The Voice of Stem Cell Research

On Monday, Rush Limbaugh became the unwitting spokesperson for stem cell research with his criticism of Michael J. Fox’s unsteady appearance. Instead of banning Limbaugh from the human race, perhaps we should thank him, not for his criticism of Fox, who is obviously suffering, but for the attention that Limbaugh inadvertently gave to the controversial issue of stem cell research.

No matter what you think of Rush Limbaugh, his syndicated radio program has a weekly audience of about 10 million. People listen to his show. In fact, when Limbaugh reacted negatively on the air to Michael J. Fox’s campaign ads, Limbaugh instantly gave Fox a 10 million-listener voice. Many of Limbaugh’s listeners probably followed up his program by doing what I did. I watched videos of Fox’s compelling ads urging voters in Missouri to support candidates who back stem cell research.

Michael J. Fox’s head bobbed from side to side, almost leaving the video frame as he urged voters to elect candidates who support research that could lead to a cure for the disease that has debilitated him. I found it difficult to watch Fox’s restless torso weave and writhe, jerking and swaying uncontrollably from seemingly advanced symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. I thank Rush Limbaugh for bringing Fox’s condition to my attention.

Michael J. Fox’s campaign ad:

Michael J. Fox has lent his name, passion and drive toward the development of a cure for Parkinson’s disease, a cure which includes promoting stem cell research, by establishing the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in May 2000.

Another actor also used his voice to back stem cell research. Christopher Reeve believed that embryonic stem cell research would allow him to walk again one day. Reeve lent his name to the organization, which became known as The Christopher Reeve Foundation, dedicated to curing spinal cord injury by funding innovative research. Reeve believed his damaged spinal cord cells might be repaired by tissue generated by stem cells. Unfortunately for Reeve, stem cell research was still too young to help him.

In 2002, Reeve said that the stem cell issue was not about ethics, “… you’re actually saving lives by using cells that are going to the garbage …I just don’t see how that’s immoral or unethical. I really don’t.”

Before you point out the fallacies of Reeve’s statement, or support him empathically on the benefits of stem cell research, please read the current methods for and results from current research. I am weary of reading both pro-life and scientific opinion essays full of outdated and erroneous science.

Stem cell technology is advancing so rapidly that what Reeve stated might have been true in 2002, but is not true in 2006. In 2002, most embryos used for stem cell research were fertilized eggs that parents had decided not to use for pregnancy, so otherwise would have been discarded. Scientists had not yet begun creating embryos specifically for stem cell research.

Most cells within an animal fulfill a single function, like skin, heart or blood. Stem cells are unique and important cells that are not specialized — cells that retain the ability to become many or all of the different types of cell types in the body — making them useful to produce large amounts of one cell type to test new drugs for effectiveness, regenerate injured tissue or even grow organs for transplant.

If medical personnel could use an adult ear cell, for example, as a blank stem cell that could be stimulated to grow damaged tissue, then the controversy of 2006 might be eliminated. But the sources of stem cells to be used for research, as listed from the 2003 Report for Congress, force a heated dispute that may have no immediate resolution.

Sources of Stem Cells for Research
• 1-week-old embryos created via IVF for the treatment of infertility
• 5-to-9 week-old embryos or fetuses obtained through elective abortion
• embryos created via IVF for research purposes
• embryos created via SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer), which is cloning
• adult tissues (bone marrow, umbilical cord blood)

An August 9, 2001, President Bush announced that for the first time federal funds could be used to support research on human embryonic stem cells, but funding would be limited to “existing stem cell lines where the life and death decision has already been made.”

Even with the limitations set by Bush for funding, stem cell research has made many advances. It is my hope that Michael J. Fox’s and Christopher Reeve’s voices will help to ensure that stem cell research can be used to help cure the debilitating diseases that exist today. The following are a few recent news updates found on the Stem Cell Research Foundation Web site:

Fat Stem Cells Being Studied As Option For Breast Reconstruction 10/26/2006
Adapted from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

Breast cancer survivors might one day avoid the prospect of invasive breast reconstruction surgery, opting instead for an approach that would involve using stem cells derived from their own fat to regenerating new breast tissue.

Insulin-Producing Pancreatic Cells Are Created From Human Embryonic Stem Cells 10/20/2006
Adapted from Novocell, Inc.

Novocell, Inc. announced the development of a process that efficiently converts human embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing pancreatic endocrine cells. The findings are reported in an article appearing on-line, in advance of print publication, in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Stem Cells Extend Life Of Rats With Animal Model Of Lou Gehrig’s Disease 10/17/2006
Adapted from the following source: Neuralstem, Inc.

Human neural stem cells developed by Neuralstem, Inc. significantly extended the life of rats with a genetic mutation that gives them a disease analogous to Lou Gehrig’s Disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and delayed disease onset, according to a paper published in the October 2006 issue of the journal Transplantation.

Will Embryonic Stem Cells Help Treat Macular Degeneration? 9/21/2006
Adapted from the following source: Advanced Cell Technology
Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. announced that company scientists and their collaborators rescued visual function in rats through implantation of retinal pigment epithelial (RPE)* cells derived from human embryonic stem cells.

Researchers Grow Nerve, Bone and Blood Vessel Cells From Adult Pig Stem Cells 9/19/2006
Adapted from the following source: University of Missouri-Columbia

A University of Missouri (UM) researcher has isolated adult stem cells from blood that can be directed to turn into five types of cells, including bone, blood vessel and nerve cells. The study is the cover article in the August edition of Stem Cells and Development

Scientists Develop Technique That May Generate Human Embryonic Stem Cells Without Harming The Embryo 8/23/2006
Adapted from the following source: Advanced Cell Technology

Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. (ACT) reported that they have developed a technique that may successfully generate human embryonic stem cells using an approach that does not harm embryos. The technique is reported in an article appearing online in the journal Nature. ACT’s approach could generate human embryonic stem cells from a single cell obtained from an 8-cell-stage embryo and does not destroy the embryo’s developmental potential.

