The Scientists Who Developed the COVID-19 Vaccine Were Once Schoolchildren

A reflection on education during coronavirus

This month we received the first significantly hopeful step towards fighting coronavirus: scientists have developed a preliminary vaccine.

In a year of seemingly relentless bad news and unprecedented challenges, the breakthrough of a vaccine inspires me to reflect on the paramount importance of high-quality education.

We think of the scientists as these fully formed, ready-made experts, just doing their job. It’s easy to forget – or indeed, downplay – that it was a high standard of education given to a number of children a few years ago that ultimately lead to this position.

As a former teacher, and education consultant, I’m fully aware that experts and leading figures in society are not superheroes or magicians, but the product of an accumulation of small but significant moments in education. Moments that changed, affirmed or revealed paths that students go on to follow into a career, a lifestyle and an identity. Put simply, the scientists behind the vaccine were once the child that asked that extra question in science class and received a reply that kept them asking those questions.

My three decades of experience in education mean that I have had the privilege of witnessing and collecting these moments, where a student visibly undergoes a formative epiphany. Of these many moments, I’d like to recall three that I think encapsulate how good education or the guidance of a teacher, germinates brilliance and passion. Namely, a girl who dreamed of swimming, a boy locked out of his briefcase, and an A level physics student with a wrong answer that lead him to Oxford University.

Taking the plunge

I was nineteen when, for the first time in my life, I realised the significance of an adult in a child’s life regarding education. I was working as a lifeguard at a children’s holiday and activity centre. One day, a group got changed into their swimming costumes in preparation to get into the pool – all except one girl. I brusquely asked, “why aren’t you swimming?”. I came across rather curt and perhaps even rude. In reply, this plaintive little voice said “I really want to, but I’m allergic to chlorine.” I felt tiny.

Why had I been so abrupt? Even if she just didn’t want to get in the pool, that was fine! She was on holiday.  It certainly wasn’t compulsory.  She could have been ill – anything. I felt quite guilty about it.

I checked if she’d be able to be near the pool, and she said yes, so I included her in activities poolside.

Whilst she busied away, I asked her where she lived. She said Birmingham. I said to her, “when you get home, get your parents to ask the city engineers office to see if there are any pools in Birmingham who don’t use chlorine.” I admit, I made this suggestion as a way to assuage some of my guilt, using a little of the Civil Engineering degree I was taking at University, and then she left.  We had about four hundred children coming through every week for nine weeks. It was an interaction with one person in around 3,600.

This happened in July, and around December of that year, I received a series of frantic messages. It was the company who ran the activity centre. They left message after message explaining that they were being threatened with a law suit and that I had to help. As a nineteen-year-old, it rattled me. What had I done – or not done – that meant I was integral to a law suit?!

They had received a letter from a family of one of the children who had attended over summer, and they were insisting on forwarding the letter to me. For safeguarding reasons, it was illegal for the children to have direct contact with the activity centre guardians. I suggested that perhaps the intermediary on the phone could read it out to me over the line.

He began reading the letter, and got rather choked up.

It was from the girl with the chlorine allergy. She had indeed asked her parents to contact the city engineer’s office in Birmingham, as per my suggestion. They informed her that there was a local pool that used ozone instead of chlorine. It was in a building around the corner from her house and they didn’t even realise it was a swimming pool.

The letter concluded with the line, ‘I now swim every day’.

This was the start of my understanding of the significance of becoming a school teacher. There’s not a single syllable or tone or word that doesn’t affect a child. This idea that one person was a drop in the ocean of thousands of children I interacted with, was proved to be nonsense. It was a simple suggestion that became lifechanging for that child, and who knows what that led to.

Unlocking More Than a Briefcase

Back when I was a school teacher, a boy (let’s call him David for the sake of this anecdote), came to me with a problem, as students so often do. He had a briefcase with a four-digit lock on it. His peers had somehow changed the lock code and neither he nor they knew what it was, so he came to me. As a science teacher, people have this idea of you that you can solve anything. He was visibly upset and pleaded with me for a solution. I explained that he could start at 0000, then try 0001, 0002, then 0003 and so on. There’s only 10,000. It’ll take a good few hours but it’s just a matter of time. He wined and stressed, explaining that he had a class soon and really needed to get inside. So, I further explained to him, “well, it’s unlikely that it’s an obvious sequence like 0000, or 2222, or 3333, and it’s unlikely that they’d have had any consecutive or doubled up numbers, such as 1234 or 4455. That reduces the possibilities.” He retorted, “there’s still thousands of them, Sir!”

I took the briefcase and decided to start with a random combination that wasn’t a pattern: 1647. I tried the latch, and by sheer coincidence it opened!

