Cary Scheiderer, Ph.D., likes to mix in a little adventure with her science.

Cary Scheiderer (far right) discusses the olfactory system of sheep with area high-school students as part of the Summer Science Institute.

That helps explain why she joined the Peace Corps in March 2005 after finishing her doctorate in neurobiology in the lab of Lori McMahon, Ph.D.  Her assignment was in the West African country of Burkina Faso, and she taught biology, botany and geology.

“I knew when I graduated I wanted to switch gears somehow and not stay in a research position,” Scheiderer explains. “I’ve wanted to be in the Peace Corps since I was 5. I remember seeing the commercials when I was little thinking to myself, I’m going to do that.”

Scheiderer returned to UAB in September 2007, joining the Community Outreach and Development (CORD) program as coordinator of the LabWorks! program at the McWane Center and as coursemaster in the Summer Science Institute. Scheiderer has been teaching Advanced Principles of Molecular Biology and Neuroscience to high-school sophomores and juniors and coordinating an eight-week research internship for juniors and seniors. A Science Education Partnership Award from the NIH/NCRR funds the programs.

“I think I have the best post-doc position on campus,” she says. “My office is at the McWane Center during the school year, and I get to work with different groups of children every day. Then during the summer I get to come here and work with the best and brightest high-school students I’ve ever met. I love my job, and I feel very lucky.”

Instant results
Scheiderer certainly trained herself well for her role.

The Wisconsin native came to UAB in 1999 after graduating from the University of Minnesota at Duluth. “The faculty there highly recommended UAB’s cellular and molecular biology, biochemistry and neurobiology programs,” she says.

She studied Alzheimer’s disease in McMahon’s lab, but knew she wanted to do more after graduation. The lab work — while important — didn’t satisfy her itch to see instant results.

“Being in a research lab is wonderful; you are doing something good, but it’s so hard to see and measure the progress,” Scheiderer says. “At that time I wanted to do something where I could really see the progress and feel like I was doing something good.”

She left for the Peace Corps and the small village of Matiakoali in Burkina Faso. Her village in the former French colony had no electricity and no running water. She learned French in three months and taught science and English classes in the language.  Her supplies — which had to last the entire year — consisted of two boxes of white chalk and one box of colored chalk.

Her classrooms were slightly larger than a standard U.S. high-school classroom, but there were 120 students sitting three to a bench. There were windows on either side of the room, but no glass, so the weather determined the indoor temperature.

The standards of the schools were high due to the village’s French heritage, but the resources for the students and teachers were not plentiful.

“A lot of students didn’t have textbooks,” Scheiderer says. “It was first-come, first served to get textbooks. About one-third of the students would get them. When I had to teach I basically had to replicate the textbook on the board, drawing diagrams, figures and everything. It was very, very challenging.”

Better teacher
Scheiderer is confident the experience made her a better teacher, and Mike Wyss, Ph.D., believes it, too.

Wyss, the director of CORD, says Scheiderer’s experiences make her well equipped to teach science in a way that engages children and encourages them to experiment.

“Cary brings a fantastic amount of energy and knowledge of neuroscience and cell biology that can really make the students have an understanding of the sciences and get them excited about pursuing science education and careers,” Wyss says.

“It’s intriguing that Cary now has had science-education positions in underdeveloped schools in Africa and minority and under-served schools in the United States. She has gained great insights from both experiences on how to foster science education among urban and under-served youth.”

Scheiderer spends her days with middle-school students at the McWane Center during the academic year as part of the LabWorks! program. There she teaches labs focusing on HIV education, the anatomy of the eye, the effects of pollution on water fleas, effects of UV radiation on bacteria, the physics of a roller coaster and study of a crime scene investigation.

“The students really like those labs,” Scheiderer says. “In one of the labs we look at drops of pond water under a microscope. When they look at that they turn and look at me and ask if that really is in the water; I see their eyes opening and learning about things that are out there in the world around them, and that excites me. I love seeing kids excited by science and the sense of discovery.”