Glenna Crooks

I can’t remember how or when I met Jayne Mackta, but I’ve always been grateful I did and I hope you’ll agree when I introduce her to you today.

Jayne is an entrepreneur, pursuing the kinds of niche needs that – at their core – are the underpinnings of the discoveries in biomedicine that we depend upon to heal us when we’re ill. She’s one of many, I’m sure, but is one of the best (I’m sure of that, too). She not only works in the ‘trenches,’ but often goes there first and digs them herself to support the many others who will come later.

Her most recent effort, Curious Young Writers, is the latest of her (ad)ventures in supporting healing endeavors. In my book, Covenants, Inspiring the Soul of Healing, I say that anyone who touches health care in any way is a healer. Jayne certainly qualifies.

Jayne Mackta

Jayne Mackta

Jayne, I know you’ve been at this for a while. How can you continue to be so willing to tackle seemingly impossible problems and shove aside the barriers that others find defeating?

Jayne Mackta: I have been an advocate for biomedical research my entire adult life. As the mother of a child with Gaucher’s disease and secondary pulmonary hypertension, I know the issues and have dedicated myself to helping patients and families affected by genetic disorders. That’s why I served as President of the National Tay-Sachs & Allied Diseases Association for seven years. I also helped organize and lead the Alliance of Genetic Support Groups with founder Joan O. Weiss. That national coalition of consumers and professionals evolved into what is now the Genetic Alliance.

My interest in discovery also led me to the New Jersey Association for Biomedical Research (NJABR), where I have served as President for over 22 years.

But you retired, right?

JM: Yes and no. I retired from NJABR, but not from a number of other ventures.

Currently, I publish a quarterly E-Zine called The Enrichment Record and am CEO of Global Research Education & Training (GR8), a portal for providing of world-class training wherever animal research is conducted.

Though I launched Curious Young Writers (cYw) during my time at NJABR, and even though I retired from NJABR at the end of last year, I continue to run the cYw program and plan its expansion. Since its scope is evolving beyond the limited mission of NJABR, I am planning to move it to States United for Biomedical Research (SUBR). This new blog host is a 501(c)(3) organization whose member organizations promote public understanding of biomedical research, and many have educational programs directed at high school students and teachers. That makes it a natural fit.

Curious Young Writers is what I’m curious about. What is it?

JM: cYw is a student-run blog. High school science students become story-tellers, communicating compelling stories about the unusual animal models used to help solve enduring medical mysteries.

Using the power of “story”, students are responsible for every aspect of the blog. That includes everything from researching the research to checking for credible, current citations and links.

Originally conceived as a way to tell the story of unusual animals used in biomedical research through the lens of young writers, this was initially a summer writing project. It has now evolved into a multi-dimensional collaborative initiative of far-reaching significance.

Pamela Brown Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, sums it up well: “Stories are about collaboration and connection. They transcend generations, they engage us through emotions, and they connect us to others. Through stories we share passions, sadness, hardships and joys. We share meaning and purpose. Stories are the common ground that allows people to communicate, overcoming our defenses and our differences. Stories allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with others.”

Why a blog?

JM: The idea for a blog came from a focus group of students I convened to explore ways to grow the original project. A retired biology teacher who had just completed her term as president of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) coordinated this fledging cyber experiment with the help of science and language arts faculty from two New Jersey research- and technology-focused high schools.

A high-school junior created the role of Chief Student Writing Editor for her independent research course, which allowed her to work on the blog during school time and receive credit as well as daily guidance from faculty. The technical aspects of managing the blog and social media were handled by an IT Editor at a different school.

Officially launched in December 2012, cYw has posted stories featuring golden retrievers (research in Duchenne muscular dystrophy), black bears (research in osteoporosis) chincillas (research in otitis media), armadillos (research in leprosy/Hansen’s disease), and the Arabian horse (research in SCID).

Essays written before cYw was created are now being re-purposed as part of a “Critical Thinking” Challenge (CT Challenge) where students are invited to comment on the story and submit questions that could help advance research. CT Challenge #1 focuses on rainbow trout and liver cancer.

What’s in it for the students?

JM: cYw provides the students with an authentic learning experience that stimulates critical thinking and creative skills of value for future career development and job placement. This summer, 16 new writers from five NJ high schools will generate blog content for posting during the 2013-14 academic year.

Students appreciate the opportunity to be published in a credible online forum, expand their resume and acquire 21st century skills. And, they’re paid. We provide a modest stipend for each blog entry and pay the Chief Writing and Technical Editors.

Our blog strikes a responsive chord among students (and teachers) who want to be part of something meaningful beyond the classroom. cYw activities fall outside the purview of the regular public school curriculum. In our cyber academy, teachers aren’t constrained by the growing demands to “teach to the test,” which, unfortunately is the only measure of scholastic achievement.

We plan on growing cYw into a Curious Science Collaborative — an interdisciplinary high school STEAM initiative that enables multi-functional student “creative transfer teams” to communicate information about biomedical research in different ways to a general audience that is largely science-illiterate.

Designed to promote workforce readiness in the 21st Century, the Curious Science Collaborative will encourage students to excel in the art of science communication.  We envision this collaborative functioning at the intersection of science, technology, the visual and the language arts. Students with various skills and talents will work in teams where they contribute their particular skills and knowledge to the development of a compelling digital story about medical research. Stories will have extensions such as podcast interviews with researchers; animations; videos; original graphics, charts, and photographs. Our goal is to make bioscience accessible.

You’ve mentioned STEAM. What’s that?

JM: STEAM is STEM expanded. STEM education includes science, technology, engineering and math. To that, the “A” in STEAM adds the Arts. It takes into account the many ways we learn and the importance of stimulating both left and right brain development.

STEAM taps into tomorrow’s innovators… students who are curious, motivated and full of wonder about the world around them. Pardon the pun, but we are moving full-STEAM ahead and welcome anyone eager to lead us in new and exciting directions. These students are doing a really good job of that.

One final question. I know you’ve been learning Mandarin, have traveled to China and have developed relationships with academic institutions. When is your next trip and what will you be doing this time?

JM: I’ll be in China for three weeks this summer. This is the third year of a five-year agreement with the Shanghai Vocational & Technical College of Agriculture & Forestry to provide an intensive introduction to laboratory animal care and use for students pursuing careers in biomedical research. I bring western trainers with me for the didactic and hands-on sessions and teach English as a Second Language (ESL) and ethics myself.

Everyone loves it when I try to speak Mandarin. First they applaud. Then they laugh … a lot.

Thanks, Jayne. All the best and travel safe.

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