Archives of Women in Science and Engineering
Special Collections Department - Archives of Women in Science and Engineering - Oral History Project
MS 379: Oral History Collection
Interview transcript, 1999
TZB: Do you remember any particular classes that really kind of sparked your interest?
CA: Oh, yeah!
TZB: Can you describe one?
CA: I was interested in biology -- and especially in biochemistry, which has ended up being my particular area of interest, only now it's called molecular biology. Since from the time I was about ten, from reading books about how the human body functions and how chemical pathways function. But I had, in eighth grade, a wonderful biology teacher, who used what we would now call inquiry-driven teaching methods. And she had -- the one moment that I remember particularly clearly is an exercise she did on a circulatory system, where she took a goldfish and wrapped it in wet Kleenex, so that it wouldn't die, and spread its tail out underneath the microscope. And the translucent tail was clear enough that you could see the blood cells moving through the veins and see the valves moving back and forth, which was the fish's heartbeat. And it was this wonderful moment of seeing what had been unseen, and everything was brilliantly colored and jewel-like and glittering under the microscope. It was really a very nice little exciting idea about the unseen world -- the microscopic world. I was pretty hooked at that point. Although, I should say, that I went on to be a double major in college, in English Literature. So, I didn't really settle down to biology until it was time to go to graduate school.
TZB: What year did you take that particular class with the goldfish? What year was that?
CA: Oh, it was eighth grade, so I was only thirteen.
TZB: Did you continue on with biology classes in high school?
CA: Yes. I took more biology classes. I took one more biology class, but the New York State System, which is where I was going to school at the time, was fairly rigid. You took biology in ninth grade. Chemistry in tenth grade, etc.
CA: And then, if you were a girl, that was the end of the line. Although I did take physics, anyway. But it was -- I think it was really my first year of college that I began learning biology from classes and getting excited about a new class.
TZB: So, really, the spark of interest was there, and then it kind of unfolded in college.
TZB: What kind of classes did you take when you were in college?
CA: Well, I went to Swarthmore, which has a really nice first-year biology sequence, where, instead of doing the traditional sort of arms-length survey of biology, they brought in each of their faculty members to lecture for a couple of weeks their area of specialization. They went into a great deal of depth. They were very challenging exams in that class. They were famous for starting after dinner and going on just as long as you wanted to stay there. [laughs]
CA: Open-ended, thought-provoking questions. Not memorization based.
TZB: Which was probably very inspiring in a lot of ways.
CA: It was. It was exciting. And I can also remember one of the first teachers who taught the [unclear], which is a classic genetic switch in ecology that needs to [unclear] expression in response to the presence of a particular nutrient. Then the bacteria turns on the genes that are necessary to break that nutrient down. And otherwise, they don't express those genes to conserve energy. And it was worked out by Chuck Corbin in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And it has what turned out to be a particularly significant and good choice as a first genetic system to understand because many others work like it. And once you understand that, you understand a lot of the sort of repertoire of plasticity that single-celled organisms have.
TZB: So, that's kind of the basic for further understanding.
CA: Yes. And it's also beautiful. It's simple. It's elegant. Once you understand how it works, it makes lovely sense. So, I can remember explaining it to the other people in my lab group, who were also in my study group. And they couldn't understand it at first, and I did understand it. And the fun of explaining it is intoxicating.