The Science of Service Learning
“I saw that they were applying for this money to help their careers, not because they really had an interest in trying to cure cancer,” she says. “That was difficult for me.”
Although fascinated by biology, Edwards never saw herself as a stereotypical scientist, isolated in a laboratory. “Part of what I wrote in my graduate school application essay was the importance of being able to connect the science and explain it to people who don’t have a background in it,” she says. Today, Edwards not only continues her own efforts to use science as a means of improving lives, but also encourages Haverford students and alumni to employ their academic talents in serving their communities.
Growing up in the 1960s, Edwards first displayed a skill for science in the midst of such events as the Sputnik launch, and was encouraged by her family and teachers to pursue the field because it was the “patriotic” thing to do. “Science was a ticket for me to a bigger world,” she says. She was the only member of her family ever to attend college, and it was expected that her higher education would be the first stone in a directed career path. Edwards received her bachelor of science from Indiana University in 1975, and, with funding from the National Science Foundation, went on to earn her Ph.D. in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from the University of Colorado in 1982.
Through her postdoctoral fellowships, she further discovered ways science could benefit and impact individuals and communities. The Muscular Dystrophy Association sponsored her position in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Biology, and while in Cambridge, she also worked on the editorial staff of Science for the People, a magazine that examined the social implications of current science issues. In 1984 she moved to a research position at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Tropical Medicine to study the parasitic protozoa Leischmania, which can cause disfiguring and sometimes fatal disease. She also worked at New England Biolabs, Inc. in Beverly, Mass. in 1986, researching Onchocerca, a parasitic worm that causes African river blindness. Her desire to view her research through a variety of lenses led her to join Haverford’s biology faculty later that same year. “That was something that appealed to me about working at a liberal arts college,” she says, “having colleagues in fields like history and English and anthropology who could appreciate the health ramifications of the biology I knew, and could see them from larger social and cultural perspectives.”
Around 1995, Edwards began to contemplate new directions in her teaching career. She had recently given birth to her third son and no longer had the desire to run her research lab; she was eager to teach interdisciplinary courses. She teamed up with Julia Epstein, an English professor with an interest in medical narratives, to develop “Disease and Discrimination,” a class that used scientific, Biblical and literary texts to study the biology, culture, and representations of infectious diseases, and how individuals and groups afflicted with these diseases face discrimination. Edwards was also becoming more active in the Feminist and Gender Studies program. “It was very interesting from this perspective, because up until then most faculty in gender studies tended to be from the humanities and social sciences,” she says. “There were few, if any, natural scientists looking at the biological basis behind sex and gender.” At the same time this was happening, Haverford received a grant from the Ford Foundation that allowed faculty members to either reconfigure current courses or create new ones fulfilling the College’s social justice requirement. All of these factors combined resulted in Edwards leaving the biology department for General Programs, where she remains today.
“I moved out of the lab and into the field,” she says.
In General Programs, Edwards is in her element presiding over integrated
classes that intertwine the natural and social sciences with humanities
and service. One of the more popular offerings is “Women, Medicine,
and Biology,” appropriately nicknamed W.o.M.B. The course focuses
on biological science’s descriptions of women’s bodies and
behaviors, how the medical profession responds to women’s health
concerns, and the influence of biomedical and political factors on research
related to women’s health. Last year, Edwards made community service
a requirement for her students, a caveat that they embraced with enthusiasm.
Students have served at Planned Parenthood; the Maternity Care Coalition,
which provides prenatal care and post-pregnancy social services for women;
Prevention Point, a needle exchange program in Philadelphia; and Saunders
House, a continuing care facility for the elderly. Edwards found the latter
particularly intriguing for students because of the gender, class, and
race issues raised: a relatively affluent setting where mostly white,
female senior citizens are cared for by lower-income women of color. “To
see and experience that, you start questioning what these women of color
are going to do when they’re in a situation where they need care,”
says Edwards. “What does that say about our society and how it structures
health care for women?” She finds the service learning requirement
enriching both educationally and personally for W.o.M.B. students, because
it encourages them to reflect on and discuss their volunteer activities
with like-minded peers.
Edwards relates her strong support for service learning to her training as a scientist. “When you’re a scientist, you don’t just go into a library and read textbooks,” she says. “You don’t just read or talk about biology; you do it.” It’s the same for students, who she believes can best comprehend current trends in women’s health, public health, or infectious disease by working in those fields. She sees that service learning benefits those who learn more by doing. “I’ve been struck by how much students were learning in their Science and Society internships,” she says. “Before they went out into the field, they came up with respectable questions about their issues, but after their placements, they had much more meaningful and deeper questions, and made connections they hadn’t realized were there until they saw them.” A Quaker who became active in her Meeting’s AIDS ministry, Edwards also believes in service as integral to Haverford’s Quaker heritage.
As part of her AIDS volunteerism, Edwards was assigned a “buddy,” an AIDS patient with whom she would meet for four hours a week in Philadelphia. These weekly forays into the city opened her eyes to the infrequency of Haverford students’ trips to the metropolis next-door. “We sell ourselves as being close to Philadelphia, but we tend to settle into our own little world on campus,” she says. She plans to remedy this situation with Haverford House, an innovative program she started last year as part of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (of which she is a member of the Advisory Board). Haverford House provides room, board, health insurance, and a stipend to a group of recent Haverford alumni living together in a community and working at service organizations in Philadelphia. The idea was inspired by a Seattle-based program called Quest (Quaker Experience in Service and Training), where six recent college graduates live in a house adjacent to the city’s University Friends Meeting House and work in social service agencies. Edwards’ reasons for creating Haverford House are twofold.
“We realize that there are many global concerns, but how they manifest is dependent on the local situation, and how they’re solved is dependent on the local resources,” she says. “We have this major urban center in our backyard, so it’s perfect for students to see how issues of hunger or homelessness or illiteracy are handled in Philadelphia.” She is also a frequent visitor to Pendle Hill, a center for Quaker study and contemplation in Wallingford, Pa., and sees that “when you’re asking hard questions or doing challenging emotional work, it’s so helpful to have a support group, other people doing similar kinds of work, struggling with issues to which you can relate.”
This past year, two members of the class of 2002, Dan Zemaitis and Renata Henderson, shared a two-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia’s Fairmount area. Zemaitis worked at the Friends Rehabilitation Program, a community development group begun by Quakers, and at an after-school mentoring program at Girard College in North Philadelphia; Henderson taught second grade at St. Barnabas’ elementary school in Germantown. Edwards has assisted them in making connections with education students at Haverford and recent alumni teaching in the city. “Haverford House won’t just enable a group of people to live together and provide service,” she says, “but also link Haverford’s community with city agencies and neighborhoods.” This summer, she plans to expand the program to include five interns.
Outside of her Haverford duties, Edwards continues to visit her AIDS
“buddy” and pursue service opportunities with her Quaker Meeting
in Radnor, Pa. She and her family—husband Rob Knowlton and sons
Greg, Tim, and Chris—often travel and go camping. She volunteers
with her sons’ schools: Greg is in fourth grade, Tim in eighth,
and Chris a junior in high school. And she immerses herself in her art;
much of her time at Pendle Hill is spent in the art studio, working with
clay and colored pencils and doing collages. “It really nurtures
my soul, to do that kind of work,” she says.