Nobel laureate boosts education in sciences

Education: Johns Hopkins professor tells city teachers that the need for scientific literacy has never been greater.

March 27, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Peter Agre, Baltimore's Nobel laureate in chemistry, told a gathering of city science teachers yesterday that encouraging young students was critical as society moves forward on medical and technological frontiers.

"I'm here to honor you because never has the need for scientific literacy been greater and [because] I'm concerned about the erosion of support for science," Agre told about 200 teachers at Dunbar High School, a few blocks from his lab at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"The fact is, public education can be outstanding," he added.

In the midst of the financial crisis that has beset the city school system, several in the informal assembly of 200 middle and high school science teachers on a systemwide professional development day said his talk was inspirational.

"It's encouraging to hear someone say science education should be valued," said Kim Weston, who teaches physics and chemistry at Polytechnic Institute.

Agre, 55, said he remembered his public school days and teachers warmly, although he did not have a stellar academic record. He still jokes about the D in chemistry at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, where he grew up - not a grade he was glad to take home to his father, a chemistry professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

He said his scientific curiosity was sparked by teachers conducting simple experiments.

Agre shared the 2003 Nobel Prize for discovering protein "channels" that govern the movement of water in and out of cells, a breakthrough that he described yesterday as a "serendipitous observation."

The Nobel science awards, he told the group, come from a chemistry of three elements: "hard work, clear thinking and good luck."

Agre said the prospect of global warming should be better understood and taken more seriously by government leaders. To color in what life might be like in another lifetime, he said, "Polar ice caps will largely melt. Northern Europe could have an ice age ... and the flood we had in Fells Point last year [in the wake of Tropical Storm Isabel] would be normal."

He added, "Then you're driving on the [Jones Falls Expressway] and you're surrounded by $40,000 SUVs." Agre said that the last U.S. president who was "a good scientist was Thomas Jefferson, 200 years ago."

Agre then passed around his Nobel gold medallion, with a likeness of Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel. "You can touch Alfred, to bring you luck," he joked.

Then he noted that Linus Pauling, a friend of his father, had won two Nobel prizes, in peace and chemistry, and had helped persuade President John F. Kennedy to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Roger Shaw, the principal of Dunbar, said after the talk that Agre's visit had been empowering for teachers. "They left with more energy and zeal to go back to their own environments with a sense, we can do this," Shaw said.

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