Interview by STEPHEN BILENKY and JOSH PALM
Jorge Natal, a science teacher at the Walker Middle Magnet School of International Studies in Odessa, Florida, talks about his experience in the MagLab’s Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program in the summer of 2015. Read the condensed interview below or scroll down to watch the entire interview.
How did you get into the field of science?
I got into the field of science wanting to study medicine. My full intent was to be a physician, of course. But as I went into my undergraduate studies I recognized that I had a gift in teaching. As much as I wanted to fight against it, it became my passion. And when I taught, I fell in love with those kids. I made all these plans to go to medical school, and said, “Ah well…I want to do this.”
How did you come to the RET Program?
When I was researching on what I could do for the summer, some people from my school spoke to me about different RET programs. I did some research, and was like, “Oh, well, the extra money sounds kind of nice as well…” I was able to find something suitable in Tallahassee, so I applied for it, and that’s how got into the RET program.
What is one of your favorite things about the RET Program? And also what is something you’re taking from the RET program to use in the classroom?
"It definitely has provided a level of respect from the students that I wouldn’t receive if it weren’t for the RET program."
- Jorge Natal
One of my favorite things is the sense of community you get with the colleagues you work with. As you’re here you learn to collaborate, have open ideas and share your experiences from the past that enable you to have something to look forward to, to bring back to your classroom. Things that, if you hadn’t had this experience, you would have never been able to share in the classroom.
Another thing I love about the RET program, especially here at the MagLab, is the ability for us to do a lot of hands-on work, and the ability to actually be treated as scientists. What I find here is a very unique opportunity for me to do scientific work. When I take the poster that I make at the lab, I put it in my classroom, I put it right behind me for the students to see. And what it does is provides a sense of respect from the students toward the teacher. They ask me questions about what I did, and they realize I’m in the classroom, I’m a teacher, but I’m definitely a scientist. It definitely has provided a level of respect from the students that I wouldn’t receive if it weren’t for the RET program.
You did research on ancient diets; how did you become interested in that subject matter?
The topic actually was not of interest to me initially. [The RET program director] asks for your background and the classes you’ve taken and that you’ve taught in your major and things like that. Mine was biology and a minor in chemistry. Geology, as interesting as it is, is not my forte. So when I first got that email that said I wasn’t going to be doing specifically biochemistry, I was a little upset. But when I saw what I was doing and saw these ancient fossils in my hand, it was so exciting.
To give you a more specific idea of what I was doing, we took fossils of teeth from different time periods, and we developed samples from the enamel. We did a chemical breakdown of their structural carbonates, and then took the structural carbonates into a mass spectrometer, and were able to analyze through the isotropic variation: what they ate, where they drank things, what climate, what area. It tells us a lot about what that particular species was doing at the time. It provides us more concrete evidence to be able to support what happened in the past.
You’ve been in the RET program before. How was your experience in the RET program this year different from other years?
To find out more about Natal's research, look at the poster he created with partner Mark Dignan.
The RET program the second time around was more beneficial than the first time around. The first time it was, again, an introduction and a very new experience for me. We work with graduate students and their professors to collaborate for these experiments. For me, the graduate student that I worked with was working on her thesis, and I helped her work on her thesis. So, the amount of work I did last year was substantial, but it was an introduction to the hands-on stuff. I got more of a knowledge base, was very intimidated by some of the technology that I’d never seen before and worked with it very minimally.
When I came back this year, and found that I was doing the same exact research, it was exciting. Dr. Yang Wang was the professor I was working with and Chelsea Bowman was the graduate student I was working with. They knew what I was doing, and had an understanding of what was going on. So they gave me a more independent experience. I knew how to use the equipment. I knew the variations to take into account. So I was able to do lots of hands-on work, and the hands-on work I was able to do was completely independent.
And that was a great feeling, to know that not only have I enhanced my skills as an educator, not only have I enhanced my skills as a scientist, but now I’m given the professional independence to do the work, and to bring it into the office with Dr. Wang and go over the data with her and say, “These are my possibilities.” So as you come back each year, you work on the same research, the interesting thing is that you’re able to collaborate and behave as if you were working at the lab full time. So it’s definitely a benefit to come back and do the same research.