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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

FIRST LEGO League Regional Competition

On Saturday, December 4th, I was asked to be keynote speaker at the University of Illinois sponsored First LEGO League Competition where youth ages 9-14 participate in an event where they create a LEGO Mindstorm robot that can accomplish prescribe tasks and run a maze. Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway) and LEGO's Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen  joined forces to create FLL.

Students also research a topic based on a theme. This years theme was Body Forward, and the kids had to design a novel new solution to a medical condition of their choice and tell us what was superior about their idea to other ones that exist. I was also able to assist with the judging of the research project. It was indeed a marvelous experience. I appreciate that this contest is about Engineering! The students were also assesed on their ability to work as a team and their understanding of the FLL Core Values, which includes something called Gracious Professionalism. What a positive way to approach a challenge!

Here is my introduction, presented by Kathleen Nibeck, one of the tireless First Lego League coordinators (along with Heather Thompson) Thank you ladies for your hard work!

"Joanne Manaster is a biology and bioengineering lecturer at the University of Illinois. As long as she can remember, she has always loved science. It was her passion, even when, before she could drive, she was discovered as a fashion model at age 14, the very age of some of you here today.

Her favorite science topics include studying the tissues of the body under the microscope and manipulating mammalian cells in culture dishes so they can help us discover new drugs and new ways to help the body regenerate. Currently, she is designing a college class to help future science teachers understand the sequencing of the human genome and how to store all of that information so we can learn from this vast project. While Joanne and many of the adults here may never have their genome sequenced or ever need to take advantage of tissue engineering, she trusts in the power of science and technology to move us forward and that the young people in this audience will reap the benefit of new discoveries in the field of regenerative medicine.

For that reason, she focuses a lot of time on science outreach to young people and curious older adults, too! She does this through her website Joanne Loves Science where she has a large selection of book reviews of popular science books as well as videos of quirky science experiments and demonstrations that include cats, cookies and gummi bears. She is active in science outreach through the Science Olympiad, science fairs and GAMES, as faculty member for the bioengineering camp for young ladies in middle school. She also encourages young people to read via her Kids Read Science and Teens Read Science contest she recently held and will hold again next year. 

When she is not doing science or telling everyone she meets about it, she can be found helping her own four not-yet-genetically-sequenced children with their various activities." 


Thanks to a lovely interview by Sock Robot at Sock-it-to me for some of the wording in the introduction! Don't forget to check out their socks, which do include spacemad science and even gummy bears!

And, as long as I'm giving holiday gift giving ideas, don't forget Giant Microbes. One of my own teens wants this as a gift. So many to choose from, I think she couldn't decide! As a mammalian cell biologist and histologist, this page has my favorites! (Folks, fyi, I didn't get paid or get anything from this. This is my own endorsement)


And now, my 10 minute speech, created specifically for the participants! 

"As I was thinking of what to say today, I thought I could do a few things:

1)   Tell you how jealous I am that you get to make robots from Legos and explore regenerative medicine and biology, and I didn’t get to at your age. Then I would run off the stage and cry in the bathroom.  But we know that is just immature. I’m still jealous, but I won’t have a tantrum.

2)   Jump up and down excitedly seeing so many young people involved in science and technology. Hmm, science is cool, but I never really was much in the way of a peppy cheerleader.

3)   Tell you a journey to becoming a scientist by relaying some highlights from my childhood.

There has never, EVER been a day in my life where I have not thought about science. OK, maybe I didn’t always consider what I was doing science, but it most certainly was!

Let’s look at some things that happened when I was in your age range.


When I was 9 years old, Pluto was still very much a planet and we thought Jupiter had 9 moons. We have now demoted Pluto as we understand more what Pluto is made of and changed our way of defining planets. In the time since I was nine, we have developed better astronomical imaging technologies made it so we can find more of Jupiter’s planets. We now know of 63!

