September 2017 | In My Element
Something Happened on My Way to Becoming a Rock Star…
By Michelle Wynn
Despite being the daughter of a chemistry professor as a kid, I rejected all things science, while self-proclaiming my future as a Broadway star. Yes, I was that kid. I acted, sang, played piano, and was known to skip physics class whenever I thought I could get away with it.
When I applied to music programs my senior year, I ended up being wait-listed at my top choice, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, until my college counselor finagled an audition despite my tenuous admittance status. To my delight, my audition not only resulted in admission to the prestigious music program, but a scholarship as well. It wasn’t until my freshman orientation, when I was handed my schedule of 4 ½ years of music theory, that I realized I had made a mistake.
And that was how I became an English major.
For four years, I continued with music by singing in a blues band and starting my own singing telegram business to earn cash, and also studied English Lit. I had chosen English partly because I had no idea what else to study; partly because I thought it would be easy; and partly because a guy I had a crush on was an English major and he made it sound romantic. No one should ever doubt the gullibility of an eighteen-year-old, which is probably why I still get a kick out of working with them today.
After I graduated with my B.A., I was again influenced by a significant other to re-enroll at UMASS for a B.S. My boyfriend at the time was studying neuroscience, and he made neuroscience sound romantic; maybe just everything sounds romantic when you’re young and impressionable. But I was excited by the challenge of learning something completely different, and since I already had a minor in psychology, most of my prerequisites were out of the way — that is except for chemistry, which I dreaded. But, the more I studied the brain, the more fascinated I was with it. What started out as an interest in brain anatomy, turned into an interest in neuronal pathways, cell communication, receptor structure, and ultimately neurochemistry: a far cry from Broadway!
A pivotal experience
When I graduated for the second time, instead of jumping right into graduate school, I took a year off to work at a small school for emotionally disturbed boys in western Massachusetts. It was during this year that I learned some of the most important lessons that affected how I teach today, coming from two unlikely students, Rick and Prentiss.
Rick, a schizophrenic with several other anxiety-related disorders, was a gentle giant with a constant look of concern on his face, but seriously amusing dance moves; Rick was known to often spontaneously break into a frenetic dance routine, rivaling Elaine from Seinfeld. It was easy to like Rick.
What was heartbreaking, however, was watching Rick with his daily medical routine. Three times a day he was given a medical cocktail that gave him terrible side effects, and was often changed without notice, causing Rick to become frustrated. Poor Rick had no idea why he had to keep changing meds, and why he felt the way he did. “Ms. Michelle, why do I have to be so tired all the time? Why can’t I fall asleep? Why do they have to keep changing my meds?”
Seeing how confused and sad this poor boy was, I was compelled to figure out a way for him to understand what his medications were doing, so that he wouldn’t feel so confused. I drew some pictures of cells communicating, and showed him how drugs affect this communication. It was a simple model at first, showing how cocaine blocks reuptake, but eventually I was able to explain the cascading pathways that can have multiple effects, and this helped him understand why there wasn’t a simple answer to what meds he was prescribed. To this day, I use a variation of that first lesson with Rick as part of my unit on organic chemistry, in order to help my students understand how chemistry, and neurochemistry, applies to issues such as drugs, drinking, love, etc.
And then there was Prentiss. At the age of 11, Prentiss was living on the streets of Cambridge, MA with a skinhead gang. During this time, he was branded by a large homemade tattoo on his forehead that read “SKINS.” During his time at the school, the racist beliefs he had learned as a child changed dramatically — so much so that he roomed with a student of color, Sal, who was also his best friend.
This constant physical reminder of his past hit a breaking point one day while I was on dorm duty. This day, he began breaking things and threatening everyone in his path. When I got to his door he held a razor blade to my throat and threatened to cut me. Whatever force kept me from immediately running away allowed me to stay long enough for him to drop the blade, fall to the floor, and sob. He cried that he couldn’t move forward with this highly visible tattoo, which represented a belief system he now condemned.
I knew I couldn’t let him down, so I spent months trying to find him help. I reached out to his insurance company, tried to find funding to help pay for treatment, contacted dermatology programs, and wrote every surgeon within a 100-mile radius. After months of research and hundreds of letters, I finally found a doctor in the Boston area who agreed to help. I often tell my students that sometimes it’s important not to take no for an answer, and to keep pushing for what you believe is right, and I sometimes tell them this story of Prentiss. Prentiss was able to have his tattoo removed, and it changed his life. He was no longer burdened by his past, and was able to walk down the streets without trying to hide his face.
Shortly after Prentiss’ tattoo removal, I was offered a job doing neuroscience research in Boston, and I left the school.
As an undergraduate, my laboratory experience had involved counting mouse turds for fear-conditioning paradigms, so I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll of sacrificing animals for science at my new job. I may have been fascinated by cellular and molecular research, but I felt worse every time I sacrificed a nine-day-old rat. After six months at the job, I knew I couldn’t continue. This experience ended my ambition for a Ph.D., and made me frustrated that I wouldn’t be in a university setting.
