I watch in awe as the metal trip turns from red to gold to indigo in the acid bath. Attached to the metal is a wire connected to a machine commanded by a tall, imposing woman with cropped, sandy-gray hair. I am in the Research Lab at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, and the person imbuing the metal with color is Dr. Myra Halpin. She wears a necklace of the same iridescent titanium, handmade using this technique, and lampwork glass bead earings she likewise crafted. One might be surprised to find that jewelry-making is one of Dr. Halpin’s hobbies, but it is really an extension of her prowess as a chemist.
Research in Chemistry with Dr. Halpin is the most unique class I have taken, and I have loved every minute of it. I remember that the course began last year with an attempt to make and compare charcoal from various raw materials. It seemed simple – how hard could it be to char some corncobs? I even followed a procedure from scientific literature to prepare the cobs for carbonization in the kiln. However, when I eagerly investigated the results the next day, I found only failure staring back at me in the form of ash piles and pieces of unaffected cob.
Dr. Halpin, by contrast, was smiling her signature half-glare half-grin. “There is no such thing as failure, only pivots in your direction of work,” she proclaimed. Thus commenced a year of exploration, marked by an abundance of pivots. To guide me through it all was Dr. Halpin, always there to offer insight to set me on course again. She pushed me to think critically, investigate thoroughly, and channel my curiosity into searching for solutions to problems.
It has been a privilege to count myself as one of the thousands of students Dr. Halpin has taught in her lifetime, but I am also going to be one of her last students as well.
Dr. Halpin is retiring after 47 years of teaching science. Her passion for science developed during her childhood on a farm, where she fondly recalls injecting food coloring into a dead snake to observe its circulation system when she was a little girl. Though Halpin has always “liked explaining things to people,” she never aspired to be a teacher. One year, however, she began substituting, and found that she very much enjoyed it. In the ’70s, she joined the Teacher Corps, serving in a rural school in Virginia for two years. After teaching around Virginia and South Carolina, she made her way to North Carolina and taught at St. Mary’s before arriving at Science and Math, where she has taught for 27 years.
When I ask her what she likes most about teaching, she tells me that she loves “seeing students have their ‘aha’ moments.” As a student, I can attest to the feeling of triumph that results from reaching a profound understanding. Halpin staunchly believes in a strong science education. “Science teaches students to think, to apply their knowledge and be problem solvers in any area,” she says. Science is also our future. “All technological and engineering advancements can be attributed to science,” Halpin says. Truly, science is a critical driving force of our civilization; we seek truths about the past and present to make our world better for ourselves and posterity.
Halpin is also a strong advocate and leader for women in science. “The few women involved in science in the South when I was growing up had limited opportunities for careers and career advancement,” she says. As a chemistry teacher, she has played a major role in engaging female students, many of whom have pursued STEM careers. She is excited about women increasingly at the forefront of cutting-edge research or holding top positions at academic institutions.
Despite her insistence otherwise, Dr. Halpin is a pioneer. When NASA’s Teacher in Space Program launched in 1984, she was among only 110 teachers nationwide selected to be a Space Ambassador. She has flown aboard NASA’s Reduced Gravity Plane. She initiated the Research in Chemistry program at Science and Math, a legacy she has left for classes of students to come. Every year she mentors students drawn from all across the state, challenging them to propel themselves as learners and thinkers.
When I ask her what her plans are after retirement, she tells me that she is going back to Thailand to continue helping to establish Kamnoetvidya Science Academy, a school similar to Science and Math. Meeting KVIS students that came to collaborate with us last year provided an invaluable opportunity to share experiences and perspectives with people vastly different in background but very much the same in mind and heart.
Dr. Halpin’s tenacity and commitment to education are deeply admired by all who have known her. When she leaves Science and Math, she will be dearly missed by her students and the school community at large. But she will not be missing, for her impact as a teacher will endure.
Elizabeth Yang is a senior at Science and Math.