Educator Profile- Catherine Reyes, PhD

This is my second installment of incredible teacher profiles. Today I’d like to introduce you to another of our high school science teachers, Dr. Catherine Reyes.

Dr. Reyes’ father was born in Guam, a native Chamorro (the indigenous people of the Mariana Islands). He served in the US Air Force and military intelligence, ultimately working for the State Department as a diplomatic courier in the foreign service. He is fluent in Chamorro, English, Spanish, German, and Thai, and conversant in several other languages. It was during his diplomatic travels to Trinidad that he met his wife, who was born of Chinese parents and worked in the American Embassy. They subsequently moved to Washington, DC, where Dr. Reyes was born.

Most of Dr. Reyes’ childhood was spent in Frankfurt, Germany and Bangkok, Thailand. As a child she learned German and Thai, and traveled extensively in Europe and Asia. This breadth of cultural experience left her with an abiding sense of the world’s variety of languages, religions, and customs, while at the same time developing a sense of shared humanity. This recognition of the simultaneous variety and unity of human experience was foundational in Dr. Reyes’ education. Holding the differences and the familiar in solution as a child also taught her the importance of empathy.

The family moved to Miami in time for Dr. Reyes to attend high school. Now being educated on her third continent, her interests led her to creative writing, and she was chosen to edit the school’s literary magazine. Writing allowed her to conquer her shyness and find her voice. At the same time, reading Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman, she discovered a fledgling interest in physics. At the time science was strictly a male student pursuit, but Dr. Reyes broke the gender boundary. She was particularly interested in engineering and applied science, and in ways to identify human needs and solve problems.

Dr. Reyes applied to college thinking that she would pursue her interest in poetry and fiction. She decided to attend MIT, where she double majored in Literature and Material Science & Engineering. In the science arena, she studied an emerging field – polymer surfaces that could resist coating by proteins and bodily fluids. In other words, she designed surfaces of surgical devices and implants that could successfully resist all the biological forces the body could throw at it. Her research resulted in applying a coating of atomic level brushes, which today are used in catheters and tissue engineering.

Upon graduation Dr. Reyes interviewed to become a corporate research scientist. Feeling that her imagined career path would leave her unfulfilled, she instead applied to graduate school. She spent the next six years at Georgia Tech, working in a bio-engineering laboratory and earning her PhD. It was in that lab that she met her husband.

The lab afforded Dr. Reyes the opportunity to further her study of the interaction of material and biological surfaces. Specifically, she looked at how cells behave when they encounter other bodies – how they explore other surfaces and interact with them. For example, she looked at how certain proteins encourage bone cells to grow. If she could discover a coating to put on metal implants used to repair broken bones, she could effect better integration between a foreign substance and biological tissue. Her solution was to mimic the structure and signaling activity of collagen, which attracts bone cells and strengthens the bond between metal and bone. The sequence of the synthetic protein that Dr. Reyes designed, as well as the method of coating the metal, has been patented.

While earning her PhD in Bio-Engineering, Dr. Reyes taught in primary schools and invited high school students to study on campus. She became interested in how students learn science, and how they might become citizens in a rapidly changing technological world. This led her to a science policy internship with the National Academy of Sciences, where she helped scientists communicate with the public as well as with Congress. There followed a two-year stint with a corporate research department in San Diego, where she worked on protein-based drug development, and then a career in writing grant proposals while she began to raise three children.

Gradually, Dr. Reyes returned to her core interests, the role of scientists in the community and teaching students science. She became the education director of the Triangle Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and included Duke, UNC, NC State, and NCCU. While at the Center she trained graduate students, oversaw undergraduate research projects, and reached out to local public schools. Her insight during this period concerned how students erected barriers to scientific learning. Students brought to the lab their own fear of failure, the assumption that all experiments would lead to clear and inevitable conclusions, and the confidence that they could memorize their way to understanding a static world. Dr. Reyes’ challenge was to open students’ minds to a dynamic world and the scientific pursuit of endless questioning, to clear the mind of preconceived ideas that prevented accurate observation. For four years at the Center, she worked on student observation skills, being comfortable with uncertainty, and developing hypotheses.

This foundational thinking about the scientific process started in college, where Dr. Reyes had encountered Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom. In philosophy classes she had been frustrated by the phenomenology of Kant and Hegel, in which there was a strict duality between the known and the unknown worlds. Steiner offered more of a continuum. Like Goethe, he was grounded in the world of phenomena. The world, however, was not static but dynamic – a video more than a photograph. To understand a flower, for example, the observer has to take into consideration the dynamic trajectory from seed to blossom to return to carbon. It is a moving picture made possible by intuitive thinking, which reconciles perception and idea. Thus the phenomenal world and the world of ideas are unified by applying the notion of metamorphosis, which Steiner also applied to the developing child. It is this insight that allowed Dr. Reyes to open the minds of high school students thinking about science.

The work at the Center and her reading in Steiner ultimately led Dr. Reyes to Emerson Waldorf. Her major teaching blocks include Anatomy and Physiology, Embryology, Cell Biology, Botany, and Zoology. The sequence of these courses align, according to Dr. Reyes, with the development of the high school student, who moves from examining the self to considering the process of development to expanding the imagination to considering the outside world. She also teaches Organic and Inorganic Chemistry, Bio-Chemistry, and Environmental Science.

The latter elective allows her to combine science and social justice. It also invites her students to think about the farm as central to the entire educational process. Students are tasked with designing the farm as a place of education and community, taking into consideration natural elements (soil, water, energy, nutrients), larger structures (permaculture), and human interaction with the environment that invites not sustainable but regenerative use of the land. Dr. Reyes and her students will help integrate the farm into our entire curriculum, and will help us educate, engage, and work with the larger community.

"It is awe inspiring," says Dr. Reyes, "to work in the classroom, to be part of the high school journey, to help the awakening of scientific thinking." It is just as amazing to consider that Dr. Catherine Reyes is part of our school.

Harry Kavros