by Virginia Sanders, Ph.D.
Loyola University, Chicago
The yearly visits I made to the Polk Elementary School to participate in "Fabulous Friday" are among my fondest memories from my postdoctoral training days in Dallas. "Fabulous Friday" was a day dedicated to bringing in people from different careers to share with the children some information about their careers. I was usually assigned to fourth, fifth and sixth graders. During the day, I would talk with them about T cells and B cells (my favorite cells!), particularly about where they came from and what they do to protect us from getting sick.
I found that they key to getting the attention of the class was to ask them a question that made them want to listen to what I was going to say. Why? Because what I was going to say was something they either had experienced already or were experiencing right now in their own lives. For example, one year I started the presentation by asking how many of them remembered getting their vaccination shots. We examined why it was important for them to be vaccinated when they were babies and sometimes to be vaccinated before they took a vacation outside of this country. This discussion allowed us to examine not only the cells and effector molecules involved in immune responses, but also the concept of memory. Another year I asked how many of them knew why AIDS was so hard to cure. They were captivated by the whole story of how HIV got into a cell and how the virus used normal mechanisms within the cell to survive. These kids were constantly being told how bad the virus was for them, but few of them knew why.
Another year, I asked how many of them knew someone who was a drug abuser. What really amazed them was how drugs could hinder immune cell function and what this meant to them, e.g., sores that healed slowly, colds that took a long time to go away, and how drug users got sick more often.
These sessions passed all too quickly, and usually the teacher allowed us to continue the discussion for a longer period of time – one session actually lasted three hours. They love hearing about science and they love learning how it relates to them personally. This was one of the most rewarding activities I have ever been involved in since being in science. I often wonder where the kids are now. Maybe some of them went into science and in fact, maybe one of them is reading this article today.