ISB Symposium: Not Just for Grownups

12-Year-Old Girl Youngest to Attend Microbiome Conference

April 24, 2012

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(Tom Massey and his daughter, Alexis.)

How do you keep a 12 year old who learned Arabic in fourth grade “because it sounds exotic” engaged? That question has kept me and my wife on a circuitous journey to educate our daughter, Alexis. Our basic philosophy is to anchor her to a stable core of a few activities while having a continuous stream of “new things” in her orbit. Once every few years, a core activity might be traded up. 

One of the things she is most proud of is her collaboration in creating the Tree Monkeys. This is an exclusive club organized uniquely around climbing trees and Monty Python. As she has gotten older, she has been given increasing latitude to select new activities. And when you give a child a lot of latitude, you have to expect a few surprises. Next up, trapeze lessons. 

Another academic surprise came in sixth grade when Alexis picked a University of Washington Robinson Center for Young Scholars class called “Puget Sound 2050.” It involved a systems approach to studying biology, chemistry and environmental studies.  She had a wonderful teacher, Peter Donaldson, who ignited in her an intense interest in science. It was pivotal.

We believe in looking for “mountain top” experiences to help stoke the fire in Alexis and help bring clarity and focus to her interests. Attending the ISB Symposium was one of those opportunities. We’d hoped that exposing her to the leading edge of systems biology and to the culture and personalities of a top-notch scientific community would help bring clarity and focus to Alexis’s interests.

The ISB Symposium

Day 1: Alexis got her picture taken with Craig Venter. His genome-mapping poster is on the wall at her school and she was thrilled when she heard he was going to be speaking. 

We then sat next to a friendly individual who took interest in why we were there.  He gave us an update on the big advancements in biology and suggested Alexis take a lot more math. She quietly pointed out to me that he had mismatched socks and she thought that was really cool. 

Jonathan Eisen, the first speaker, began his talk. In the middle of it he gave a shout out to Erick Matsen, and said he was doing some great work and asked him to raise his hand. You should have seen Alexis’s face when the “cool guy” with the mismatched socks lifted his hand skyward. Erick’s cool factor jumped a few notches in her eyes. 

After Jonathan’s talk, Julia Segre came over to talk with Erick. Upon Erick’s introduction and briefing her on what we we’re talking about, Julia told Alexis, “Get good at math, it intimidates the boys.”

There were bonus points when Chris Scholin mentioned the giant Monty Python foot in his talk. 

Day 2: Alexis really loved and “understood every word” of Farooq Azam’s talk. A high point of the weekend came when Alexis got up the nerve to introduce herself to Jill Banfield. In response to something Alexis said, I heard Jill exclaim, “I love soil too.” She then explained how to test for clay in the soil by scrunching it in one’s hand. Well, it really does not get better than that for a country girl. 

Alexis followed much of what was said, particularly on the second day. I believe the most important aspect of the Symposium experience for Alexis was that she got the opportunity to be among world-class scientists. A huge thank you to ISB for its education outreach programs and everyone’s graciousness and interest in a 12-year-old Tree Monkey. 

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Tom Massey is in software sales for cost estimating, BIM and cost-modeling software, serving the constuction, energy and public sectors.

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