Bitten by Science

A career in K-12 science education leads Mary Adams (M.S. ’07) to entomology research at the Centers for Disease Control.

Mary_AdamsWhen Mary Adams (M.S.’07) started teaching science education to elementary students, she set a goal to teach for 20 years and then do something else in science. “I was interested in research because of being able to work outdoors and travel,” Adams says.

Thanks to two grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Adams met her goal. In 2003, Adams received a GK-12 Teacher Fellowship from the NSF that allowed her to make significant improvements to how she taught–and how students learned–science. She was teaching at an alternative high school in Greeley, Colo.

Through the fellowship, Adams was able to enhance her curriculum by collaborating with a visiting scientist, who was a biologist from the University of Northern Colorado with a NSF GK-12 Graduate Fellowship. Lessons became more hands-on, covered biology and earth science, and included lab dissections, access to microscopes, a field science trip to Pawnee National Grasslands, orienteering, and more. Prior to the grant Adams had limited resources. Adams says that the grant let them “offer a quality science curriculum catered to the alternative student.”

Two years later, Adams applied for and received her own NSF GK-12 Graduate Fellowship that brought her to Colorado State to study entomology, with a focus on education and ecology. From 2005-07 Adams developed “Water Creatures of the Lower Poudre River,” an aquatic entomology guide with photos that students could use to identify water organisms found at the Poudre Learning Center.

She was also designated a “visiting scientist” at North Ridge High School in Greeley, where she developed a research study, “Entomology through Inquiry” that compared lecture-test and science through inquiry instructional models. With teacher Mary Ann Murphy, Adams designed a hands-on field science lesson that had students compare insect life in small wetland versus a prairie ecosystem. Students even designed their own “pitfall” traps for insect collection.

Among the many scientists who influenced Adams during her graduate studies at CSU, Dr. Janet McAllister was the key to Adams landing her long-held research dream. “I met her as I was finishing up my degree and looking for researched-based employment,” Adams says. McAllister had a position available at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Fort Collins as a project lead for a three-year mosquito research program funded by the military.

The research study compared the lethal dosages for nootkatone, carvacrol, and thymoquinone–natural compounds derived, respectively, from the Alaska yellow cedar tree, oregano essential oil, and incense cedar–by using colony strains of the malaria mosquito vector Anopheles gambiae Giles. Adams began rearing the malaria mosquito vector at the CDC in 2007. In their published findings, McAllister’s and Adams’ state that the three compounds “may prove invaluable in maintaining our ability to control populations of mosquitoes that are resistant to currently available insecticides.” Mosquito control around the world is a tricky business, because mosquitoes are becoming resistant to synthetic molecule pesticides that are losing their effectiveness. Naturally-derived mosquito adulticides, such as the ones that McAllister and Adams tested, can help diversify and strengthen the mosquito control efforts that minimize the spread of malaria.

At the end of her CDC contract, Adams left the lab because she decided it was “a wonderful time to retire.” However, she maintains an exceptionally strong network of fellow scientists that she began building during her time at CSU.

“Going back to college after so many years was a really fun, stimulating, and wonderful opportunity,” Adams says. “It enabled me to have a pivotal point in my career to move from science education to science. I liked the professional environment at CSU. I was able to meet and be influenced by key people including Dr. Temple Grandin, Dr. Boris Kondratieff, Dr. Dean Brown, Dr. Lou Bjostad, and Dr. John Moore.” Adams also keeps in contact with many of her contacts at the CDC and remains involved in science research through LinkedIn. “I get to meet people from all over the world and talk about and comment on their research. It’s my best source for staying involved,” says Adams.

by Carol Busch (M.A. ’02)