Real Science Heroes: Attack of the Killer C. Gattii

Real Science-4-Kids wants to recognize youthful ingenuity in the field of science as part of our Real Science Heroes blog series. Enjoy this celebration of a budding scientist who, through a school science fair project, made a real-world difference. ~

For many days an unsuspecting California resident, let’s call her Shirley, had been suffering from common cold symptoms. The usual cough and congestion started to worsen and symptoms advanced to fever and chest pain. When her neck started aching, she knew it was time to head to the doctor. Shirley was diagnosed with a Cryptococcus gattii infection, a fungal infection that can take months or years to manifest symptoms in patients. That’s one sneaky scoundrel.

This had become an all-too-common story in Southern California. Doctors had been fighting this villainous fungus for over a decade. Sometimes they were unsuccessful and people lost their lives to the nasty fungus. The medical establishment needed to know where C. gattii’s lair was located before it could do more damage to the community.

Deborah Springer, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University who studies C. gatti, was sure it would be found lurking among the trees. That was the usual hiding place of this nefarious character, but which type of tree? Deborah just didn’t have the time to find out. Who could she call on in her hour of need? Who could stop the villainous fungus in its tracks and save the citizens of California from future infections?

As luck would have it Elan Filler, an entrepreneurial 7th grader with a trailblazing spirit, was in need of a science fair project. She set her sights on finding C. gattii and began working tirelessly to swab countless trees for culture samples. Not the typical scene for superhero work, nevertheless she was undaunted in her efforts.

Eucalyptus trees were the first suspect, since they were found to harbor the fungus in Australia. Apparently, the trees were keeping it on the up and up in California and their samples came out clean. The search would have to be broadened.

Elan continued to send various tree samples to her sidekick, Deborah Springer, for evaluation. One day, POW, three samples tested positive for the exact strain of C. gattii they were searching for. Samples from Canary Island Pine, New Zealand Pohutukawa, and American Sweet Gum matched medical swabs taken from patients as early as 12 years before. Early treatment was now an option for people known to be exposed to the fungus, and controlling the spread of the fungus could be handled appropriately. Thanks to the efforts of this science hero, the citizens of Southern California can now breathe a little easier.

REMEMBER, grown-ups aren’t the only ones that can make a difference in science! Real Science-4-Kids wants to recognize your student for their hard work today. Your budding scientist could be our featured hero. From science fair exhibits and classroom projects to self-run science experiments, we want to hear about them all.  Let us celebrate your successes with you!

Make a submission. Your story matters. Large or small, we want to hear about them all.

Send submissions to [email protected]. Include a photo along with your story and we can share your experience on our website.

Real science has Gravitas

Gravitas means “very serious, weighty, and important.” When we think of someone who has gravitas, we think of someone who is serious about what they do and how they command themselves.

I picked the word “gravitas” as the Real Science-4-Kids publishing company name over 15 years ago because I wanted to create a science program that was serious science for the serious student who didn’t want to waste time learning things they didn’t need in ways that didn’t work. I wanted a program that could be the stepping stones for kids who wanted to become tomorrow’s astronauts, pharmacists, botanists, explorers, and even just weekend hobbyists. I believe that it is important for kids to know what science really is, how science really works, and what science can really answer. It is also important to know where our knowledge of science is limited and how our ideas about science both help and hinder our ability to understand the world around us and to work together for a better future.

With this in mind, I started writing the Real Science-4-Kids program. Real Science-4-Kids has gravitas. It is serious, weighty, and important even for a first grader. First graders learn about atoms, molecules, chemical reactions, photosynthesis, force, energy, work, and all kinds of other concepts presented to older students in high school and college.

But I didn’t want my program to be “burdensome” or “boring” so I wrote these books in a way that is playful, engaging, and fun. Real Science has gravitas, but it is also a blast to learn if you have the right information, questions, and hands-on experiments. I think I got pretty close. No program is perfect, but I am happy with the Real Science-4-Kids books. They have just enough gravitas to make a difference in kids’ lives and just enough playful content and illustrations to make them fun.

Dr. Keller



Real Science is Easy

It’s easy to teach someone real science. In fact, children are already primed to learn real science. Kids are natural explorers and with every step onto green grass, the taste of something sweet, or a piqued interest in a curious sound, they are learning about the world around them.

