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“I HATE science.”
Poor, unsuspecting Mrs. Lato. When she cheerily asked us to jot down our interests in science, I penned my sentence of outright rejection. This eleven-year-old clearly did not share the passion of my new science teacher.
Now, had she asked us about magic, my response would have been quite different. How I longed to be Harry Potter, immersed in the exciting world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry! Instead, I sat doodling at St. Rose of Lima Academy, where science usually consisted of answering mundane questions at the end of each chapter.
Despite my desire to tell a dramatic story, I have to admit my transformation from “science-phobe” to “science-phile” was not a theatrical event; it was more of a gradual progression. After all, someone who is of Greek and Irish lineage is not so easily swayed. From the start, Mrs. Lato’s questions intrigued me: Which substance could turn a flame bright green? What did dissecting an earthworm reveal about the chemistry of life? How could your team extract pure water from a jar of dirt? A puzzle, a mystery, an enticement to explore —science with Mrs. Lato meant a journey to the unknown.
If Harry had his Nimbus 2000 broomstick, courtesy of Minerva McGonagall, I had my electromagnetic fishing pole, inspired by Mary Ellen Lato. In appearance and personalities, the two mentors could not be more different. However, they both shared an amazing ability to push a student beyond his limits and provide him with the tools to achieve. When Mrs. Lato devised a competition involving an electromagnetic fishing pole that would attract the most paper clips, she knew it would appeal to my competitive spirit. It did. The many hours I spent in designing and redesigning that rod resulted in my winning– second place. Despite my crushing defeat by twelve paper clips, I developed a lifelong addiction to solving scientific puzzles.
Although my days at Seton Hall Prep could hardly compare to Harry’s Hogwarts’ adventures – no Chamber of Secrets or Triwizard Tournaments – my middle school fascination with scientific puzzles intensified. “From paper clips to computational chemistry” could be my theme song as I embarked on a new quest last year by applying computational chemistry to modern biology. I have to admit (but certainly not to new acquaintances) that spending a month working on this topic with like-minded souls at the New Jersey’s Governor’s School was the highlight of last summer. Our research team of eleven worked, argued, collaborated and laughed together as we investigated ways of controlling cell division that occurs in cases such as cancer while using computer analysis to record our efforts. No, we never learned the secrets of charms and defensive spells. No, we never had to battle an evil adversary, except the need to sleep. But the eleven of us, with different personalities and diverse backgrounds, developed a camaraderie that I had never experienced before, one that I might say was worthy of the spirit of Gryffindor House.
Thus, the conversion that began more than six years ago with one sentence on an index card is now complete. As a slightly more sophisticated senior, I can now look back with amusement to my sixth-grade fantasies when I despaired that my acceptance letter to Hogwarts School would never come. The irony is that I did receive a far better gift: an invitation to pursue a scientific journey, to embark on a quest that, like Harry Potter’s, is filled with challenges, sudden twists, and, in my mind, an undeniable magic.
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