But fortunately, it was only one day after I left the lab that I received a call from a friend who told me about a position at Boston College. They were looking for someone with a background in neuroscience who could work with kids, and I was the perfect fit. And, as one of my benefits, I could go to school for free.
I finished my M.Ed. in two years, and when I graduated, I decided to develop a non-profit for kids like Prentiss, and thus “Project Prentiss” was founded: a gang tattoo removal and rehabilitation program for the Greater Boston Area. I collaborated with Dr. Rox Anderson at Mass General Hospital, where we treated kids like Prentiss, and helped them reintegrate into society after being in gangs. This work continues today.
A new direction
Shortly after starting my Project Prentiss program, I got the call that really changed my life. It was a good friend from graduate school who was just “checking in.” Charlie, who had been teaching earth science in the suburbs of Boston, eased me into the agenda of our conversation, but eventually got to the point. “So, our part-time chemistry teacher is leaving next week, and we need someone to fill in until the end of the year.”
“But I’m a neurobiologist, not a chemist,” I reminded Charlie — but he persisted. He called every day for a week until he finally convinced me to “just come by the school for a visit.”
When I got there, his colleagues shook my hand and welcomed me to the team. “But I’m not here for the job,” I said. By the end of my visit, the principal met me by the door with a textbook in his hand. “But I’m not a chemist,” I repeated, but he handed me the textbook anyway, leading me out the door before I could say “no” enough times for him to believe me.
I’m still not sure why I took the job: extra cash, health insurance, or something else. Since I didn’t have any time to prep, on my first day I assigned the kids to do a group presentation which they would prepare during my first week, “What I learned during my first two months in chemistry.” This gave me an idea of what they already knew, and time to figure out how to teach chemistry. When I realized they didn’t know much at all, I spent every night reading the textbook, calling my chemistry professor dad, and crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t get eaten alive by the kids. But I felt that if I did fail, at least I had sufficiently warned the school of my ineptitude.
While watching the students’ presentations, I was shocked that they had no idea whether an atom was made of cells, or a cell was made of atoms. So I spontaneously decided to give the kids a presentation on where chemistry existed within the continuum of science. I asked them leading questions and eventually the entire board was filled from subparticle to human; and from atoms to the Green “Mahn-stuh.”
But the biggest impression this exercise made was on me. While teaching, I looked at this continuum with fresh eyes and I started asking the students what different items in the room were made of. “So, what is this pen made of?” They’d say “plastic” and “ink” until I pressed them to go deeper and respond, “Protons, neutrons, and electrons!” I’d move to the next item: “What is this desk made of?” “Protons, neutrons, and electrons!” And then I asked, “What am I made of?” This stumped them, so they yelled out “Blood!” or “Bone!” until I got them to again answer, “Protons, neutrons, and electrons!”
Then, as the class was nearly over, I asked: “So, if a pen is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and I’m made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, what’s the difference between me and a pen?” With the bell about to ring, I gave my very first assignment: write an essay titled “If I had unlimited protons, neutrons, and electrons, what would I create?”
The next day, the kids were excited to share their creative essays. We laughed at some and cringed at others, but the kids were engaged, alive, and curious as to what I was going to do next. I also learned things about the kids without asking them directly, and therefore knew how to get their attention in the future.
I repeated the previous day’s question: “If everything is made up of these three things, what makes me different from a pen?” After several amusing answers, they eventually came up with the idea that it must be the “amount and arrangement” of these particles that are different. We created a list of questions on the board: How do these particles interact? How many are there? How are they arranged? What makes them arrange in these ways? I then explained that this is what we would be studying. Watching them really think about my questions and feel safe enough to share their ideas, was when I realized that I not only loved chemistry, but I also loved teaching … and a chemistry teacher was born!
I spent the next ten years teaching general chemistry until I relocated to the Bay Area and felt brave enough to apply for a position teaching AP Chemistry. I figured it was a long shot without a chemistry degree, but even after I informed my interviewers that I really didn’t know what I was doing on an advanced level, they hired me anyway. Since then, I have challenged myself as an educator, spending long nights reading texts to get many perspectives; working summers to create tangible ways to really understand buffers; and experimenting with varying teaching methods — modeling risk, sometimes failure, and emphasizing the necessity of creativity not only in teaching, but in scientific discovery itself.
Yes, I did sing in a rock band for many years, but my passion has become working with kids. Yet I have been known to occasionally write plays to help kids understand certain phenomena, sing songs to help them remember terms, and even encourage the kids who are self-proclaimed artists to appreciate how learning chemistry can actually create neuronal connections that can enhance their creativity. And sometimes, when I least expect it, one of these kids discovers their own love for science, and ends up in a direction they never thought they would go.