The Case of the Mysterious Bacterium and a Poisoned Picnic

Today a small group convened at Finkl for our Sisters4Science session, but we had a wonderful time practicing the skills needed to be burgeoning epidemiologists.

We opened the class with our Knowledge Sharing Session. We learned that Rosalind Franklin, our female scientist of the week, earned her PhD from Cambridge at age 25 before studying X-ray diffraction techniques, or methods by which she could look at the molecular structures of crystals, in Paris. She put those skills to use after returning to England to join John Randall’s lab at King’s College in London. There, she and Maurice Wilkins both worked on learning more about DNA, though on different projects in different labs. Because she was a woman, Wilkins mistakenly thought her a research assistant. He later shared some of her crystallographic depictions of the structure of DNA with James Watson and Francis Crick who went on to publish their findings and earn the Nobel Prize for such work in 1962.  Sadly, Watson and Crick published their findings before Franklin could, and Franklin herself died of cancer in 1958, becoming ineligible for the Nobel, which is not awarded posthumously.

[More information can be found here: http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/franklin.html]

Jade shared with me that “¿Quien quiere pasar los marcadores?” means “Who wants to pass out the markers?”

We then moved into our infectious disease lesson. As I narrated the fictional story of a poisoned picnic in which a number of people grew ill and even died, the students pretended to be a team of epidemiologists trying to discover what caused the outbreak. We went over who brought which dishes, what ingredients were in the dishes, from where the ingredients came, the order of people serving and receiving food, the symptoms of all those taken ill, the wasterwater treatment plants’ water tests, the pathology reports of those died, and a list of possible “suspects.” Through a series of deductions, the girls carefully and correctly reasoned that the culprit was Clostridium botulinum, or the type of bacteria responsible for botulism.  Because the picnic only had one serving spoon, all dishes became contaminated, a result of the bacteria’s existence in a green bean casserole dish. Since the dish had used green beans in a can that hadn’t been properly canned, and the dish had not been sufficiently heated, the bacteria survived and caused the outbreak at the picnic.

Denise remarked that now she knows “you have to check cans and make sure to heat all of your food properly.” Jade said she now knows you shouldn’t use “the same spoon over and over,” especially when serving a crowd.

We had a lot of fun pretending to be epidemiologists and learning about infectious diseases and food safety!

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