Monday, March 29, 2010

Overdue Ada Lovelace Day brief post

Typical. I don't get an idea for an Ada Lovelace Day post until well after the day itself has passed. "But I just don't know any women scientists other than the obvious ones!" Not an excuse. How many women scientists was I taught by in elementary and middle school, completely oblivious to their prior lives? Of course, I was taught by men scientists too, and they have equally interesting stories. I'm just going to focus on one particular woman for the moment.

Molly was the science specialist at my elementary school. She gave the impression of a powerful but friendly science warlock, introducing us grade-school apprentices to a world of wonderful things. Yes, it sounds cheesy, but there you are. I don't have any data, but I think I must credit Molly with giving me that initial (strong) inclination toward science that tipped and boiled over when I ran into a copy of The Cartoon Guide to Genetics (Gonick & Wheelis). It's been more than a decade since then, and I've never looked back.

I can only remember a few fragments of specific things that Molly taught us, but I distinctly remember some of the things that we did. My school had a lot of forested property around the buildings, some of which had been invaded by the vinca that someone decided to plant around the parking lots. We spent many an hour tramping around the woods, of course, and not only identifying trees and noticing erosion, but waging war on the vinca. We marked out test plots and poured mulch over some, staked black plastic over others, and wielded picks, shovels, and good ol' pulling on the rest. I lost track of the project once I was in middle school, so I don't know how successful the ongoing efforts were, but it was pretty awesome at the time.

We also -- this is kind of surprising, in retrospect -- had a strong focus on communication. At some level, every third grader is going to remember "communicating" (writing the occasional couple of paragraphs). But we wrote full-length letters to lawmakers about environmental issues (not skimping on either the science or the rhetoric), and drew a cartoon illustrating a forest fire. The final exhibition of everyone's cartoons was a sight to see.

The other day, I happened to idly wonder what Molly was up to now, and so I googled her. I found out little about what she's up to since her teaching career, but there was quite a bit about what she had been up to before taking up the overhead projector. She published several papers in the sixties about Blepharisma and the recovery of cells from X-ray irradiation. She was at Stanford! Doing real science! Back in the day, before sequencing and so on were invented! Why was I not informed?

She also had an active life outside school, running marathons and working with the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers to build DIY Dobsonian telescopes. Man, how cool is that?

Molly Lusignan, scientist, scholar, teacher, and all-around awesome woman, I salute you. The moral of the story for the rest of us is to find out what our teachers (and our children's teachers) do outside of the classroom, about their history, their hobbies, and their dreams. These days, it's of course made easy to stalk people via Google (and Google Scholar! <3), but there's a lot more to be said for connecting in person. I wish I could have found her current contact information...


  1. Hey, I just googled Molly, as well, and found your blog in the process. I had decided I wanted to mention her in the preface to my undergraduate thesis and wanted to make sure I spelled her name right. If you were a freshman in 2007, you were probably a couple of grades below me, and we possibly didn't even overlap since I was only there for three years. But yeah -- Molly's totally awesome! I was thinking of trying to dig up her address to write to her.

  2. Wasn't she just an all around awesome woman? She inspired so many. /Cathy

  3. Julie & Cathy, I'm Molly's daughter and collecting memories of former students to put in a book for her for Christmas. If you see this post (even if you see it after Christmas) please look me up on Facebook (or go to "NuevaAlum" on Facebook; the note is there too) and send your memories. Here is my post from Facebook:

    Please pass on, if interested!

    The loss of three of my former teachers, Del Alberti, GG Fitzmaurice, and Mary Laycock, has made me think how sad it is that we often only get to write our appreciation of our teachers and other people who meant a lot to us after they are gone. Especially sad about GG Fitzmaurice, since I was actually working on a note in my head, having heard from my mom she was not doing well, when she passed away.

    Guess what, my mom Molly, Nueva science teacher trained by Mr. Alberti, is still with us! It would be so nice to collect some remembrances of people to whom her teaching was significant, to give to her in a Christmas present, especially since there aren't many "things" she needs or wants, and this would mean so much to her. Molly started teaching there after I left, so most of my contemporaries will not have had her, but if you had a younger sibling or friend who did, know teachers who taught with her, etc. please pass on the request. You can send them to me directly via Facebook message, and I'll organize them and get them printed out in a nice way.

    Please pass it on, and thanks!

    Kerry Lusignan, former Nuevonian