When Ellen Lettvin took the newly created post of vice president of science and education at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center almost two years ago, she made what looked like a sudden departure from a career in academic research to one in education.
The truth is, she told me recently, is that the change came gradually, an outgrowth of her previous job as assistant director of the University of Washington’s applied physics lab.
After getting her bachelors, masters and doctorate at the University of Michigan — plus a research stint at Stanford — Ellen came to the UW, doing a lot of work in conjunction with NOAA. Trained as an oceanographer and engineer, Ellen’s expertise is in “remote viewing,” using satellite data to model ocean wave patterns.
While there, she decided the public ought to know more about the publicly funded work going on at the lab.
“I felt there was an untapped need” for the lab to reach out to the community, she says, and to develop more “technology transfer, finding linkages to local businesses” leading to commercial applications, “which would be mutually advantageous.”
One organization she reached out to was the PSC.
“I worked on several projects with them,” she says.
So when the Science Center created this new position in 2008, naturally they approached her and she accepted.
“By being involved in education and outreach I could make more of a difference,” she says.
Ellen, who recently completed treatment for breast cancer, described one of her best days at work recently at PSC’s Discover Awards meeting, “a big deal,” where children who come to the center’s summer programs are recognized for “curiosity, ingenuity, teamwork” as well as inspiration or stewardship.
“There were hundreds of kids and parents at this event, age four to 14. They were so excited and so proud,” she says. “It was fun to be there and see them all thriving.”
Ellen and her husband Peter are members of Temple Beth Am where her son Alexander had his Bar Mitzvah last year. Raised Conservative in Brookline, Mass., and Ann Arbor, she had drifted from religious observance until her father died in 2003.
“A friend suggested I find a minyan,” she says, and the experience connected her with “a repository of memories and traditions and things that were part of me… It was that moment I realized that I wanted my son to have a Bar Mitzvah.”
Four years ago Maddy Berkman lost a close friend to an inoperable malignant brain tumor. Sydney Coxon was only 11 at the time, and it left Maddy and her friends at a loss as to what to do with their grief.
Then, Maddy remembers, “one of my friends read an article in the newspaper about Seattle Children’s guild program.” The hospital was seeking new guilds, and so the Pink Polka Dots Guild, the brainchild of Maddy, Kelsey Josund and Sierra Ales, was born.
The name comes from Sydney’s penchant for pink. The girls explained to KING-5 television in 2009 that “she loved everything pink — pink fuzzy sweaters and pink purses…and pink polka dots had always been one of her favorite things.”
All funds raised by Pink Polka Dots is donated through Seattle Children’s to Dr. Jim Olson at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“Most of the guilds at the hospital raise money for uncompensated care, but our guild is considered a junior specialty guild,” Maddy explained, allowing it to support Olson’s “really groundbreaking work” in developing scorpion venom to create a tumor marker.
The guild was especially busy in September hosting their annual memorial golf tournament plus a benefit concert by the Brian Waite band.
September also found them speaking at a TEDx event in Redmond. (TED is an idea-sharing organization which hosts conferences where innovators showcase concepts and talent.) The event, broadcast live worldwide, was organized entirely by and for young people. The three girls addressed a crowd of 400 of “the most amazing kids we’ve ever [met]” while parents watched in another part of the building.
Maddy is a junior at Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences while Kelsey and Sierra are students at Shorecrest High. An active member of Temple Beth Am’s youth group, Maddy is also in the bee club at SAAS where there’s a hive on the roof. “I spent my whole lunch on the roof smoking the bees out to get the honey,” she told me the day we spoke.
PPD has raised over $300,000 to date. Its ongoing efforts include selling cards and holding dances. “Anything the guild thinks of that we think will make money, we will act on it.”
Visit their Web site at www.pinkpolkadotsguild.net.