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Wanted: Good Observers

BioPhotonics
May 2011
In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind. – Louis Pasteur

Karen A. Newman

The above quote is a reminder on the wall of Frank H. Andres’ laboratory, where for the past 13 years the researcher has carefully observed and recorded what he sees through the lens of his microscope.

Back in February, I wrote in this column about a study, produced by a classroom of young children and their teacher, on the ability of bees to learn to solve puzzles. The children said the study taught them that science is cool. Shortly after the piece ran, I received an e-mail from Frank, who indicated that the column had really struck a chord with him. On the phone a few weeks later, he explained that he has been on a journey of discovery throughout his life, and he reminisced about his grandmother training him to be a good observer by studying monarch butterflies visiting milkweed plants to lay their eggs.

Since that momentous introduction to scientific observation, Frank has explored a wide variety of interests; his career has included research into submarine propulsion engines, communication satellites and crystal growing for Ted Maiman’s first laser group at Hughes, to name a few. Today, at 85, he toils in what he calls his laundry room laboratory, captivated by the organisms he sees in his microscope and convinced of the research implications for medicine and industry. He believes that what he has recorded is pretty fabulous and should be placed into the hands of a younger person who is equipped to be a good observer. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to make that happen.

“I gotta tell you, at my age, none of this is driven by ego,” Frank told me. “I just want to make sure that all of these things that I’ve seen are not lost. I know there are other Frank Andreses out there who can take off and run with this stuff.” By that, he means other young people fascinated, as he has been, with observing the world around them.

But all of this makes me wonder how many unnamed Frank Andreses are out there devoting lives, careers or maybe just their retirement years to solving a problem, proving a theory or observing some fascinating activity through the lens of a microscope – activity that might one day make a difference in this world, if only he or she could get it into the right hands. In this age of instant global communication and crowd sourcing, surely there are ways to share these dedicated researchers’ myriad observations, to get it all in front of capable young minds who may be able to further the explorations.

What do you think? Is there something we can do to help the Frank Andreses of the world share their research? Please send your ideas to me at karen.newman@photonics.com.

As we debate what we may be able to do in that regard, perhaps we also could consider how we can help keep science education strong in our schools because, as Frank says, “On this earth, we’re going to have to have people around who can observe what’s going on around them.”


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