Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Thank You, Mrs. Woodrow

Tonight I will continue the recent trend of punching these out on some magical date.  Now, I usually have some sorry excuses for my erratic writing, but for once I actually have something bordering on reasonable.  Just after writing about Oxford Nanopore, my confidence in my skiing skills exceeded my actual skills, resulting in my femur taking on my tibia.  Here for sure, size matters, and the tibia lost horribly..

So when I wrote a followup and on Oscar night, I was in the queue to have hardware installed, which is how I spent the morning of Leap Day.  After that, pain and exhaustion tended to be the rule.  Even after a bit of recovery, physical therapy thrice a week meant three days where my energy failed me around the time I might post.    Thankfully, I've made steady progress and got to ditch my crutches for a walking stick this week.  A nice one from an outdoors store, but nothing flashy (like a double helical one!).  I roused some energy to pump out a half-joking entry for April First.  PT didn't quite wipe me out today, and I've had a reminder sitting on my schedule, as today is School Librarian's Day.  

Okay, that's not exactly a national holiday.  But, while I'm not a fan of declaring every day special for some group, I do have a special place for School Librarians, especially my first one.

Now, Mrs. Woodrow wasn't the warmest person on the planet.  She wasn't some sort of superhero or whirling dervish.  Nor could she have been omnipresent; we shared her with another elementary school in the system.  The library in my elementary school was no paradise either.  When the school had been expanded, the architects had built a very simple box, and on the two main floors carved it into a bunch of essentially identical smaller boxes.  The geometry of those rooms wasn't bad for a classroom, but really made for a very poor library space: too small and too crowded.  But, within that small space Mrs. Woodrow and her assistant Mrs. Hayes kept a tidy library, and the collection was of a reasonable size.  Not that things are necessarily better today.  The Boston Globe reported a number of years ago that many Boston schools don't have neither a dedicated room or permanent staff, only open shelves in general hallways.  My high school had an embarrassingly tiny library, a holdover from the original building which had been badly expanded multiple times.   Given a difficult space, the librarian can make a big difference.  My junior high librarian had a doctorate in the field, but no love for students or his job, and his cavernous library left no good memories on me.  

What makes a good school librarian?  Well, what I am grateful for was the help in guiding me to good reading.  Sometimes, this was to nudge me off to areas I might not explore.  I didn't have a huge appetite for fiction, and Mrs. W. found some great ones for me.  The Great Brain series, for example, and another series which irritates me I can't remember the titles - it concerned an eccentric English family, each talented in some unusual way.  I'm sure that library has been remodeled out of recognition, but part of me wants to go back there and see if I can find that series still on the shelf where I remember it to be.

While sometimes she pushed me in new directions, she also helped me with my strengths.  I was already fascinated with the technical and scientific, and so it was not uncommon for her to suggest a book in that area.  I remember one new book on lasers which stole my attention for many days.  But, there was another book with perhaps a more lasting impact.  My recollection is it was called "DNA: The Language of Life", and it was my first exposure to the molecular world.  I remember being especially fascinated with replication, and even sketching some notion of "tricking" polymerase to somehow go around a DNA repeatedly (the idea of actually being circular had not occurred to me) to make many and many more copies.

Now, I can't claim that I thought much about DNA after that.  I know it popped up when I read Godel, Escher Bach on a monster cross-country family car trip.  I don't remember it really showing up again in tenth grade biology, which was the next time there was any biology in the curriculum and was very focused on organisms.  It wouldn't be until freshman biology that the spark would be truly lit.  But, I can't help thinking that a small ember was set up by Mrs. Woodrow's book selection.  So, wherever you are, thank you Mrs. Woodrow for helping put me down a path to a successful career.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for the timely note. My wife is a school librarian, so I was able to wish her a happy School Librarian Day.

Could the books you are trying to remember be about the Bagthorpe family, starting with Ordinary Jack by Helen Cresswell. That came out in 1977, which seems about the right time period.

(Sorry about being Anonymous.
This, but Blogger is refusing comments from wordpress ids again.)

Keith Robison said...

Thanks!! The Bagthorpe books (starting with Ordinary Jack) I think are the series.

Anonymous said...


I have always wanted a miniature elephant about the size of a small poodle.Is there any way to tamper with the DNA of an animal to reduce its size?Do you think we could see something like this in our lifetime?

Keith Robison said...

Shrinking an elephant has several challenges

1) You need to understand how to genetically modify elephants -- it will be similar, but not identical to other mammals

2) You need to find the right modifications to make

3) Dogs have the widest size variation of any mammal, and this is outside the range found there. We know in dogs there are a lot of issues with breeds at various ends of the spectrum, many of which are either "engineering issues" (things like hip displasia) or probably biological issues (many large breeds, which have large skeletons, have an elevated risk of bone cancer).

In the end, though, the main barrier is the effort. If you want it to happen, step 0 is to become a bazillionaire so you can fund the necessary work!