Quarantine Thoughts: Science-ing in Place

An informal science teacher ponders the wonders and lessons of the microbiological world during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s been a roller coaster ride for tadpoles and college students this spring. Unbeknownst to most urbanites, as campuses shuttered and shelter-in-place became the new normal, our local amphibians were facing their own, dire dilemma this March — yet another Anthropocene drought.

Tadpoles can only morph into frogs so fast (the same goes for professors learning to teach an all-online curriculum) and the evaporation of puddles can outrun metamorphosis if they’re not recharged with winter rains. It’s been a dry new year, but life finds a way. In this case, oddly enough, it’s been up to us: Homo “sapiēns” — you know, the wise, knowing ones.

Every winter we at Mission Science Workshop collect tadpoles from a local coastal pond and distribute the pollywogs in jars and plastic containers to local families and schools to study and foster. The Science Workshop is a neighborhood educational center packed with oscilloscopes, whale bones, live reptiles to cuddle, a woodshop and a host of other curiosities. This is now the second year that our amphibian subjects have unwittingly become the sole survivors of their clan — though the recent rains offer a glimmer of hope. At the moment I’m receiving (rescuing?) tadpoles from homes and schools, tadpoles that are almost frogs and which we hope to continue to share with students online.

Undoubtedly all forms of life on earth are struggling with climate change in ways we don’t yet understand, but if there’s one lesson the coronavirus pandemic teaches us, it’s to open our eyes fully to the microbiological Earth — the one invisible to the naked eye. As a science teacher, I realize now that much of my curriculum moving forward will “go viral,” literally, and that this pandemic experience will always be a way to connect with students.

Just as the great depression forever left its mark on my grandparents, this pandemic will leave its mark on our kiddos. As parents and teachers, we have the opportunity to shape the narrative of this era, at least partially. Will it be remembered and felt as an invisible horror that came from nowhere and besieged us for months, or that one time I watched way too much Disney+?

I personally hope it might serve as a jumping off point into a broader conversation — and help us focus on the wonder and curiosity of a world thrown into sharp relief.

Of course it’s not just about us directing the attention of the youth. Can we as adults also “see with new eyes” that our bustling, jet setting, interconnected world doesn’t exist outside the microbiological one, with all its beauty and terror?

Let’s remember our DNA is roughly 8 percent remnants of past viral infections, and 2020 is not just the year of the crown-shaped virus but also a new frontier for CRISPR, the gene-editing technology built upon — wait for it — viruses.

Heck, we only know about DNA at all because of our discovery of viruses, which are made of RNA (RNA and DNA comprise the two building blocks of all life on this planet).

Kids ask me if I’m a scientist, and I say that if I am being curious and asking questions then I or anyone can be a great scientist. I ask them if they like exploring, building, trying things, and having to try them again to figure something out? Yes, almost all students respond. Well then, I go on, they have everything they need to be a scientist.

So, while you’re hunkered down, I encourage you to stay curious, and try to see with new eyes the amazing microbiological world in which we exist.

Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates and the economic fallout of COVID-19 is impacting locals. Read an essay from a former bartender, San Francisco musician Chuck Prophet, and a man sheltering-in-place with his new girlfriend.

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