We often see memorials written about famous scientists, but we rarely see them about the people who work in the background to help people learn the science in the first place. Ron was one of those people whose work inspired teachers and helped spark excitement in science students throughout the world.
I just learned last week that Ron passed away and I'm still in a state of shock.
I met Ron ten years ago at the first BIO teachers' conference. I was a conference volunteer, working on the teachers' program planning committee and representing Bio-Link. BIO 99 was the first time that the Biotechnology Industry Organization had ever offered anything for teachers, but Immunex was a strong supporter of science education and they pushed to give teachers a place at the table. The teachers' program was an unparalleled success and a large part of that was because of Ron Mardigian and the team of Bio-Rad educators who swept into town and left teachers inspired and ready to go out and clone DNA.
That was an opportune meeting for me. I was fortunate to be able to meet Ron and invite his traveling team of scientist-educators to come to Seattle afterwards and share their knowledge and expertise with our local high school teachers and college instructors.
The Bio-Rad Explorer program that Ron led has been a major force in bringing genetic engineering, molecular biology, cloning, and protein purification to high school classrooms. Many students would have been able to do those types of experiments without Bio-Rad kits. I think it's safe to say that Bio-Rad has been instrumental in advancing the state of science education and Ron was one of the people to thank.
What makes the Bio-Rad Explorer program so important for science education?
During the past twenty years, I've seen many excellent, small outreach groups work to jump start biology education and infuse modern science into high school and college courses. They're always staffed with enthusiastic young scientists, carrying freshly-minted PhD's, who are going to change the world through science education. There's no questions that the outreach programs are wonderful things.
But sustainability is hard.
Funding gets harder to obtain once a program ceases to be shiny and new. After a few years, the young PhD scientists get a little bored with making buffers and stocking kits. They come to realize that schools are not able to invest in the proper equipment or pay someone with the necessary expertise to prepare the reagents needed for molecular biology work.
Even in community colleges, it can be difficult to get qualified lab help. (What? Magnesium isn't pink? Oh sure, that's what you say.) I spent ten years preparing materials for my biotech labs, in addition to my full-time teaching position, so I can speak from experience. Preparing the lab reagents for biotech classes is an enormous amount of work and a tremendous burden on teachers. I don't know how high school teachers, who usually lack the proper scientific training, and often see 150 students, in 5-6 courses a day, could possibly manage to prepare reagents and media, too. (I don't even know how they find the time to grade assignments!) Hiring a qualified person to make media and buffers just isn't an option for many schools or school districts.
Bio-Rad, with the infrastructure for preparing kits and doing quality control has allowed science education to benefit from the economy of scale. The ability to order materials ready made and pre-packaged has been a great boon to science education worldwide.
Bio-Rad, Ron, and the Bio-Rad education team have been instrumental in maintaining the excitement created by the outreach groups and helping modern biology persist in modern schools.
Good-bye old friend. We're saddened by your loss but grateful for your legacy. I'm sure that every student who's used a Bio-Rad kit to clone DNA, run a gel, or purify green fluorescent protein thanks you. I already know the teachers do.