note that Carol Greider was considered dyslexic and put in remedial classes, and made to feel she was stupid.

In celebrating her great accomplishments, I can't help but think how different it is for students these day. These days, Carol Greider probably would be denied a high school diploma for failure to pass a high stakes literacy exam which state corporate politicos exalt for "rigor." In New York state, for example, a January 2009 graduate candidate was interrogated on this two-footnote poem.


So I said I am Ezra
and the wind whipped my throat
gaming1 for the sounds of my voice
I listened to the wind
go over my head and up into the night
Turning to the sea I said
I am Ezra
but there were no echoes from the waves
The words were swallowed up
in the voice of the surf
or leaping over the swells
lost themselves oceanward
Over the bleached and broken fields
I moved my feet and turning from the wind
that ripped sheets of sand
from the beach and threw them
like seamists2 across the dunes
swayed as if the wind were taking me away
and said
I am Ezra
As a word too much repeated
falls out of being
so I Ezra went out into the night
like a drift of sand
and splashed among the windy oats
that clutch the dunes
of unremembered seas

1gaming — gambling
2seamists — sea mists
— A. R. Ammons
from Ommateum, 1955


In 2004, diploma candidates faced a 3-footnote poem by Sharon Olds.

Students taking the August 2006 Regents faced Michael McLaverty's "The Wild Duck's Nest" from The Irish Monthly, April 1934, which opens thusly:

It was evening in late March. The sun was nearing its setting, its soft rays gilding1 the western limestone headland of Rathlin Island and washing its green hills with wet gold light. A small boy walked jauntily along a hoof-printed path that wriggled between the folds of these hills and opened out into a crater-like valley on the cliff-top. Presently he stopped as if remembering something, then suddenly he left the path, and began running up one of the hills. When he reached the top he was out of breath and stood watching fan-shaped streaks of light radiating from golden-edged clouds, the scene reminding him of a picture he had seen of the Transfiguration.2 A short distance below him was the cow munching at the edge of a reedy lake. Colm ran down to meet her waving his stick in the air, and the wind rumbling in his ears made him give an exultant whoop which splashed upon the hills in a shower of echoed sound. A flock of gulls lying on the short green grass near the lake rose up languidly, drifting lazily like blown snow- flakes over the rim of the cliff. . . .

QUESTION: 1 The development of the opening paragraph relies
on the use of
(1) cause and effect
(2) comparison and contrast
(3) appeal to the senses
(4) accumulation of generalizations


On this same test, the student is questioned about this stanza from Langston Hughes' "In Time of Silver Rain":

In time of silver rain
The earth
Puts forth new life again,
Green grasses grow
And flowers lift their heads,
And over all the plain
The wonder spreads
Of life,
Of life,
Of life!

QUESTION: The narrator’s use of the word "silver" (line 1)
suggests that the rain is
(1) warm (3) valuable
(2) hard (4) safe

I'd like to ask this question of a roomful of English teachers.

Likewise, this question about the first line of Richard Wilbur's "In Trackless Woods," from The New Yorker.

In trackless woods, it puzzled me to find
Four great rock maples seemingly aligned,
As if they had been set out in a row
Before some house a century ago,
To edge the property and lend some shade.
I looked to see if ancient wheels had made
Old ruts to which these trees ran parallel,
But there were none, so far as I could tell—
There'd been no roadway. Nor could I find the square
Depression of a cellar anywhere,
And so I tramped on further, to survey
Amazing patterns in a hornbeam1 spray
Or spirals in a pinecone, under trees
Not subject to our stiff geometries.

QUESTION: The poem uses the word "trackless" to
introduce a
(1) rhyme (3) simile
(2) contrast (4) hyperbole


This is only a glimpse at what New York students face. Back in 2003, I asked, Should a Miami Teenager Have to Deconstruct a Poetic Account of Tracking Moose in Alaska to Get a High School Diploma?

And so on and so on. We are told this is necessary to prepare students to be workers in the global economy. We need to challenge our corporate politicos and their educationist camp followers and union bootlickers with the question: What future Nobel Prize winners are our schools systematically eliminating with their high stakes tests?

Let us rejoice in Carol Geider's accomplishment. And let us weep for all of today's children who are crushed along the way.


A Conversation With Carol W. Greider
On Winning a Nobel Prize in Science
By Claudia Dreifus


Q. IS IT TRUE THAT YOU WERE DOING LAUNDRY WHEN YOU GOT THAT EARLY MORNING CALL FROM STOCKHOLM?

A. Yes. I don't usually do the laundry so early in the morning, but I was already up, and there was all this laundry staring at me. I was supposed to later meet two women friends to take our morning spin class. People had speculated that sometime in the next five years, something like this might happen. And last year people said, "Maybe, it will be," and it wasn't. Reuters had made this prediction that we might get it this time. But I really didn't have any idea. Maybe it would never happen. There are important fundamental discoveries that never get prizes. After I got the call, I sent my friend an e-mail: "I'm sorry I can't spin right now. I've won the Nobel Prize."

