How Has Science Affected Your Life?

A former boxer, schoolteacher, and astronomer share their stories

22 May 2014

Photo: Amanda Davis

Derek Pitts, chief astronomer at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, shares an inspiring story at a Philadelphia Science Festival event at the Fels Planetarium.

Science is part of our every day lives, even if it’s not our full-time job. There’s a human element that sometimes gets lost among dense research papers, complex software and codes, and mind-boggling concepts and equations.

On 1 May, several speakers shared stories about how science has affected their lives as part of Story Collider—a radio program that invites people to share their stories about how science made a difference in their lives in a personal way. It sponsored a session at the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium, in Philadelphia. The event was part of the 2014 Philadelphia Science Festival.

ON THE BRAIN

Less than a decade ago, filmmaker Michael Minard was boxing regularly at Philadelphia’s Broad Street Gym, a barebones facility surrounded by warehouses. In 2009, at age 33, he became one of the oldest contenders in the Golden Gloves, an annual U.S. competition for amateur boxers. Admittedly an underdog, Minard became the oldest Golden Gloves champion when his 18-year-old opponent was disqualified for arguing with a referee.

Throughout his fighting years, he witnessed in even his youngest opponents symptoms of traumatic brain injuries, which included memory loss, confusion, and depression. To help warn about the dangers of repeated concussions, Minard is producing a short film called Standing Eight—a fictional story about a young Philadelphia boxer who begins having seizures shortly after accidently killing an opponent in the ring.

Minard teamed up with neurology professors from Boston University to conduct his research. He was surprised to learn that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative neurological disease caused by blows to the head, is incredibly difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can also be indicators of other mental and physical disorders. He says he hopes the science behind the story will educate young athletes about the potential danger of combat sports.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit that supports original research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, awarded him a US $20 000 film production grant. His film will debut this month at the Columbia University Film festival, in New York City.

TAKING THE HIGH ROAD

“They teach me” is a phrase you often hear educators say when they talk about how students inspire them. This sentiment rang true for Marjorie Winther, who was a high school science teacher in the 1980s in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. She often asked her students to design their own science projects and was impressed by how imaginative they were.

She was most affected by the time when she and her class traveled to a small town in rural Illinois for a field trip. Unfortunately, the students, who were predominantly minorities, were not welcomed by all. On the first day of the trip, someone burned a cross on the front lawn of the cabin where they were staying, which shook Winther and her students to the core. Refusing to give in to fear, that evening she and her students walked single-file down the town’s main street, led by one particularly brave girl who sang a popular gospel song. The other students and even some of the townspeople eventually sang along with her. “I taught them science, but they taught me about courage,” Winther said.

REACHING FOR THE STARS

No one was perhaps more enthusiastic to tell his story than Derrick Pitts [see photo], the Franklin Institute’s chief astronomer. Fels Planetarium is his office now, and it’s also not too far from the rough Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up.

He recounted the days when he rushed home from school to read the latest issue of Scientific American. It both intimidated and fascinated him, and most important, turned him on to the exciting and challenging field of astronomy. “One article that really blew my mind was about how the universe is expanding at an unbelievable rate,” he noted, “and the more we continue to learn about it, the older we realize it is.”

The magazine served as a beacon of light, allowing Pitts to investigate a field he might not have considered otherwise. After all, he didn’t know any scientists personally, and astronomy was not a popular career choice for an inner-city youngster, he says. Pitts earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from St. Lawrence University, in Canton, N.Y., and began working full time at the institute shortly thereafter. He continues to pay it forward by initiating programs to get young people interested in science. He helps develop and oversees all the institute’s astronomy and space-related exhibits. Pitts also hosts a public radio program about astronomy called “SkyTalk.” He also has made appearances on several U.S. television shows, including Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” and “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”

How has science influenced your life outside of work, whether with family, friends, or on a personal level? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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