Story by Kathy McPherson
To say Gerty Ward grew up in a family of scientists is an understatement. Her grandparents, Carl Cori and Gerty Cori, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1947. Her father, who holds a Ph.D., was head of the chemical company Sigma-Aldrich. But coming from a family of renowned scientists made Ward determined to follow a different path.
“All kids go through their rebellious period. So I went through my rebellious period. I didn't want anything to do with science,” she said. “I came from a family of scientists, and I tried not to be one.”
Armed with an economics degree from Vassar College, Ward took a job with Citibank in Boston but soon realized it wasn’t for her. “I didn't like my job, the future I saw for myself just wasn't interesting to me. I remember calling my dad and saying ‘I think I need to go back to school to get my prerequisites so I can go to grad school.’”
Ward moved back to her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri; took courses in calculus, chemistry and physics; worked in a lab at Washington University where she met her husband, Eric Ward; and started down a road that would lead to teaching eighth-grade science and serving as assistant director of Durham Academy Middle School.
Ward moved south for her husband to work on a postdoc at N.C. State University, and soon afterward she began graduate school at NCSU. Ward was awarded a McCarthy Foundation fellowship for three years of Ph.D. graduate study, “which was really a big deal. Everyone else was earning $7,000 a year and I earned $12,000.” She worked in a lab and as a teaching assistant and graduated with a Ph.D. in molecular biology in 1994.
It was at NCSU that Ward discovered she had a talent for teaching. “I knew I was a good teacher from my days in graduate school. I always got the highest rating [from students], and it was very rewarding.”
Ward spent a year and a half in Switzerland for her husband’s job, and then the family settled in Durham with twins Carl and Fred (DA ’11) and daughter Alice (DA ’15) attending Durham Academy. It was 2005, and Ward was looking for something to do when she heard about a job opening for a Middle School science teacher at DA. She hurried to apply and got the job.
“I've grown to absolutely love the middle school animal, especially eighth-graders. What they really want is someone to hear them and listen to them. They need guidance and structure, and I'm good at that."
“I started [at DA] teaching sixth grade and eighth grade, and they are really different. That's because sixth-graders still want to please you and all that. In eighth grade, they're like, prove to me, demonstrate to me, that I should be paying attention to you. I really think teaching is like sales, and for 45 minutes, my job is to sell to you to listen to me, do what I tell you and lead you down a path of learning. It's an unusual eighth-grader that is self-motivated, so the job of the teacher is to motivate.”
Ward’s favorite students are those who may not think they are good in science — and she loves watching them become successful. “I have many examples of that, and that's why I teach. A lot of girls don't think they are good in science. To be the best student you can be, you've got to have confidence more than anything else, and you have to have trust in the teacher. So I try to be super fair, as transparent as I can, and build their confidence. … I don't suffer fools gladly or whatever you say when you come to class and you goof off and you don't pay attention. I always tell the student who does that, you're disrespecting me but you're really disrespecting yourself because you aren't being the best student you can be.”
Science class has changed due to the realities of the pandemic and DA operating remotely last spring and in hybrid mode this fall. Ward and other DA teachers are adapting, developing new techniques in a challenging environment where they are serving three student populations at the same time — with half of their students on campus, half of them learning from home, and an additional group of fully remote students.
“One of the things that has been popular last spring and now are what are called kitchen science activities. This fall, we're assigning one every week or 10 days [students have already done two this school year, one on measurements and one on density]. … We can have one set up here and you can do it at home at the same time, and then you can talk to your classmates about what's going on. We've gotten really positive feedback. We've been able to keep the hands-on activities even though we can't be all hands-on in the classroom.”
She describes teaching as being “an all-consuming job for nine months of the year.” During the other three months, Ward is likely to be outdoors. She went camping with her family as a child, and the Ward family of five has camped from Jordan Lake to Chile. She loves biking and has been on week-long cycling trips with her husband out West and in Norway.
The family has lived abroad twice — in Switzerland and in England — for her husband’s job, and Ward thinks “it's really important to take a break from your life if possible. I'm very, very lucky to have been able to do that, very lucky because it gives you perspective. I always tell people it was so much fun to go and it was so much fun to come home, there are positives in both of those. I couldn't even tell you what you're going to learn. Everyone will learn something different, but you will learn a valuable lesson.”
Ward took another break in summer 2008 when she spent five weeks on a Canadian ice-breaker in the Arctic Ocean. As part of the PolarTREC science teacher at sea program, she was embedded with scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, reporting on and making videos on experiments that were taking place 24/7 on the ship.
It was a good fit for Ward because DA’s eighth-grade science curriculum is earth science.
“I took what I learned there, and I have applied it to the unit where we talk about how the energy flows through the earth system and what's going on in the Arctic. I always tell my students that they're going to be running the world and I'm going to be in an old folks home in the rocking chair. So if you're going to make an informed decision on climate change, you need to understand what runs our climate. What we were measuring up there was the salinity in the ocean, which is one of the drivers of what moves the energy from the equator to the pole. It's part of that engine. I learned firsthand how much data has to be collected for you to say the Arctic is warming.”
Ward acknowledges that there is an emotional component to discussions about climate change. “What I hope to do is give them the confidence and the skills to look at it scientifically because there are all kinds of claims out there. You know, the world's going to heat up and we're all going to boil over in 10 years. I am a very optimistic person. As humans, we have solved all kinds of problems. … I think it's important that they have the confidence to look at a system, to go, ‘this isn't working,’ to doubt what someone's telling them and then be able to look at the problem and propose a solution and understand the ramifications of their solution. Because every solution has another problem, whether it’s [about] medication or making the choice between [doing] your math homework and your science homework.”
Ward believes it’s important that what students learn in school has a relationship to their lives. “I think it's my job as a teacher to connect the skill I'm teaching you, that we are learning together even in the classroom because certainly they teach me things every day, that it has an application to your life. Otherwise, it's learning in a vacuum.”
That means applying the principles of scientific thinking to real-life situations. Ward’s classroom motto is: “When in doubt, doubt — and then have the confidence and skills to collect the data to make the appropriate choice.”
She wants students to trust their instincts. “When in doubt, you're probably right. You probably do have a reason to doubt and question. And so the whole point of doubting is to go, OK, what data, what information do I need in order to make an accurate decision here? … That's how scientific thinking helps you in life, like when you have to pick a mate or evaluate two different mortgages. You don't have to have math skills to do that. You just have to be able to look at them and compare. And what is the evidence to pick the one? I think we don't do our kids a service if we don't connect the skills that we're teaching in class to where they can apply in life.”