August 23, 2016

The Woman in the Photograph and the One in the Mirror: Reflecting on parenting and scientific literacy

She wears a plaid jacket and a brown skirt. Her hair is curly, and dark brown—maybe permed. Over her left shoulder stands a man that I recognize as a younger version of my grandfather. In the right corner sitting at her feet is the teenage version of the man that gave me my smile: my dad. It’s a smile she shares.

On her lap is a red headed toddler. Her other two sons and daughter, all teenagers, are scattered around the picture too. A typical family portrait.

It hangs in the guest bedroom of my grandparents’ house, and I consider it at night before falling asleep in the house that she and my grandfather built to be the home that they’d grow old in together.

This picture captures a story that I don’t know well, because we don’t talk about it too often. I know where the story the picture tells ends, though—a quiet graveyard, a tombstone that says “Beloved Wife and Mother”, the dates that mark the start and end of a life cut short by an aggressive breast cancer in a time when there were few options, a diagnosis delivered in a period when the options were eking out days, weeks, or months—not curing, not remission.

I wonder, when I see the picture now, if she knew. Was this picture meant to be a talisman? Was it meant to remind her what she was fighting for? Or was it meant to give them something to hold onto?

In the years since her battle and eventual death, science has far outpaced the meager hope it offered (and failed to deliver on) at that time. Now, when her daughter was diagnosed, my aunt fought it, and won. In that fight, we gained a crucial bit of information about our history:  My aunt carries the BRCA-1 mutation.

Like I’m willing to bet most families that carry the mutation, we knew that we had a strong history of the disease. My grandmother’s mother and grandmother both died from breast cancer. We knew that the history was there.

But prior to this information, we were facing a faceless adversary, one that defied being named and lurked in shadows.

The miracle of science, though—today, we have a name for it. We have a test. We have genetic profiles—of us. Of the tumors themselves. Science has dragged that nameless beast out of the shadows and into the light.

We have the possibility of a “vaccine” of types—one that would help our bodies learn to fight its own cells, mutated and deadly.

We have preventative measures—mammograms from age 25, mastectomies, hysterectomies. We know that there are so many ways to approach the issue now.

When I look at the woman in the mirror today, a woman that may face this reality, it’s a very different story from the one that the woman in that photograph saw.

More than thirty years of science has written it.

We are at a tipping point today, a point where anti-scientific attitudes in the United States are at a laughable high—but popular culture has begun pushing back. We have Cosmos, we have podcasts and sitcoms that make science real and accessible. We have best sellers written by some of the greatest scientific minds of our generation. Events like Pluto losing its status as a planet, like discovering rare species, like changing weather patterns through our nations, like landing a spacecraft on a comet, provide a new insight into science in ways that we can’t even begin to understand.

As a parent today, I consider encouraging an interest in and understanding of science to be a fundamental responsibility in the raising my children. I have the dubious honor of raising the next generation of not only potential scientists and doctors, but educated voters and involved citizens. Making sure that they understand how the world works, that they are curious and questioning and tenacious when they search for answers, are among the greatest contributions that I can make to the future.

It’s science that has reversed the tide of disease, that has allowed us to grow as old as we do. It’s science that has destroyed and built in the past century. It’s science that has explained the music of the stars.

And yet, we seem to have a tenuous grasp of the idea. We often convince ourselves that it’s simply unknowable, too difficult to even attempt to understand, let alone successfully convey to youngsters.

But it’s not.

Read a science book—Pond Walk is a an awesome option for toddlers and preschoolers, older children will love the For Kids series, or 11 Experiments That Failed. Our Family Tree is an exquisitely eloquent look at the evolution of life, right up to where we are today. Watch Cosmos together—even preschoolers will enjoy the pictures, and if you have Netflix, you already have it in your home right alongside Orange is the New Black, Daredevil, and House of Cards.  Talk about what you see around you. You don’t need to have the answers—be a partner in asking questions. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” “What do you think?” and “Let’s find out together.” Make a trip to the library—even if you have a substantial library of your own, there’s something about seeing the rows and rows of books that just puts wonder in the eyes of kids.

The truth is, we can’t afford to have a generation that’s not scientifically literate. Science quite literally underlies every aspect of our modern life. It’s what keeps our water drinkable, our air breathable, our food growable.

We can’t afford it, and to be honest, I especially can’t afford it. People like me, who may be living on the edge of what science can and cannot do, need a generation of individuals that will be able to look at the world and say, “I wonder if…” We need a generation who will look at a problem and say, “Let’s figure it out. Let’s solve it.”

Because that’s the statement that will continue to further the divide between the woman that I see today in the mirror and the woman that posed for that photograph decades ago.

It’s that statement that will be the difference between my story and a story cut short too soon.

It’s that statement that will change the world.

And we are the only ones that can teach it to our children.

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