Within the next hour I had swathes of students coming up to me, exclaiming, “How did you do it, Sir?”

I realised I’d lived up to their idea of me. How you’re perceived as a teacher, and how you craft that perception, is so incredibly important. The way you’re seen to be, or not to be, a particular thing, is so influential.

The Science of Learning a Lesson

I was teaching A Level Physics in 1991. One of the experiments on the syllabus is the ‘platinum resistance thermometer’ experiment, whereby a boiling tube is filled with oil and a piece of metal coils around the inside of the tube and comes back out again through the cork seal. A current is then put through the coil, and the tube put in a beaker of water to heat up, in order to explore how the resistance of the metal coil changes with temperature. The results can be used to determine which metal it is.

I have to mention at this point that there are no schools with the budget to do this with an actual platinum coil, so copper is used.  And it very obviously looks like copper.

A boy in my class, let’s call him Tony, did the most beautiful write up. It looked perfect – the diagram, the data, the analysis, everything. As usual when I reviewed labs, I start by reading the conclusion. It ended, despite the apparently perfect report, “therefore, I conclude with a 98% degree of certainty that it is platinum”.

This was obviously wildly wrong. I spent hours going through his data to work out what had happened.

He had incrementally massaged every calculation. He had rounded up his numerators and rounded down his denominators in a very subtle but consistent way. He had done so based on his prior belief that he should be demonstrating that the coil was platinum.

In the next class, I got everybody to use the data Tony had collected, to see what they got for the answer.  They all concluded it was copper.  I showed them Tony’s calculations and what he had done.

I taught them a firm lesson. Scientists cannot do this. You have to trust the science, and you must never do this again.

Tony went on to attend Oxford University.

I actually moved to Oxford around 1997. I was walking around the streets one day and I heard “Sir! Sir! Mr. Caller, Sir!”

This is always interesting to me – as much as our past pupils change for us teachers, we never seem to change for them.

It was Tony. He stopped me. He informed me that he was starting his Masters degree at Oxford and that the lesson I taught him that day during the ‘platinum resistance thermometer’ experiment goes through his mind every time he starts calculations from his data.

Education and COVID-19

When I look at the scientists at the forefront of the vaccine, I see the girl who wanted to swim, the boy who thought his teacher could crack any code, and the student who made a mistake that changed his understanding of what science is.

This is a callout to children – your teachers care for you, your teachers believe in you; your parents want you to succeed, they want you to have opportunities.

In the context of what we do at Tutors International, the importance and impact of a single teacher on the lives of a student and who they become, cannot be underestimated. It is why we look for the best of the best.

I do not shy away from the fact it is a privileged operation. Our service means that we can find extraordinary teachers, in conjunction with parents who have significant means – the outcome of this combination usually leads to unparalleled benefits and opportunities for the student.

If the government spent a fraction of the money that they have spent on bail outs, on education, school resources and teacher salaries instead, we could be looking at an extraordinary improvement in education and its outcomes. The vaccine, probably one of many that will follow, only came about because a number of the most intelligent minds were in the same place, working together. Imagine what we could do if there were more of these environments that started at all schools.

This year has meant that schools and our education system have been under more scrutiny than ever before. One thing that has proved indisputable, is that teachers have worked incredibly hard. They do not want to interact through Zoom calls and emailed worksheets. If any students or parents have found the content, at its core, dry or not stimulating, it is because when stripped of a teacher’s expert delivery, we lose so much.

This year brought education and teachers into the centre of public discussion. As much as this would be the perfect catalyst for reform and recentring of education, I know that when things go back to normality, the discussion will retreat into the background once again, so I’m taking this timely opportunity to publish my thoughts in light of the vaccine news.

The Vaccine

The world breathed a (tentative) sigh of relief when the news reported a 90% efficiency vaccine had been developed by BioNTech through the remarkable work of a company started by husband-and-wife team, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci. To get here within a first year is phenomenal.

We know this is the first vaccine and not the last.  Several more are in late stage trials and hundreds more in development.  It’s unlikely that the first one will be the best one.  We also know there are huge challenges in manufacturing, distributing and administering BNT162b2, as it is codenamed.   The vaccine has to be stored at -70 C (-94 F), and cannot be removed from this temperature more than four times, and can only be kept at 2-8 C (fridge temperatures) for five days. This obviously poses huge logistical problems, and there will be developments all the time.

In the meantime, the world watches on, hopeful and inspired. We are reminded that each of these remarkable scientists in Germany and in labs around the world, were once a hopeful student in a science class, and the children learning online or in masks at the moment, will be the great innovators of the future.

Please note: all information was correct at time of publishing. Since publication, an additional vaccine is in the running, making it three effective vaccines in development: AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. On 2nd December 2020, the UK became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for widespread distribution.

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