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THE COMMONS ROOM

A SCIENCE
EXPERIMENT

"I can't believe I'm having so much fun and there's no member of the opposite sex around." This comment, given ebullient voice by a seventh-grade girl on "Young Women in Science Day" at Pitt's Medical School, was proof to co-organizer Anna Roman-Koller that the day was a hit, though I, as the lone male in the room, found the remark somewhat unsettling. It was that kind of day. I was the only one baffled by the science experiments too.

For this day, the med school had opened its doors wide to welcome 105 seventh-graders from the Pittsburgh public school system. As affection for science and math goes, the crowd was mixed. Some of these 12- and 13-year-olds were already whizzes in science and math. Others typically warmed to these subjects like to a dentist's drill. One wore a teddy bear around her back.

During their working session at Pitt, all were treated as "Visiting Scientists" and sported badges that said so. The attitude and deportment of the students by day's end said something too: There is joy in solving a mystery.

Roman-Koller, assistant chair of the pathology department, estimates that between now and 2000 nearly two-thirds of new entrants into the workforce will be women. These jobs, she says, increasingly will require adeptness in science, engineering, and mathematics. This prospect bumps up against a disturbing trend: Many girls in elementary and middle schools become disenchanted with math and science. Says Roman-Koller, "We must make significant changes in teaching methodology."

George Michalopoulos, interim dean of the medical school, set the tone that morning when he addressed the young scientists. "Today a silent revolution is taking place in our understanding of DNA," he said, "leading us to a time when broken genes can be fixed, can be replaced with new ones. You will carry on the work that is being done today. Your generation will control your own biology. I can think of nothing more beautiful. You will do something that changes human life forever."

Next co-organizer Christine Milcarek, a molecular biologist and immunologist, posed a question. "How many of you are scientists?" she asked, going on to offer an answer: "You all are." What she meant, she explained, is that a scientist is someone who thinks rigorously about the world. She paused. "When I grew up, I didn't know anybody who was a scientist."

It was then time for the visitors to show their stuff. Ahead, awaiting them at the third-floor teaching laboratories, were mini-lectures and experiments in biochemistry, microbiology, and medical diagnosis. The students would have help in their investigations: three dozen medical researchers--all young, all members of the medical school, all women.

Into the labs the students stepped, avid for uplift. The teddy bear came off. Serious issues were tackled: diabetes and reproductive health, the causes of uterine cancer, the consequences of good (or bad) nutrition. The students were introduced to the tools of science. As they tested blood sugar levels, a girl with a baseball hat excitedly informed her neighbor: "You see, brown means high glucose!"

Animal organs--hearts, brains, kidneys--were then made available for observing. Some of the girls winced, grimaced, giggled. At first. Then an honest curiosity took over. The giggling girls became, in truth, visiting scientists. Peering through microscopes, they examined dead brain cells. They tested for pH. "I did it!" a voice rang out triumphantly--more than once. Pipettes in hand, the students went protein hunting, separating out their prey into test tubes, identifying telltale characteristics. A young research chemist observed the flawless experimentation, rubbed her palms back and forth rapidly and enunciated delightedly, "Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha."

In the microbiology lab, a detective story. Which bacterium was the culprit in a case of blood infection? Was it streptococcus or staphylococcus? A steady hum of inquiry dominated as the students leaned over their tables, observing the matters at hand, applying deduction, extending imagination.

The emphasis throughout the day was women working together with women in science. There was respect and connection and commingling in the process of discovery. By the end of the day, the students had earned their rest. The experiment was over, a success. In time it will surely lead to a new question, a new experiment. That, the young women have learned, is how science works.--Tommy Ehrbar



SHOW
STOPPER

THERE IS A DIFFERence between acting and improvisation--the difference, some may say, between pleasure and pain. Think of your first driving test, weaving in and out of the orange cones, turning with both hands on the wheel, parallel parking. For months beforehand you'd practiced with your father riding shotgun, his hands braced on the dashboard as he coached and yelled and reassured. So the test was a snap; you already knew what you were getting into. That's what acting is like.

Now, think of your first car accident.

That's improvisation.

Live or die. That's how the emcee described the first game at Friday Nite Improvs recently. Nearly 100 Pitt students had crammed into the Pit Theater on Bouquet Street, just as they do each Friday at 11 p.m., for the raucous ritual of "theater games." The regulars were accustomed to the drama of the drama. But for the uninitiated, the stakes felt high.

