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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Jhumki Basu: The Science Education Reformer Who Was Like A Nova

It was the name of my idol Jane Goodall on the cover that first drew my attention to  Mission To Teach by Dipak Basu. If Goodall wrote a foreword to a biography, it would have to be the story of an extraordinary life.  So I requested it from The Bookplex, and  I have to tell you that my expectations were met! Sreyashi Jhumki Basu, known as Jhumki,  was indeed an extraordinary woman.


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The nova simile in the title of this review was used to describe Jhumki at her memorial ceremony by a young student of hers named Jordan Franklin. Jordan's image struck a chord with me.  Jhumki had a truly explosive career. 

It’s appropriate that a biography of an innovator would not be the traditional sort of biography.  Because the author is the father of the book’s central focus, its tone is more intimate and its coverage of her life has more depth  than it might have had if someone who didn’t know her as well had written it.   It also doesn’t  follow  the events in Jhumki's life  chronologically.  Some readers may find this confusing,   but I decided early in my reading of this book  that Dipak Basu  must have reasons for presenting his daughter  to us  in the way that he did.  By the time I finished it, I understood that the life of a unique individual like Jhumki   could only be portrayed in a unique way.

When I received my copy of this book for review, I wondered how the life of a woman who died so young could be so long.  I discovered that Jhumki  packed a great many accomplishments into her brief life.  It was also a very well documented life.  Jhumki  wrote long letters and kept a journal.  She also published a number of articles dealing with her approach to science education.  Dipak Basu and those who assisted him with this biography undoubtedly had to sift through a mountain of material.

As a member of  Dr. Susan Love’s Army of Women which was founded to assist in breast cancer research,  I was very interested in reading about Jhumki’s cancer treatment. Dr. Clifford Hudis, her oncologist at Sloan-Kettering, has a very different perspective on cancer.  He believes that our perception of cancer is based on our ability to detect it.  So we say that cancer goes into remission and then suddenly reappears.  Jhumki's cancer seemed to be in remission for five years. Yet what if during the period we thought it was in remission, the cancer was still present, but below the level that we can currently detect?  Readers who understand how science operates will realize that this is a hypothesis.  It's a very likely hypothesis based on what we know about the progress of  other types of medical conditions.  For example, no one suddenly wakes up in the morning with full blown Alzheimer's.  It's a slow process of deterioration in brain function that may be scarcely noticeable at its outset.  So there is a good probability that metastatic cancer could also be a gradual process that isn't visible using the methods we have now.   Perhaps someday advances in instrumentation will allow physicians to identify cases of metastatic cancer sooner. Dr. Hudis also thinks that metastatic cancer that is detected early might be treatable. This optimistic outlook is contagious. Hopeful readers will want to believe right along with Dr. Hudis.  I too look forward to improvements in diagnosis and treatment in oncology, so that  tragedies like Jhumki’s don’t recur in future generations.

Jhumkhi tested negative for the two genes associated with breast cancer that had been discovered in 2000 when she was diagnosed.  On the Army of Women website, which I hyperlinked in the paragraph above, there is An Interview With Jennifer Ivanovich of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis,  who is researching  breast cancer in young women below the age of forty like Jhumki. In her discussion of genetic factors she mentioned seven genes associated with breast cancer and said that there were more that she hadn't mentioned.  Her study has a particular focus on  aggressive cancer in young women.   Perhaps we will soon understand more about the condition that brought about such an early departure from this world for Jhumki and so many other vital young women who were never able to realize their dreams.

Cancer interrupted Jhumki’s lifework, but this book shows that  Jhumki’s  method for getting  low income minority youth  interested in science is effective.   She emphasized that science can be fun.  Yet mastery of any scientific field requires discipline.  Are students who’ve been attracted to science by cool projects that are relevant to their lives going to be able to sustain that enthusiasm over the long haul so that they can pursue a scientific profession?  It will be interesting to find out how many of  these students do have successful careers as scientists.   As an educator,  Jhumki’s  legacy is measured by the lives she has impacted.

Jhumki took a "physics first" approach.  This means teaching physics to ninth graders instead of biology.  The School for Democracy and Leadership that Jhumki co-founded was allowed to do this because it was in an "Autonomy Zone".  For more information about this New York City educational program instituted by Mayor Bloomberg, see The Empowerment Schools FAQ

The reasoning behind "physics first" is that physics provides the infrastructure for other sciences.  This is definitely true, but biology is an equally important prerequisite for any of the life sciences which include medicine, botany and zoology. I am sure that Jane Goodall wants to see science education that nurtures the dreams of youth who want to work with plants and animals. Jhumki also had a love of nature which was best illustrated by her honeymoon in an African jungle.  Jhumki believed in letting students have input in curriculum development. What if students had the option of taking either physics or biology in ninth grade?  This means that a student entering ninth grade who is very interested in building spaceships should take physics first, but another student who wants to find cures for diseases in rainforests could take biology first.  This would be democratic education. If we want youth to consider a career in the sciences, then they should have the opportunity to pursue the type of science that corresponds to their aspirations.

If Jhumki had remained healthy perhaps she could have followed her dream to become a teacher in space.  Most of us associate NASA's Teacher in Space program with the Challenger Disaster. We remember that Christa McAuliffe, the first designated Teacher in Space,  died when the Challenger shuttle exploded.  I hadn't known that another teacher, Barbara Morgan , trained with her as a back-up.  My link is to an article dealing with Barbara Morgan teaching about space at Walt Disney World. The article also covers her career as an astronaut.  Barbara Morgan was one of Jhumki's  heroes.   She wanted to follow in her footsteps.

Readers will be inspired by this book, but it also provides food for thought.  I recommend it to people who are drawn to new ideas and want to explore them through the matrix of  Jhumki’s  original mind.

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