Real science is not much more than playing with the things around us. Scientific experiments are just more sophisticated ways to play with how things work, what things are made of, and why things do the things they do. Scientific experiments are generally more structured than the play of a 5-year-old, but the starting point is essentially the same – curiosity. A scientist starts by being curious about how a molecule moves or how an airplane flies or why a plant grows, and from there they design experiments to answer their questions. The experiments can seem complex, but to the scientist who has been studying for years, it’s actually really very simple.

It’s easy to teach a child real science if you start with things they are already curious about. For example, if you have a young artist curious about paint or color, you can add physics and chemistry to the lesson and teach them how colors combine to make new colors and how the molecules that make up paint give us the colors we see. It helps to know something about the chemistry and physics of paint and color, but you don’t need to know everything. You need to be curious and have access to either a good set of books or find some reliable internet sites where you can look up what you don’t know.

Give it a try – start with something your child is already curious about and discover just how easy it is to teach real science!

Real Science is Fun

We often hear from parents and students that science is boring, dull, and uninteresting.  Many of us have had experiences in school perhaps even falling asleep as a teacher or professor presents what could be interesting information in the most tedious and dull way possible. We sit through the class because we have to, but as soon as the semester is over, we may toss the books and never think about the class again.

It’s no secret that the best way to learn something new is to learn it in a way that is engaging, interesting, and even fun.  The best teachers know how to make any subject “fun.” They also know that the more a student learns the more “fun” it is and the more the student will have “fun” learning the subject on their own. And this is the key to making any subject and especially science, more fun to learn – simply learning more.

Sometimes it’s challenging to learn something new. It can be difficult to learn how to play the piano or ride a bike because it’s all brand new, and it’s easy to give up before it starts to feel like fun. However, we all know that if we can get someone to stick with learning something new long enough, they will eventually enjoy it. They have to get past the first learning bump. And this is true with academic subjects such as math, history, or science. The more someone learns about these subjects the more fun they have learning.

And this is what makes real science fun. A colorful, engaging text helps a child get started, but learning the real terms and concepts and learning how to do real experiments are what makes science fun. Knowing how real science works opens a whole new world of discovery that is fun for anyone, and especially kids, to explore.



Kids want real science

Kids learn at an astonishing rate, and from the time they are born, they begin to absorb everything around them. Kids are curious about the world they live in, and as soon as they can, they start asking questions. They want to know how plants grow, where butterflies come from, why the sun is warm, and how spiders spin a web.

It isn’t enough to give kids simple or goofy answers. They want real answers. Their questions are serious because they are in the very important stage of learning everything they can about the world around them. They want us to give them real answers to their very real questions, and they know when we aren’t giving them what they want.

But giving real answers for science questions can be difficult for many parents. If science wasn’t your thing in school or if you had a bad experience in a science class or two, learning enough science to satisfy your curious young researcher may be painful.

Real Science-4-Kids makes giving your child real answers easier. You don’t have to have a PhD in science to teach your kids real science and give them real answers to their questions. Real Science-4-Kids helps you give your kids a good foundation, and as the lessons build, one-on-top of the other, your child begins to see a bigger and bigger picture for how things work in the physical and natural world. Real Science-4-Kids is research oriented so you learn science with your child. As you guide the open inquiry questions and help your child look up their own answers, you find out that you too start to understand the bigger picture that is science!


Can “real” science wait until high school?

When we are out attending conferences and chatting with parents, teachers, and school administrators, we are often asked if it is better to start teaching “real” science in high school. We believe that the best time to start learning real science is when the child starts asking questions about the world around them; like what is Jell-O made of and why can’t the snowman stay until summer? This is the ideal time to start teaching kids about atoms and molecules, force, energy, and work, how plants grow and why, and what the Earth, planets, and stars are made of and how they move. Young children are primed to explore the world around them, and when they start asking real questions, we should always do our best to give them real answers.

If we wait until high school, we miss the most important time in a child’s life to engage them in a subject they find fascinating, and it is really hard to learn anything if we aren’t engaged. One misconception is that “real” science is too hard to teach to younger students and this simply isn’t true. If real science facts and concepts are presented in an easy-to-follow and logical manner, anyone can learn science – even a first grader. Not convinced? Watch Naomi and decide if this 6-year old has learned a few real science facts and concepts.