Thirteen volunteers from the audience, 12 men and one woman, huddled center stage as the emcee crouched in front of them and announced the rules of his game. He would read short passages from the Bible. The cast had 60 seconds to improvise scenes based on the passages. The first passage he read went something like this: "And Jacob had many sons--Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Naphtali, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Zebulun, Gad, Benjamin, Judah, and Joseph."

No one on stage moved for a second or two, their eyes darting at each other as if waiting for someone--someone else--to take charge. Finally, a tall, lanky student in the cast stepped forward, turned his Pitt ball cap backward, and took center stage. He faced the audience, rested his hands on his hips, smiled, and froze. The other guys on stage closed in around him. Some knelt at his feet, others wrapped their arms around his shoulders. All faced forward. All smiled. All froze. Jacob and his sons.

There was no applause. Not yet, anyway. The audience wanted more than a family portrait. They wanted to laugh. They expected a punch line. Jacob and his sons started to fidget. They began losing their smiles. They were feeling the pain. Someone on that stage, Reuben or Joseph or Jacob himself, needed to take a chance. Live or die. Should they brake? Should they swerve? Brake? Swerve? Shut their eyes? Pray? And then, from somewhere behind the group, the one female student of the bunch reappeared. She slowly walked to the center of the stage, crossing in front of the men. There was a strained trepidation in her steps as if her leg muscles were sprained. One of her hands supported her lower back, the other rubbed her forehead. She glanced at the audience, took a deep breath, and then looked at the group--at Jacob and his 12 sons.

"Boy, am I exhausted," she said.

Bravo, Rachel! Bravo!

--Vicki Glembocki



DROPPING
A BOMBSHELL

DO YOU KNOW MR. Omar?

In the 1940s, Mr. Omar was a young man, a citizen of Malaysia, a Muslim, a descendant of Muhammad the Prophet. Photographs reveal a handsome face, eyes of discernment. During World War II, Mr. Omar traveled to Japan to study the art of teaching. He was in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day the bomb dropped.

So we are told by the woman at the podium, Naomi Nakaguchi, a Japanese woman and international exchange student at Pitt. We are gathered at Forbes Quad for a presentation sponsored by the Asian studies program. We are all, with the exception of Nakaguchi, American looking, more or less. In soft, sad cadences she introduces a video tape--Do You Know Mr. Omar? Produced last year on the 50th anniversary of the bombings, the film documents the haunting legacy of the thousands of casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The tape's purpose, Nakaguchi explains, "is to teach a chapter of Japanese history before it is forgotten by our children. In a few more years there will be no eyewitnesses left." She turns on the TV.

In the ensuing 90 minutes we do not hear, of course, the voice of Mr. Omar. He died shortly after August 6. We do meet the doctor who tried valiantly to save him. Listen--

"When he arrived at the hospital his skin was peeling off. We didn't know what an atom bomb was. No doctor in the world would have known what to do. I gave Mr. Omar a blood transfusion--my own blood. He looked at me with a smile on his face and said, 'Your own blood runs through me.' Then he died.'"

Years later, in 1958, two school children discovered a tomb in a crumbling Kyoto temple. It was the tomb of Mr. Omar. He was identified and given an Islamic burial. A memorial service annually honors his life and death.

Some 140,000 people were killed by the twin atomic bombings of 1945. There were survivors too. The videotape introduces us, 50 years after the events, to several of them. Listen--

"I was pregnant the day the bomb fell. My unborn child kept me alive. Then when she was born, she had uterine cancer."

"I've been sick every day since."

"I won't tell you my name or where I live. I've had to live as a recluse. My family has been stigmatized. I must protect them. I'm sorry. I cannot talk about it."

"I tried to get a job after I was released from the hospital. Ninety companies refused to hire me once they knew my background."

"I still remember a scene from that day: a lifeless woman holding a crying baby, holding the baby with nothing but her dead muscles."

"The atom bomb is still trying to kill me. I'm still continuing to fight it, to try to make sense of my life."

Amazingly, not one of the survivors directs a word of blame toward the United States or the airmen who dropped the bomb. Fury toward the enemy has disappeared into the heavens, like a mushroom cloud long ago.

At the end of the videotape, child actors reenact the story of Hiroshima, telling Mr. Omar's story. Then there is only darkness on the TV screen. We silently depart the room as though we were leaving a funeral. We realize we know Mr. Omar--and also that we never will. He stands for all those who did not survive the power of an atomic explosion. And he did achieve his youthful dream of teaching, forcing us to realize how it was he came to die. --Tommy Ehrbar


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