I recently began teaching medical microbiology, a challenging but intensely rewarding class. The students in the class are mostly those I’ve now had for three terms, and they’re the cream of the crop. I tease them about being “border collies,” always ready to work and apt to get into trouble if I don’t find interesting things for them to do. They love the hands-on nature of the class, and their skill set has expanded at a remarkable rate. They quickly mastered the techniques for preparing bacterial smears and examining them under the daunting “oil immersion” lens of their microscopes. The first day that they tried this, one student jubilantly hollered, “I FOUND something!”
We decided to attempt observation of living organisms by a technique called “hanging drop.” I concocted couple of different jars of nasty liquids (“effusions,” to the sciencey folks), and we went hunting for microbes. Many of the little critters swim fast, and students were challenged to show their colleagues and me their dashing discoveries. Several students reported telling their family members about what they had observed.
All this reminded me of what is possibly my favorite passage of prose in the entire English language, taken from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Probably because Dillard’s experience was so similar to my own, I know it almost by heart:
“Finally, late that spring I saw an amoeba. The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park: it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was a blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere.”
Dillard then recounts how she ran upstairs to urge her parents to come view her find. “Chance of a lifetime” in her estimation. But her mother, while pleased for her, declined to join her in her basement lab. As Annie returned to the basement, she had an epiphany:
“She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life.”
How very fortunate I am to be able to share “my private passion for the thing itself” with a group of students who seem to share that passion. The quote at the end of my campus email is from Katherine Graham: “To love what you do and feel that it matters. Could anything be more fun?”