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Volunteer highlight: Emiko Fire. Protein scientist, food lover, inspiration for SCFG kindergarteners September 2, 2011

Posted by Science Club for Girls in Guest Blog, Mentor volunteers, Volunteering.
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Dr. Emiko Fire has been volunteering with SCFG as a mentor-scientist since 2009, and has led clubs in Cambridge, Lawrence and now in Newton. She is also helping us develop our new zebrafish program. Thanks, Emiko, for being such a wonderful role model and for your dedication to Science Club for Girls! 

What is your field? What’s so cool about it?

I’m a biochemist. I try to understand the chemistry of biological molecules. More specifically, I try to understand the things that proteins do. Proteins are amazing molecules; they are the workhorses of the cell. They do incredible things, like breakdown the food you eat, send signals from one part of your body to another, and build up parts of your body. I studied how a family of proteins called BCL-2, which helps prevent cancer, interact with one another. One way I did this was to look at the shape of these proteins. Unfortunately, you can’t just take a picture of protein, because they are so small. Instead I used a technique called X-ray crystallography. I would grow crystals of these proteins, kind of like making rock candy, just a lot smaller. And then I would shoot X-rays through the crystal. Instead of a picture, I would get a diffraction pattern, which is kind of like a shadow. And from that I can figure out what the protein looks like, in three dimensions.

Do you have a hero or a mentor? Who is it and why?
I have had two wonderful role models: my mother and my graduate advisor.

My mother is my hero. Our personalities sometimes clashed, but she was an amazing woman. She was a short Japanese woman (even short by Japanese standards), and she never let being short, Japanese, or a woman keep her from doing anything she wanted to do.

My mother never let being short, Japanese, or a woman keep her from doing anything she wanted to do.

In Japan, after she graduated high school, she went to work for the post office, because unlike most other workplaces, they paid female employees the same wages they paid male employees. She made sure that English, being her second language, never got in her way. Her English was better than most immigrants who had lived here longer than she had. And she was an incredibly hard worker, always trying to be better.

My graduate advisor, Amy Keating, is my mentor. She is an example of a woman who really can do it all. She does amazing research.  She maintains a wonderful laboratory environment that is productive and collaborative, and also fun. She is always available for advice and she has realistic expectations of her students and postdocs. And she did not need to make sacrifices in her personal life (she had two amazing kids, before she got tenure) to excel in her professional life.

What drew you to SCFG? Why did you volunteer to become a mentor scientist?
Connie [Science Club for Girls’ executive director]. I met her at dinner for Ken Miller. She told me about SCFG, and I was hooked. Unfortunately, at the time I was trying to finish up my thesis, so I couldn’t volunteer just then, but when I had more free time, I became a mentor scientist.

What did you learn about yourself by being a mentor-scientist for the clubs?
That I actually could work with young kids. I was really nervous my first day with the Kindergarten girls. I had played with a few young kids before, but that was usually one-on-one and with no agenda. Club is quite different. Lots of girls, and specific things to do, but we all survived. And in the end, we all had fun and learned something. They learned that science can be fun. And I learned that I can handle a group of five-year old girls (with the help of my co-mentor and junior mentors).

Has this experience changed your view about education?
That education starts young. I was starting to realize this around the time I started volunteering for SCFG, so this experience did not so much bring me to this view, but very strongly reinforced it. For a long time I had been thinking about how to improve the level of science understanding of students graduating from high school. And I was mainly thinking about how to improve science education at the high school level.

But, I realized that building a strong foundation in scientific understanding starts much earlier. And by working with SCFG, I saw that you really can start teaching science early.

Kindergarteners can understand a lot of concepts. While they might not call it the scientific method, they understand you make a guess, try it out, and see what happens.

What’s your favorite part about being a mentor-scientist?
I actually really enjoy just watching the girls working on their projects. It is always interesting to see how they figure something out, or see how far they can take a concept on their own.  And, of course, I enjoy seeing how much fun they have.

What is your favorite science demonstration?
I really like oobleck (the water/cornstarch suspension). I find it really cool that it’s a liquid that seems to harden when you apply pressure.  I actually had never heard of it before SCFG. And I found it so cool, that I made some when I got home to show my husband (who shared my enthusiasm). And the Kindergarten girls really liked it, too. I remember many of them proclaiming that they loved oobleck and were going to marry oobleck.

What advice do you have for a young girl?
Try lots of things, and try them more than once. You never know what you are going to like, and there is a good chance you may not like it until you’ve tried it a couple of times.  This is general advice, to be applied from food to TV shows to college courses.

What your favorite ice-cream flavor?
I love ice cream, but this is a hard question. It depends on what you mean by favorite. The ice cream flavor I probably eat most often is vanilla, as it is the perfect accompaniment to apple pie, brownies, cookies, etc.  But, if I were to only have access to one ice cream flavor for the rest of my life, I would probably choose Cookies and Cream. I don’t even like Oreos that much, but there is something about those chocolate wafers mixed into ice cream that is just irresistible.

Do you have a favorite sci-fi movie or TV show?
I can’t think of a favorite movie or TV show. However, Quantum Leap was the first sci-fi TV show I really watched. There are a lot that I watch and enjoy, but I can’t call any of them my favorite. However, I do have a favorite sci-fi novel: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. And I highly recommend it.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three people/things would you bring?
My daughter, my husband, and an endless supply of ice cream.

How will/do you encourage your children’s (if and when you have them) scientific interest?
Ask lots of questions. Ask them how they think things work. Ask them what they think will happen when they do something. I do plan on doing the household science projects with my daughter when she is older (right now she is only one), but I’ll be asking her questions while we do them. I think questions are the key. Use the projects to show them that it’s cool, but ask the questions to make them actually think about it and let them make connections about the science.

What are your hobbies?
My main hobby is cooking. I really enjoy making food. My interest started out with baking. I like making all sorts of goodies like cookies, cakes, muffins, and pies. And ice cream, I make lots of ice cream. There are always at least two different flavors of homemade ice cream in my freezer. And now I make a lot of savory dishes as well. It’s really fun to experiment. Recipes give a great framework to start, but then you can add or adjust ingredients to make it really good. I even keep a notebook for my ice cream recipes, with all sorts of notes on the variations to recipes I’ve tried. I also like crafting. I make paper crafts:  cards, paper flowers, etc. And lately I’ve taken up quilting.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
I’m still trying to figure this one out. I’ll let you know when I grow up.

Where did you grow up?
A town called Palmdale in California. It’s about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles in the high desert.

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