A few months ago a friend invited me to his class to present my research to his students during the Great American Teach-In (GATI). This is a really fantastic event where adults share their careers with local K-12 students. I was tempted to say ‘yes’ right away, but I hesitated to respond until a few weeks before GATI. You see, I know Lance (a.k.a. Mr. Burnette) from French classes he offered through Tampa Free Skool, and he is a French Teacher at C. Leon King High School in Temple Terrace. He wanted me to make my presentation in French. (Ooh la la! )
Presenting my research in French isn’t a completely foreign idea (ha ha ), since I do have a long-standing relationship with the French language. I took three years of French in high school. I went on to obtain my minor in French while working on my Bachelor’s degree in Biology at the University of North Florida. During that time I participated in a month-long study abroad to Strasbourg, France. That was in 2005, and my French was probably strongest right around then.
Me in Strasbourg
It’s 2013 now, which means 2005 was a long time ago. In 2005 I was actively taking French classes that helped my speaking and listening skills. Let’s just say that I haven’t recently been doing many active things to keep my French from getting rusty aside from talking to Willow in French, using the Rosetta Stone occasionally and DuoLingo more often (which I highly recommend, by the way).
Willow n’est pas amusée.
So giving lectures on epigenetics to high school students, which is complex enough to explain in English, was doubly daunting in French. But I finally said yes, and I’m so glad that I did. Talk about an opportunity to live daringly!
I put together a short Power Point presentation, and I went to King High School bright and early on November 22. I started off with a bit about myself, and my background in French. I introduced my educational background in science, and introduced some new vocabulary to them by asking them to name my past and current mascots (i.e. la panthère (panther), le balbuzard pêcheur (osprey), and le taureau (bull)).
I then told them about the classes that I teach at USF. I described that we talk about biodiversity in Biology 2 labs and the interactions among organisms in Ecology labs. I used the example of the gopher tortoise to explain the Ecology labs, and the students gained more animal vocabulary by naming the animals associated with gopher tortoise (le tortue marmotte) burrows: le grenouille, le rapin, les souris, le lézard, les insectes, et le serpent indigo.
I then eased into the different sciences, because there are so many. Physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology (of course), geology. In some of the classes they had additional suggestions. I then talked about biology. I asked them what biology was, and some were able to respond “c’est l’étude de la vie” or something close. I had them list the different sorts of organisms in biology: les bactéries, les protistes, les plantes, le champignon (fungi), et les animaux.
I then explained that my research revolves around plants and DNA (ADN en français). I asked if they knew what DNA was and what it did. Some go-getters knew that DNA = deoxyribonucleic acid. But they were also able to explain the function of DNA (les deux en français!!).
Once we established the basics of what DNA does, I was able to explain that there are other things that can affect what organisms look like – like epigenetics! I explained the idea that methyl groups can attach to the DNA and change the way an organism looks. I used Linaria vulgaris and the Agouti gene in mice as my examples since there are direct connections between methylation of the gene in question and the different phenotypes.
Remember that all of this is taking place in French!!
I then explained my expectations for the importance of epigenetics in my own study system. That we expect the patterns of DNA methyl groups to be different among the different salinities. And then I explained that thus far we are indeed supporting this!
I simplified the scientific scenarios, but the students did seem to understand the general concept during the Q&A at the end. Lance also had the students write a few sentences in reflection of the talk (en français, bien sûr), and they seemed to truly understand the basics that I was trying to convey. Many of them had never been exposed to epigenetics before, which makes me pretty proud to have passed on some of this information in a language that is not native to me.
I was truly impressed by the engagement of the students. They seemed a bit intimidated to be speaking in French about these topics, but they overcame that fear and came up with some cool questions. And they seemed to enjoy the challenge. I did too!
While the students were writing their reflections, I was reading some of the ones from previous classes. One of the students wrote that they were impressed that I wasn’t scared to talk about my research in French. I told Lance “J’ai peur, mais…” (I am scared, but…). I struggled to finish the sentence, and Lance helped my out by suggesting, “…je ne regrette rien!” (I regret nothing!). C’est vrai…
Alor, ici de la vie audace!!