Lab time is quality time for moms, daughters

A Mother's Day tale of women passing on their passion for science

Staff WriterMay 9, 2010 

  • Dr. Nancy Andrews and Sally Kornbluth, high-ranking administrators at Duke University, are still in a minority as scientists. Both encourage their daughters to enter the field, but there's much work to be done to draw more young women into science, mathematics, engineering and technology. Consider:

    In 2009, 15 percent of members elected to the National Academy of Sciences were female.

    In biomedical fields, the proportion of women with doctorates has exceeded 40 percent for two decades. But, in basic science departments of medical schools, the proportion of women associate professors is still below 30 percent, and the proportion at full professor rank is only 20 percent.

    Women represent less than 25 percent of engineering and computer science majors in four-year colleges and universities.

    SOURCE: Association for Women in Science

The two women and their daughters stood at the counter, waiting exactly one minute for the mixer to finish.

Nancy Andrews was leading the lesson, and she explained that once the mixer turned off, they'd add another ingredient, then warm their concoction to room temperature for another 60 seconds before putting it back in the mixer.

It was a complicated recipe, and like so many mothers, Andrews relished the opportunity to pass it along to her daughter, Camille Mathey-Andrews.

Only this wasn't mom's seven-layer cake or impossibly fluffy biscuits they were whipping up. It was DNA.

Andrews, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, has been spending Saturdays in her lab at Duke, teaching her daughter science lessons. For moms through the generations, such get-togethers are cherished moments to pass along a certain passion or skill - how to knit and purl, build a curio cabinet, raise heirloom roses, throw a spitball.

"For me, the most effective way to have quality time with the kids has been around the activities we share an interest in," Andrews said.

As a high-ranking college administrator, Andrews said she has had to be assiduous in how she makes time for her family. She goes to work early and tries to be home to cook dinner at least four nights a week.

Before the family moved from Boston nearly three years ago - Andrews and her husband were on the faculty at Harvard before being recruited to Duke - Andrews was heavily involved in her son's baseball team. A lifelong baseball fan, she helped the coach with practices and kept score at games.

"I loved that," she said. "When we left Boston, that was one of the things I missed most."

The DNA lessons started last fall, when Camille, a high school senior, expressed interest in pursuing medicine in college next year at Duke. Andrews figured, hey, she could help with that. Her own interest in science began as a teenager, with home-grown experiments on horseshoe crabs she found during summer trips to Cape Cod.

And she has long fostered that fascination in her children.

"My mom used to come home from work when we were little kids with these containers to cultivate bacteria," Camille said. "So when my brother and I would wash our hands at night, we'd press a finger in the culture, and the next day we'd see what bacteria would grow."

Diligent hand washing resulted.

A family DNA plan

So all these years later, mom and daughter naturally headed to Andrews' lab for Saturday science immersion.

"It started as a couple of hours, and then it turned into the whole day," said Andrews, a pediatrician and leading researcher in iron deficiency anemia. "I began by showing her around the lab, and I told her what the different types of equipment did."

Camille, a fan of TV crime shows, thought it would be interesting to experiment with DNA. So they went online and found a list of the DNA reactions that are done in crime labs to identify or rule out suspects. The two began putting together a plan for isolating and comparing the DNA in their family - mother, daughter and father Bernard Mathey-Prevot.

Andrews showed Camille how to draw blood, isolate the DNA cells in a series of steps, and then generate a readout on the computer.

"She saw the similarities [of her DNA] to mine and my husband's, so she has to be a mix of us," Andrews said. "It was fun."

Not long ago, Sally Kornbluth, vice dean for research at Duke, heard about the Saturday science lessons and knew her daughter Joey Lew would also be interested. Joey, a high school freshman, hopes to study medicine, as well, and Kornbluth was happy to foster her enthusiasm.

Her own mother was an opera singer in New York, and although Kornbluth inherited no such singing talent, she remembers how her mother's hard work and passion led to success.

"Excellence in anything requires a lot of work," Kornbluth said. "But if you are really passionate about your work, it makes it easier to do."

Joey said she jumped at the chance to spend time in the laboratory with her mom.

"I thought it was a really cool opportunity," she said. "Luckily, we both enjoy the same sort of things."

Following a recipe

So the two moms set up a workshop for their daughters one recent April morning. Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, the moms and daughters dug in to a boxed kit containing the ingredients to run a DNA test - proteinase K, phosphate buffer ... .

"Back in my day," Andrews said, "we didn't have kits like this. We had to make everything."

Kornbluth said the DNA experiment was far afield from her work in cell biology - "I usually work with frog eggs" - but she navigated the laboratory with the ease of a visiting chef in a host's kitchen.

The first order of business was to get blood samples. As Andrews coached, Kornbluth gamely presented her arm to her daughter, who showed no qualms about jabbing the needle and drawing blood.

Then the mixing and stirring began, each step following Andrews' precise recipe, using specialized tools and carefully calibrated equipment. The women worked in a time-honored orchestration of show and tell, try and try again.

The morning turned to afternoon. Blood yielded DNA. From mothers to their children, a recipe of life passed down.

sarah.avery@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4882

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service