If one of you can name all 63 of Jupiter's moons from memory, I will go buy you a donut at the cafe in this building..... :) (no takers by the way)




At 10, I was limping around in an archaic plaster cast on my left foot because I had ripped a tendon off the bone of my 5th metatarsal while playing basketball. (I don't play basketball any more) This was a significant event as the fascination with how my body, with the help of doctors, was going to heal this. I changed my mind from wanting to be an astronomer to wanting to be a physician. Little did I know what an impact on my future goals this desire to understand our regenerative capacity this would have.


Have you ever heard of an invasive species coming in to an ecological region and wiping out another species? When I was 11, the Air Force sent my family to invade the tropical island of Guam, but we didn’t destroy any species, although there was a valiant attempt to rid our house of giant tropical cockroaches that 


pretty much enjoyed flying directly into my hair!

Guam had a lovely bird there called the Guam Rail. They were shy birds and I never saw one in person, but had seen an old nest on the ground. They were flightless birds whose eggs were laid on the ground. When the brown Philippine rat snake (or brown tree snake) was introduced to the island accidentally, the eggs of the rail became the snakes preferred meal which effectively caused the near extinction of a species of birds. I was witnessing this first hand.


Guam had wonderful places to explore; the beach, the boonies, tide pools, waterfalls, the reefs. At age 12, I spent many hours doing this, fearing jellyfish and sea cucumbers that would squirt out sticky strings all over you if you stepped on them, I was also inordinately concerned about coconut crabs that I thought might come from nowhere and pinch me.  The most


convenient place to hang out for hours was the boonies behind our military housing complex. I observed the ecosystem of the area, which included many large spiders, including the banana spider that was as big as my hand. I was scared of it, but my curiosity would win out as I would sit and watch as they built their giant webs and devour prey. I had one encounter with a wild boar, which could have been a heart pounding experience. It didn’t see me, so I was able to get away quickly before I was forced to run for my life, as everyone told me I would have to. And then there was the time my brother, sister and I upset a large beehive. We DID run for our lives that time! Bees do swarm to attack, just like in the cartoons!


There wasn’t so much on TV back then. At age 13, thanks to unimaginative programming at the 


cable stations’ movie channel, I watched Buck Rogers in the 25st Century every morning that summer, filling my mind with ideas of future technologies allowing us to travel to space and back, fearing for a nuclear war that would devastate the earth and wondering why we could hear explosions in space, when everything I had ever learned said that sound couldn’t travel through the vacuum of space! My favorite TV shows at that time belonged to National Geographic, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and NOVA. One program on NOVA showed a dish of heart cells beating. They were all beating at different times. But, as the cells in the dish grew closer together, they started to beat in unison. Somehow we could see, in a dish, cells communicating. This had a tremendous impact ultimately on what I do now.


At 14, I was babysitting a couple of young miscreant boys. It was the rainy season in Guam and a little stream formed behind the military housing complex I lived in. This rain inevitably spawned a large overgrowth of toads, as, of course, being amphibious creatures, they begin their lives in the water. More water means more toads. These two mischievous imps decided that throwing some of the overabundance of toads

gummy/megtoad2.jpgagainst the large white washed cinderblock wall of our military housing would be a “fun” experiment. It was a scene of carnage; guts and blood all over the wall, their hands, faces, and clothes. I was appalled by the cruelty of what they had done and sent them to work with a hose to clean everything up off the wall and sent them in to clean themselves up. Not feeling ill by the sight of guts and squishy things was probably a good indicator that I would make a great biologist. 


These examples are just the beginning of a life in science. I do notice a striking difference in the descriptions of my journey up to that point and what you are participating in now. Perhaps you noticed that mine events were solitary endeavors? Of course, I had friends, but really, I pursued my love of science on my own. You, on the other hand, are exploring science and technology in groups, guided by adults. Those opportunities didn’t exist where I was at your age. I would have loved it! This opportunity to work cooperatively really reflects how science and engineering is carried out. It is no longer a solitary pursuit locked in a lab. It is a collaboration and meeting of minds and grappling with ideas together to come up with marvelous new ideas and promises for the future. I am thrilled to witness this evolution of science and technology and I look forward to what each of you have to share with me as I come around to your projects today!"

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse at my science themed childhood! I look forward to seeing some great projects at the World Festival of FIRST LEGO League Competition in April in St. Louis! 



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