Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Tiny Piece of Medical History

Every good teacher knows that a teachable moment is when you’ve got a student’s undivided attention. Since an injury or an illness certainly gets a kid’s attention, why not use such a moment to learn a thing or two about the workings of the human body? That’s the premise for my new Body Battles series (March 2009). Usually, kids learn about the body systemically—the digestive system, the circulatory system, etc. But the drama of how the body works together to heal and restore health seemed irresistible to me and hopefully to my young readers.

The Body Battles series began as my brainchild, but the books became a truly collaborative project including the amazing images of Hawaiian microscopist Dennis Kunkel and the amusing characterizations of cells by illustrator Andrew N. Harris in Idaho. With a publisher in Minnesota and an editor, Jean Reynolds, who held it all together from Connecticut as pdf attachments zoomed through cyberspace, I never had to leave my New York home. These six books, A Skinned Knee, A Broken Bone, A Cold, A Stomachache, An Earache, and A Cavity are a true product of the electronic age.

One of the books, A Cold, may even make medical history. I wanted a micrograph of the rhinoviruses attacking the nasal tissue, which causes a cold. None existed. I asked the doctor I was consulting, Dr. Birgit Winther of the University of Virginia, if she could work with Dennis to make one. She grew the cells in tissue culture, inoculated them with the virus, killed the tissue (without destroying the cells) at the proper moment and shipped the specimen to Dennis. Dennis processed it and prepared it for viewing. Then he had to spend hours at the electron microscope, scanning the slides to see if they got the images. Now you can see them as well in the book!

In this image, the orange, finger-like projections are the microvilli on the surface of the nasal epithelial cells. They increase the surface area to filter the air. The round green things are the infecting rhinoviruses.

It tickles me that so much scientific creativity went into fulfilling a request by a children’s book author who wanted to catch the viral villains in the act of doing their dirty deed.
Copyright Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.

1 comment:

teacherninja said...

Brilliant! Sounds like an amazing series and I can't wait to get a copy and tell my kids the story of that photo.