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From sea urchins to stoichiometry: one researcher's journey back to high school

After a lengthy career in biochemistry research, some of which took place at the Beckman Institute, Ana Vieira never imagined stepping back into Chemistry 101. But for the past 10 years, she has been doing just that, transforming students of Tri-Point High School in rural Cullom, Illinois into budding young scientists. "Arnold Beckmans," to be specific.
Published on March 17, 2023

Ana Viera, a woman with glasses and asymmetrical short brown hair. She is smiling while wearing a black sweater and a grey scarf.Ana Vieira, who formerly conducted research at UIUC and is now a teacher at Tri-Point High School.Among the pivotal documents in Ana Vieira’s life — a Ph.D. diploma in biochemistry, a passport stamped with numerous countries, her children's birth certificates — is a yellow Post-It note.

The unassuming scrap of paper, punctuated with hastily scrawled acronyms and half-baked plans for Vieira’s first day as a high school substitute teacher, is a reminder of one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking seasons of her life: one that followed a nearly 30-year research career.

Vieira’s postsecondary research focused on the biochemistry of fertilization using sea urchin models. When her husband was offered the opportunity to finish his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she fast-tracked her own dissertation to join him.

At UIUC, Vieira completed her postdoc in molecular cloning in the Department of Animal Sciences, later transitioning to a lab management role within the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Vieira’s husband began working at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in 2005. Three years later, Vieira joined the Phil Newmark Lab. In Beckman Institute’s Microscopy Suite, she collaborated with Scott Robinson and Cate Wallace to develop electron microscopy protocols for the lab’s research projects.

“Beckman became our second home because it was my husband’s lab for a while, but then it was part of my job,” Vieira said. “I was there all the time.”

After family circumstances prompted a move in 2015, the Vieiras found themselves in the tiny town of Cullom, Illinois, population 500. The town’s most famous former resident is none other than Arnold O. Beckman, founder of the Beckman Institute.

A new career in Cullom

On the heels of a prominent research career spanning several decades, Vieira’s next step took her all the way back to Chemistry 101.

“When we left Champaign, I kind of had to reinvent myself because my kids were little,” Vieira said. “I needed something more 9-to-5, which lab work rarely is. So I went through this phase that was really depressing because I had all this education, all this experience, and I was in the middle of nowhere applying to jobs left and right, hearing one ‘no’ after another because I was overqualified.”

It was then that Vieira’s godmother and lifelong educator Garris Graham suggested substitute teaching.

Initially apprehensive, Vieira agreed to complete the licensing process, though it did not prepare her for the culture shock she encountered on that first day.

“When you’re a scientist, your lab book has every detail, every procedure, every step,” she said. “But that morning I walked into this single piece of paper. It was very bare bones with lots of acronyms I didn’t recognize. I had no idea what I was looking at. I called the principal in a panic. But I made it to the end of the day and realized it wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t teaching biochemistry, but I liked it.”

After three years as a long-term substitute and paraprofessional, Vieira was approached by the school’s principal, who advocated for her to obtain education credentials and consider teaching full-time.

“I thought, ‘do I really want this after already doing my bachelor’s, master’s, Ph.D., and postdoc?” she said. “Am I really going to do this at almost 50?”

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, Vieira enrolled in an accelerated post-baccalaureate program that allowed her to cram all her required teaching courses into 18 months.

“It was absolute insanity,” she said, “and I was an adult with a full-time job. It was brutal, because I had a full workload on top of coaching Scholastic Bowl, taking classes, and being a mom. But it was worth it.”

Advocating for equity in the classroom

The most jarring change for Vieira, now a licensed teacher, was the stark contrast between the expensive, fully equipped labs she had grown accustomed to in her former career as a research scientist and the sparse classroom where she was now in charge.

“When I taught biochemistry at the college level, I had access to everything. And then I walked into this high school classroom, and it was bare bones. I thought, 'You cannot teach chemistry on dry erase markers and PowerPoints. You can’t do that. You’ve got to bring science and discovery and inquiry into the hands of kids.'”

