By Sue Botos
The thought of meeting a celebrity could leave most people a bit tongue-tied, and Rocky River High School biology teacher Ann Brokaw is no exception.
The usually talkative Brokaw was initially a bit speechless when she met Dr. James Watson who, along with Dr. Francis Crick, described the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, later winning a Nobel Prize. Brokaw met the science superstar at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Holiday Lecture Series Teacher Workshop in Washington, D.C., in December.
“Dr. Watson is a rock star in the biology world. Meeting him was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am not sure most people realize how much the discovery of the DNA double helix changed not only the field of biology, but our lives in general, particularly in the field of medicine,” Brokaw stated via e-mail, adding that meeting one of the scientists involved in “ this ‘game changing’ discovery was an incredible experience.”
The HHMI is the largest private research funding organization in the country, and annually holds a holiday season lecture series featuring a certain topic. Last year’s series was titled “Medicine in the Genomics Era.” Brokaw said that she and the other teachers attending the event had a private, nearly hourlong question and answer session with Watson, who was part of a panel during the series.
Brokaw recalled that she was able to ask Watson a question, initially thanking him for all of his work. Reflecting on attending lectures and listening to breakthroughs in the fields of autism and cancer drug development based on DNA evidence, Brokaw asked, “Does it surprise (you) sitting (here) 60 years after the publication of the double helix structure, how far researchers and scientists have come in regards to DNA research, technology development and analysis techniques?” Watson replied that he was not at all surprised.
Last year was the fifth year for the event, and Brokaw has been invited each time. Only 16 teachers from across the country are chosen to attend, and about 200 students from Washington, D.C., area high schools are in the audience for the lectures.
“Every year when I open the letter I say, ‘Yahoo,’” Brokaw said, adding that she is really unsure as to why she receives an invitation to the all-expenses-paid event each year. “I do know that each year the folks at HHMI like to have roughly half ‘experienced’ teachers return to the workshop and half ‘newly invited’ teachers. As in anything I do, I try to give 110 percent to the experience and to the curriculum work that we do while there.” She continued that the event is “like no other professional development opportunity that I have experienced in my 21-year career.”
After the lectures and panels take place, the teachers divide into four groups, and using the cutting edge information just received, design a curriculum for students across the country. “One theme throughout the series was cancer. My team wanted to focus on the basics of cancer. Due to our limited amount of time, we outlined what we wanted, proposed ideas of activities to be developed, storyboarded animation we want to be developed, and put together a kind of marketing plan,” she stated.
Next, Brokaw said, HHMI’s educational group will develop the team’s plan into a program that will be available for free on the HHMI website, www.biointeractive.org.
Brokaw said that she takes away a number of things from each workshop, including the chance to hear presentations about the latest research in the constantly changing field. She also relished the exchange of ideas with like-minded instructors.
“For the (five) days of the workshop, the teachers are sequestered on HHMI’s main campus. Basically I am with 15 high-powered teachers from all over the country every waking moment. We share strategies, classroom resources, special project ideas and educational philosophies. In addition, over the years, I have built a network of teachers and life-long friends with whom I communicate throughout the year.”
It’s this network of peers, Brokaw says, that brings the knowledge gained from the lecture series to life in the classroom. “My classroom is never the same from year to year as I constantly try to improve and incorporate new strategies and resources that I have gained from my network of peers. This keeps me and my classroom fresh and ever-changing!”