Team WhyMommy Virtual Science Fair

There was a point in our lives when we were ALL scientists. We couldn’t help ourselves, we were born with a natural sense of curiosity and would investigate anything our minds and hearts desired. And then someone put the label SCIENCE on it and maybe some boring teacher droned on endlessly on it in a classroom or subjected us to a poorly written text book and that curiosity was drilled right out of us.

And then, if you are really lucky, you’ll meet someone in your life again like Dr. Susan Niebur (or like me, you’ll meet her as her alternate identity, “WhyMommy” and not realize for the longest time that her real-life identity is an ASTROPHYSICIST) and she may re-ignite your love of science.

I actually met Susan in an alternate world — seriously — in 2007. We “sat” near each other in a “conference room” at a BlogHer Conference  in Second Life, a online 3D world.  From that virtual world, we watched a live stream of the conference that was going on in real life in Chicago.  We typed a few words between each other and I think we even “danced” at a Second Life dance club and that was the last I thought I’d ever see of WhyMommy.  (That sounds far more tawdry than I mean for it to!)   I hadn’t even launched my blog yet and never thought I’d run into her again.  I looked at her site and it was then that I realized Susan was coping with a rare form of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer — a breast cancer that does not come with a telltale lump. 

Imagine my surpise a year later when I joined the DC Metro Moms Blog group and one of the first people I met at a real-life gathering was WhyMommy!  It took my mind mere seconds to connect the name with the person I had met in another world and I was so happy to see her looking so well — she had beaten the cancer!  Since then, I’ve seen Susan at a few other gatherings, and I was thrilled beyond belief when she agreed to come as a “Celebrity Scientist” to speak at a Junior League of Northern Virginia fundraiser to explain the important role museums, particularly those that allow kids to have hands-on experiences, play in children’s lives.  It was her moving speech about the impact of a museum visit at the tender age of 3 in shaping her ultimate career path to be a NASA astrophysicist that helped raise several thousand dollars for the Children’s Science Center.

And that’s what I love about Susan — her pure passion for science and her willingness to share it with anyone within earshot.  Unfortunately, that night she was also in pain.  A knot of pain in her back that was causing shockwaves of pain throughout her spine, which she found out only days later, was the sign of a re-occurrence of her cancer.  She fought through the pain to come to the fundraiser, and yet this pain quickly became the beginning of a new journey. 

Today Susan is having surgery to remove some nodes that are affected by the cancer — and I won’t even pretend that I can do a good job of explaining things, all I can say is that she has a scary journey ahead of her to fight the cancer once again.  And she’s the mother of two small kids.   And she has a ton of friends around her who wish they could take up the fight for her — but we can’t.  We feel helpless to do anything but keep saying encouraging words to her.

So there’s two things we’re doing today.  First — we’re going to encourage people to join the Avon Army of Women — a massive research project of ALL women — cancer-free, with cancer, cancer survivors.  Please go sign up, and then look for a study you can participate in sometime this year (new studies open up all the time).  Some are as simple as filling out a form.

Second, since Susan is NOT all about cancer, we are holding a virtual science fair!  Today, all over the blogosphere, Susan’s blogging friends are remembering how fun science can be — with our kids or even on our own.  As it happens, my son is having his Mad Science birthday party this week, so science is in the air in the Java household.  But today, in Susan’s honor, we played with magnets!

For the first experiment, we studied the laws of repulsion.  Take a toy car (it helps if it has wheels with a good bit of height) and strap a magnet on top with a rubber band.  Take another magnet and figure out which end has the opposite pole and because opposing poles repel rather than attract, you can make the car move forward simply by holding the magnet close to the back of the car.  (This is why you need a high wheelbase — so the rubberband doesn’t drag on the table).  JavaBoy thought this was “Coooool!”

The second experiment makes a great magic trick for an audience.  Drop a paper clip (make sure it is a metal, non-coated one!) into a glass of water, or if you are really coordinated, a water bottle.  Ask anyone if they know how to get it out without getting their hands wet or spilling any of the water. 

Then, whip out your handy magnet and run it along the side of your water container and you will be able to pull the paper clip right out of the water!  This is due to the laws of attraction — if you have a strong enough magnet, you can attract the paper clip to the magnet, even through glass and water.

You don’t have to be a NASA astrophysicist to appreciate science.  (You don’t even have to know one, although I recommend getting to know Susan, even if it is only through her blog!)  Go check out what some of Susan’s other friends are doing today and try some things out with your kids.  If you have a local science museum, plan a trip!  And if you don’t have one (like those of us in Northern Virginia — and that’s a post for another day), then find out what you can do to help bring one to the area!

Perhaps one day your little one will be the scientist who rids us of this awful disease called cancer. 

Susan — we’re all pulling  for you today!  I’m going a little heavier on the prayer than the caffeine!

About JavaMom


  1. Meeting in a virtual world is pretty science-y too! Susan has said that she’s super stoked about the NoVA Children’s Science Center, thanks for the link to how we can help!

  2. This is a great post and you say such wonderful (and true) things about Susan. You have a great meeting story too! Love it!

    Magnets are some of the coolest things in the world. My kids LOVE to play with them. I tell you, this science fair has given me some great ideas of things to do with my kids.

    Thanks so much for taking part in the science fair!

  3. This was incredible. Thank you. I’m sorry I didn’t comment before — I was just so overwhelmed!

    I’m incredibly grateful to have met you and been able to help a little bit with the Junior League project — and I’m eager to hear more about what you do with your new term as President!

    I love the idea about the magnet as a magic trick, by the way. One of my favorite quotes is this: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi writer and futurian)