Early on, Vieira became concerned about her small-town students’ lack of exposure to outside opportunities.

“When you live in a place like Champaign-Urbana and are so immersed in that bubbling, buzzing, multicultural, highly academic environment, you start to take it for granted. And when you move to a school that’s this remote, most of the kids don’t even have access to all the information and opportunities that are out there,” she said.

In fact, it was a chance discovery by 9-year-old Arnold Beckman that formed the foundation of his future career as a renowned inventor and philanthropist. An unassuming chemistry book was the unexpected treasure tucked away in the gnarled treasure-chest attic of the Beckman family farmhouse in Cullom, and it quickly became the impetus for his never-ending stream of scientific questions.

“We need to produce more [Arnold] Beckmans. We need to make that connection. We need to bring the reality of his drive, grit, and creativity to this space. And that’s why I really started working to establish a bond between Tri-Point High School, Cullom, and [the Beckman Institute],” Vieira said.

That pursuit for equity led Vieira back home — to the Beckman Institute. Since 2018, Tri-Point High School has made the biennial pilgrimage to the Beckman Institute Open House, which will take place this year on March 31 and April 1, 2023.

“Some people view [the trip] as a privilege,” Vieira said. “But this is a class assignment. My students need to see opportunities. They need to see all the science and the development and the research and all the incredible doors available to them. They need to see and experience and walk through these hallways and meet all the people and make the connections. This is not a ‘field trip.’ This is a class assignment, and it’s non-negotiable.”

Tour groupAna Vieira's classroom visiting the Beckman Institute in 2018.

“Cool to be a geek”: adapting Beckman’s rules for success

While Vieira quickly fell in love with Cullom’s small-town appeal, it was a few years before she learned of the connection between her new home and the founder of the Beckman Institute.

“Sometimes those little details elude you. It was just serendipitous that I landed here. I am here because my family relocated, and it is what it is. Life floats sometimes,” she said.

Serendipitous, indeed, given the subconscious crossover between Vieira’s teaching philosophy and Arnold Beckman’s 7 Rules for Success. The latter, displayed prominently in the institute's exhibit about Arnold Beckman, are evident in Vieira’s classroom. Vieira lives and breathes rule No. 6: acquire new knowledge and always ask why.

“My approach to teaching is very inquiry-based,” Vieira said. “One of my life mottos is, ‘allow yourself to be fascinated.’ Troubleshooting, looking at a problem, knowing how to ask a question, knowing how to establish an approach, that is what I’m going for. You shouldn’t go through life not being able to think, ‘huh, I wonder why that is?’ because that is the seed for scientific inquiry. Allow yourself to be fascinated.”

Another rule for success Vieira and her students embrace? Don’t take yourself too seriously.

“I have no qualms,” Vieira said. “Nothing embarrasses me. When you start your research on reproductive matters and you have to do semen collections every weekend, nothing embarrasses you. Nothing. I’m a geek chemist. So I think the students feel safe. At first, I think they think I’m a little weird, but eventually you can tell they’re buying into it.”

Vieira sometimes hears her younger students voice concerns over the perceived social implications of pursuing their scientific interests.

“There can be a mentality of ‘school’s not cool, because it’s not cool to be a geek,’” she said. “But I think it’s pretty cool to be a geek, because you’re learning new things. When I get excited, they can’t help but geek out with me. I think excitement is contagious in a classroom, the same way apathy can be contagious. I am of the belief that if you geek out enough, eventually they feel safe. And this classroom is a safe space. You can geek out all you want.”

Vieira’s ambitions for her students extend beyond the classroom.

“If they can get out of my room knowing how to organize their thoughts, practice logical reasoning, identify fallacies, be intentional about inquiry, discern what is reputable evidence, then any content goes,” she said. “That is fundamental; it applies anywhere.”

Regardless of their future career paths, Vieira is proud of the educational foundations paved for her students at Tri-Point.

“Even if they are not running experiments on a bench, they are learning to be young scientists by taking the time to absorb information, process it, and reason with it,” she said.

“Science is not done, ever. Every question you answer opens a plethora of other questions.”