A Note from Math4Science Founder Justine Henning

“For trees that have trouble getting water, what is possible to fix their situation?” “Before advanced tools were completely created, how were you able to investigate how trees survived during times of drought?” “Do all plants grow well with copper or only certain breeds?” “Why is Arapidopsis thaliana called ‘the fruit fly of plant biology’?”

The new semester has brought a new Math4Science-inspired class to Urban Academy Laboratory High School, a small public high school in New York City. And as you can see in the questions above, students are already engaging with our STEM professionals.

“What’s Data About” (WDA, the class I am teaching at Urban Academy) first appeared last autumn, when we brought a group of students to Charlottesville, VA to meet with a number of scientists, an engineer, and an entrepreneur whose business was inspired by that engineer. 

This past Wednesday, two ecologists at UVA, Xi Yang and Manuel Lerdau, logged into Zoom to be interviewed by a new set of WDA students. A pivotal moment in our conversation happened when R., referring first to her Native American heritage, asked Yang and Lerdau about their relationships with the plants and animals they study. 

“Plants are smart,” Yang declared, pointing out that many species of plants have lived on Earth substantially longer than we humans have.

Lerdau said that he doesn’t usually think in spiritual terms like those R. evoked in her question. But then he told us about the end of a long day out in the field in Indonesia. As he walked, exhausted, he suddenly saw a tired-looking male orangutan stop on the trail, around 10 feet in front of him. They exchanged a long look. Orangutans, Lerdau explained, can easily kill a human being. But “we had a freaky sense of connection,” and they both survived.

In our follow-up to the interviews, A. said that she was surprised that the scientists seemed like regular people — normal and not tucked away in fancy buildings somewhere. Watching students connect with people working in STEM through our Meet the Scientists pages and real-time encounters (perhaps something like Lerdau’s with the orangutan!) makes me very proud of the opportunities everyone connected with M4S helps create and the ways students and teachers take advantage of them.

Wishing everyone health, curiosity, and joyful discoveries in the months ahead,

Justine