Mother of invention


When I was seven years old, I did a self-directed school project on electron microscopy. It’s worth noting that I was no child prodigy. I was simply a son inspired by a wonderful mother.

As a young nutritional scientist, my mother became fascinated with the power of electron microscopy to reveal everything from the intricacies of cellular function, to the three dimensional structures of macromolecules. She shared her fascination with this technology at home, poring over electron micrographs of cells, and sharing pictures of the microscopes themselves. Her enthusiasm served as inspiration for my grade two project, and instilled in me an awe of the inner workings of cells that persists to this day.

This is but one example of the influence that my mother had in shaping young scientists. The year prior to my electron microscopy project, my mother had turned my eye skyward, as the first humans walked on the lunar surface.  Together, my mother and I collected newspaper clippings of the events surrounding Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s trip to the Sea of Tranquility, and pasted them into a large scrapbook.  Through our scrapbook, my mother revealed that scientific stories comprised many component parts, and were best told from a variety of different perspectives.  In many ways this paralleled her own graduate research, which drew on nutrition, human biology, sociology, and statistics to connect early childhood development with diet and socioeconomic status. Her thesis was a story composed of many parts, enhancing understanding through multiple lenses.

In the years that followed, so did my mother’s wonderful lessons in science. She nurtured a passion for nature. We had a healthy menagerie of small animals, from fish to toads, snakes to guinea pigs, turtles to cats. When my interests extended to horses, my mother encouraged me to delve into the scientific literature.  Consequently, she was regaled with descriptions of equine physiology and maladies, from the wonders of the equine large intestine to the treatments for colic, from the amazingly fine, yet resilient, equine sesamoid bones to the tragedy of bowed tendons. Meanwhile, my mother established and maintained beautiful gardens – fruit and vegetables that nourished us, and rose varieties that dazzled us. Throughout, she underscored the connectivity and interdependencies of all living things.

If the outdoors instilled a passion for biology, the indoors was the domain of physics and chemistry.  Trained as a dietician, my mother’s kitchen was a culinary laboratory. Here the physical sciences worked to create results that could be enjoyed by all.  While following established methods and reproducibility were crucial, so was the process of discovery, of true experimentation.  All such skills were honed and encouraged.

On Sundays, we had a tradition of hosting dinner guests that my mother invited from the university. By far and away, the largest proportion of our guests were my mother’s female colleagues, professors at the vanguard of a wide cross-section of disciplines. They shared their view of the world - stories gleaned by conducting their research and all that flowed from it. They provided insights into the human side of the research enterprise, with all its incumbent rewards and challenges.  They also drew us into the research community, and shared with us the excitement of working at the frontier of human knowledge. They shared reading suggestions, leading me to my mother’s copies of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Jim Watson’s The Double Helix. It was my mother who highlighted the critical role that Rosalind Franklin played in Watson’s narrative. Altogether, the intellectual environment that my mom created kept me spellbound by science.

As I approached the end of high school, my mother’s faculty launched a seminar series with luminaries from across many academic disciplines. One of those was a young geneticist, David Suzuki. Figuring it was something that would resonate with me, my mother took me to see Dr. Suzuki’s seminar. After years of instilling her love for science in me, Dr. Suzuki’s seminar was the tipping point. From that point, I pursued the path of science, and have remained there since.

On this day, International Women’s Day, during a week when many in the scientific community have considered the role that women play in science, I would like to honour my mother, Ginny Campbell. For good reason, we often focus on the key role that women play in inspiring and mentoring other women in science. We should also remember the role that female scientists play in inspiring young scientists, male and female alike. Female scientists are, after all, scientists - inspirations to all of us, regardless of gender.  My mother’s inspiration led me on a journey that I would not exchange for anything. Thanks mom.

In keeping with this theme, this week’s links feature stories that have been written by superb female purveyors of great science.

Feather, fur & fin – birds, beasts, fishes, and the things they do

Penguins are so cool. Perhaps even cooler than we thought.

Maybe Dr. Doolittle was onto something. We can learn something about human language via non-human animal language.