“Report for Congress,” on The United States Department of State Web site:

Stem Cell Research Foundation:

“Reeve: Fund embryonic stem cell research,” on

Unexcused Absence

With this letter, I am resigning my position as sixth grade math and science teacher …

My decision to leave the classroom was a difficult one because I enjoy working with children. If you had asked me as a small girl what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have replied, “I want to be a teacher.” I could not imagine doing anything else. Yet, my love for teaching dwindled until I became burned out and weary. I don’t remember a single event that caused my effectiveness to die. It occurred slowly in an ongoing progression of parent-teacher conferences, meetings, report cards, and paperwork that I had previously accepted as the work that made teaching possible.

Feeling depressed about my decision to leave the classroom, I decided to do some research into the profession that makes up four percent of the work force. I learned that there are five times as many teachers as lawyers and professors, and twice as many as registered nurses. I was shocked to discover that nearly one thousand teachers leave the field of teaching every school day. The cost of replacing teachers is a staggering 4.9 billion dollars a year.

Teacher shortage continues to be a problem even with new aggressive teacher recruitment processes. Experts predict that we will need more than 2 million new teachers in the next decade. Moreover, shortages are most acute in urban and rural schools and in high-need subject areas such as special education, math, and science.

The statistics for turnover among new teachers are shocking. About 20 percent of all new hires leave the classroom within three years. In inner-city schools (like the one I taught at in Raleigh, NC), the numbers are even worse, with as many as 50 percent of new teachers fleeing the profession during their first five years of teaching.

Why do new teachers leave?
The first-year teacher with no experience is typically assigned the same tasks as a veteran teacher. Moreover, the new teachers get the teaching assignments that the veterans don’t want, like remedial classes. New teachers say they feel overwhelmed, isolated, and unsupported. They enter their first classroom confident they will change the world. But, discipline problems, angry parents and the tremendous workload soon undermine that confidence.

Current research shows that teacher shortages are not caused by a deficit in the supply of teachers as formerly thought, but rather a revolving door, where teachers depart their jobs for reasons other than retirement. When asked why they left the teaching profession, teachers list the following as the reasons for fleeing:
• Lack of job satisfaction and the desire to find a better job — 42% of teachers site this as their reason for leaving
• Too heavy a work load
• Lack of planning time
• Low salaries
• Insufficient support from administrators
• Discipline problems and problematic student behavior
• Inadequate decision-making power over school policy

For me, it was a combination of all these factors. Contrary to the belief that teachers work only seven hours per day, my workday began at 7 A.M. and ended 12 to 14 hours later. In addition, I worked about ten hours each weekend writing lesson plans and grading papers. Any effective teacher puts in similar long hours. If they do not, then they are not a good teacher, period. Teaching students is only a small part of the job. I spent the majority of my working hours planning lessons, preparing materials, grading papers and meeting with and phoning parents. Administrative meetings, conferences, and duties such as bus and cafeteria monitoring were additional requirements.

Most teachers cannot afford the luxury of taking the summers off. That is a myth believed only by folks who have never looked at a teacher’s paycheck. During my summers off, I wrote grants, taught summer school, worked as an intern in a pathology lab, waitressed, and anything else that enabled me to live throughout the next school year on my teacher’s salary.

Teacher compensation ensures that revolving door stays open. Teachers are still paid less than professionals of comparable education and skills. Money talks. It tells scientists and mathematicians that we do not want them in our classrooms. School districts simply cannot pay a graduate with a chemistry degree a wage comparable to what they could make in a chemistry lab.

There is consensus among educators that the single most important factor driving student achievement is quality teachers. However, that consensus falls apart outside the educational arena. Teachers are not valued and respected for their contributions, even though many successful people attribute their success to one of their teachers.

Perhaps part of the lack of respect for teachers stems from the fact that teaching has been a female dominated field. And further, perhaps part of the shortage of teachers is a direct result of women choosing careers other than teaching, leaving holes in the schools that will need to be filled.

I am happy to be embarking on this new chapter of my life as an educational researcher. While it will never be as rewarding teaching, it also does not come with all the pressures and stress of the everyday life of a classroom teacher.

I congratulate teachers everywhere for the tremendous job they are doing everyday, despite terrific odds stacked against their success.

Further Reading:
Attracting and Keeping Quality Teachers:

Of Teacher Shortages and Quality:

School Districts Approve Plans to Link Teacher Pay with Student Performance:

Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States:

Teachers and the Quality of Education:

Teacher Turnover, Teacher Shortages, and the Organization of Schools:

Click to access Turnover-Ing-01-2001.pdf

Pulse of Autumn

A new tang of autumn leaves and goldenrod in the air bring the bittersweet nostalgia of summer’s end in my new short story, “Pulse of Autumn.”

I’m dedicating this story to my husband Harry because he made its birth possible. We’ve taken the same morning walk for nearly two years, but it wasn’t until Harry read a few of Hal Borland’s nature editorials aloud to me that I began to focus on more than thoughts of the day ahead. Now, each morning I see the greys of dawn brighten into the lush green grass of the carefully manicured corner lot. I hear squirrels chatter angrily as we pass the nodding roses that mark our half-way point. I notice the acorns that crunch under our sneakers as we pass beneath the tall oak whose colors are just beginning to turn.