Q. DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO BE A BIOLOGIST?

A. My parents were scientists. But I wasn't the sort of child who did science fairs. One of the things I was thinking about today is that as a kid I had dyslexia. I had a lot of trouble in school and was put into remedial classes. I thought that I was stupid. How fortunate she was to have discovered what she was good at. These days, poor literacy skill would probably prevent her from getting a high school diploma

Q. THAT MUST HAVE HURT.

A. Sure. Yes. It was hard to overcome that. I kept thinking of ways to compensate. I learned to memorize things very well because I just couldn't spell words. So later when I got to take classes like chemistry and anatomy where I had to memorize things, it turned out I was very good at that.

I never planned a career. I had these blinders on that got me through a lot of things that might have been obstacles. I just went forward. It's a skill that I had early on that must have been adaptive. I enjoyed biology in high school and that brought me to a research lab at U.C. Santa Barbara. I loved doing experiments and I had fun with them. I realized this kind of problem-solving fit my intellectual style. So in order to continue having fun, I decided to go to graduate school at Berkeley. It was there that I went to Liz Blackburn's lab, where telomeres were being studied.

Q. WHAT ARE TELOMERES?

A. The concept of telomeres was really laid out by H. J. Muller and Barbara McClintock in the 1940s, when they showed that there must be a special unit, a kind of cap at the end of the chromosome that holds it together. In 1978, Elizabeth Blackburn, working with Joe Gall, identified the DNA sequence of telomeres.

Every time a cell divides, it gets shorter. But telomeres usually don't. So there must be something happening to the telomeres to keep their length in equilibrium. When I went into Liz Blackburn's lab in 1984 and began working on this, the most exciting question that was being asked there was, "If we know that telomeres get short over time, how can they be relengthened?" I set out to look for evidence that there was such an enzyme as telomerase that would relengthen the telemeres once they shortened.

What I found out on Christmas Day 1984, through biochemical evidence, was that telomeres could be lengthened by the enzyme we called telomerase, which keeps the telomeres from wearing down. After, I found that out, I went home and put on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," which was just out, and I danced and danced and danced.

Q. WHY WAS THAT IMPORTANT?

A. Because broken or shortened telomeres are implicated in a whole group of diseases. Five or six years later, we and other groups discovered that telomere shortening played a role in the inability of cells to divide after a certain number of divisions — as well as in cancer. So the possibility of a biochemical therapy for some of these diseases was now something that could be explored.

Q. IT'S BEEN SAID THAT YOU AND DR. BLACKBURN DIDN’T RECEIVE THE NOBEL PRIZE EARLIER BECAUSE IT HADN'T YET BEEN PROVED THAT TELOMERES AND TELOMERASE WOULD BE VALUABLE IN UNDERSTANDING DISEASE. DOES THE PRIZE THIS YEAR MEAN THAT THERE NOW IS AN ACCEPTANCE OF THEIR VALUE?

A. I certainly hope so. That's why Nobel Prizes are usually awarded long after the original discovery. It takes time for the medical implications to become clear. I think it's clear now that the basic science we did is important to understanding cancers, some human genetic diseases and the age associated degenerative diseases. The clinical relevance still needs to be understood in the medical community.

Q. MANY REPORTERS HAVE ASKED WHY TELOMERES RESEARCH SEEMS TO ATTRACT SO MANY FEMALE INVESTIGATORS. WHAT'S YOUR ANSWER?

A. There's nothing about the topic that attracts women. It's probably more the founder effect. Women researchers were fostered early on by Joe Gall, and they got jobs around the country and they trained other women. I think there's a slight bias of women to work for women because there's still a slight cultural bias for men to help men. The derogatory term is the "old boys network." It's not that they are biased against women or want to hurt them. They just don't think of them. And they often feel more comfortable promoting their male colleagues.

When Lawrence Summers, then the Harvard president, made that statement a few years ago about why there were fewer successful women in science, I thought, "Oh, he couldn't really mean that." After reading the actual transcript of his statement, it seems he really did say that women can't think in that sort of scientific fashion. It was ridiculous!

I mean, women do things differently, which is why I think it would be important if more women were at higher levels in academic medicine. I think people might work together more, things might be more collaborative. It would change how science is done and even how institutions are run. That doesn't mean that women necessarily have a different way of thinking about the mechanics of experiments. I think it's more a different social way of interacting that would bring results in differently.

Q. DO THIS YEAR'S NOBELS MEAN THAT WOMEN HAVE FINALLY BEEN ACCEPTED IN SCIENCE?

A. I certainly hope it's a sign that things are going to be different in the future. But I'm a scientist, right? This is one event. I'm not going to see one event and say it's a trend. I hope it is. One of the things I did with the press conference that Johns Hopkins gave was to have my two kids there. In the newspapers, there's a picture of me and my kids right there. How many men have won the Nobel in the last few years, and they have kids the same age as mine, and their kids aren't in the picture? That's a big difference, right? And that makes a statement.

Carol W. Greider of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine was one of three women who won a science Nobel last week, which puts her in some rare company. Only eight women had won in physiology or medicine, and there has never been a year when three women won Nobels in the sciences. Dr. Greider shared her prize with Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Jack W. Szostak for their research on telomeres.

— Claudia Dreifus
New York Times


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