Undoubtedly you’ve experience a “cat’s-got-your-tongue” moment. How about a fish-has-got-your-tongue moment? Gross but REALLY amazing (with super animation)!

Putting a new face on cephalopod sex, some octopus mate mouth-to-mouth.

Forget your run-of-the-mill superheroes. The mantis shrimp has them beat, claws down.

Eighty years ago, a tiny film made a big splash. It was about seahorses.

Some fish suck. Literally. And that can be a really cool thing.

Some people talk a mean streak. Some chimps just talk mean. As do some elephants. And some bats are just plain nasty.

Bugs’ life – insects and other things that creep, crawl and otherwise delight

We live in a worm’s world. Seriously, it really is a worm’s world.

Looking for a brush with fate? Insects can make beautiful artwork, as living paint brushes.

Scientifically accurate Spiderman? Yeah, not so much.

Beautiful botanicals – wonders of the photosynthesising world – that is, mainly plants

Pollen may give some people allergies, but this remarkable remnant of failed plant sex is nothing to sniff at.

Fossil finds – organisms of times past – dinosaurs and beyond

Some insects had a colourful history. And some good folks are trying to cast a little light on that.

No crocodile tears are being shed over fossil evidence of the divergence of the alligator lineage. Fossil skulls show how caimans got a head.

Fossils are good and all, but should we consider resurrecting some species from beyond the grave? How about Neanderthals? Perhaps they deserve a second chance, in light of the fact that Neanderthal demise may simply been a matter of hare today, gone tomorrow.

Microscopic marvels – smaller than the eye can see, but big in action – bacteria, fungi and viruses

These roots weren’t made for walking. So as to avoid being rooted in one place, a fungus causes its plant host to make seeds, at the expense of pollen. The fungus can hitch a ride out of there on seeds, but is too big for pollen.

Gone but not forgotten, the impact of the SARS virus lingers one decade after the outbreak.

While the SARS virus has disappeared from the radar, HIV is still very much with us. 42 million people live with HIV worldwide. This week though, there was one very important reduction in that number.

Molecular machinery – the toils of the macromolecules of life – nucleic acids and proteins (and others)

Might the root cause of some autoimmune disorders reside in a saline solution? Salt can induce harmful T-cell activity

Earth, wind and fire – planet shaping – geology, meteorology, oceanography & the climate

Fancy doing a little science on the beach? You may discover a lost continent.

Sometimes that sinking feeling can be lethal, as is revealed in the fascinating story that underlies sinkholes.

Star attractions – the final frontier, space

We seem to have lost something. We had this big radiation ring around the planet, and then it mysteriously dissipated.

Marvellously mysterious, the aurora borealis still confounds folks.

Forces of nature – big ticket items – cosmology, ecology, evolution, physics, chemistry

Looking for a little devilish mischief? Consider entropy and the involvement of Maxwell’s demon.

Forget survival of the fittest, try survival of the hippest. Evolutionary principles have been used to evolve music.

Matters of mind – how we, and other animals, perceive our world and our place in it

Win some, lose some? When it comes to brain function, some gains come with significant losses.

Some rats may have gained some extra brain power, as their brains were connected. But were they really mind melded, a la Borg? Not so much.

Behind the scenes – the workings of the museum – discovery and communication

What’s in a name? Sometimes it’s a whole lot of awesome. Especially when it’s a scientific name.

Sometimes conveying that “small is beautiful” is a big deal. And wonderful.

It’s hard to improve if you only swim in the shallow end. Similarly, when it comes to science communication, need to communicate “deeper” stories.

The path to women’s success in science can be a battle against the odds. This issue is wonderfully explored by Charlotte Stoddard in her interview with Uta Frith and Athene Donald.

Good ideas are emerging to address gender imbalance in science. Some are particularly good. Amongst the great ideas, blogging has emerged as a way to highlight the role women play in advancing science, both in the present, and in the past.

Images: All photographs by William J. Campbell.


One Response to “Mother of invention”

  1. Virginia Campbell Reply | Permalink

    Never knew I had that much influence! Thanks Malcolm . With love /your Mom

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