A Nobel Laureate Cites SH High Biology Teacher as His Inspiration

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by Barrett Seaman – 

In early October, it was announced that Dr. Gregg Semenza, Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, along with fellow scientists Drs. William G. Kaelin Jr. of Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Peter J. Ratcliffe at the Francis Crick Institute and Oxford University. They were cited for their seminal work on how varying levels of oxygen affect cells, opening new ways to fight cancer and other diseases. 

And whom did Dr. Semenza, a native of Tarrytown, thank for his prize? His Sleepy Hollow High School biology teacher, Rose Nelson.

He did so not just in his remarks to colleagues at Johns Hopkins, where he called her “my inspiration,” but in response to virtually every call or message of congratulations. He quoted her as saying to her students, “Now when you win your Nobel Prize, I don’t want you to forget that you learned that here.”

No, she was not specifically addressing young Gregg Semenza when she said that, insisted the 1974 Sleepy Hollow graduate in a phone interview with The Hudson Independent. And she was not demanding credit for whatever success any of them might achieve. “It was not about her at all. It was about the science and education.”

Rose Nelson was not an ordinary high school teacher, by all accounts. She had a Ph.D. in endocrinology from the University of Cincinnati. She had worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Her husband, Norton Nelson, whom she met in the halls of graduate school in Cincinnati, was a renowned scientist in his own right, considered by many to be the father of environmental medicine and one of those instrumental in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, according to their daughter, Margaret Nelson, who has a Ph.D. in neurobiology. 

Rose left her scholarly career to raise children in the Nelson’s home in Philipse Manor. “As we were all growing up, she clearly needed something else to do,” recalls Margaret. “What she really wanted to do was to teach kindergarten and first grade because she really loved small children. She sometimes said that she would have just gone on having children forever if my dad were amenable.” Instead, she started to take the train in to NYU to earn a Master’s in Education, a requisite for teaching in the public school system. 

Well before she started teaching, Rose was active on the Sleepy Hollow (then North Tarrytown) School Board, eventually becoming its president. When in the early sixties the Superintendent of the school came to her, somewhat in desperation because the high school biology teacher had taken a medical leave, she agreed to take over his classes. “The rest, as they say, is history,” said daughter Margaret.

What made her unique as a high school biology teacher was her Ph.D., recalled Gregg Semenza. “She understood what laboratory research was about—the process of discovery,” he said. “She wouldn’t just rattle off facts but go into their history: who made the discovery and how—and how it was received at the time. She put it all into a very personal context and made it clear that what we knew didn’t just drop down out of the sky but was the work of scientists over decades and centuries.”

Other Sleepy Hollow students were touched by Rose Nelson as well, said Dr. Semenza. One was a classmate of his, Dr. Amy Behrman, now Medical Director of Occupational Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “If you had any sense at all, you found a way to get into Rose Nelson’s AP Biology class,” she remembered. “I wasn’t really focused on science and medicine until I met her.”

“She really was a brilliant teacher,” said Dr. Behrman.. “The people who teach the best are the people who love it and enjoy it the most. She just had such a profound sense of joy in the subject.” She also did two things really well, said Behrman: “She was a phenomenal lecturer; she was just riveting. She took us through AP Biology largely from a historical framework.” Secondly, she recalled, Nelson was “incredibly good at experiential teaching. We were hands-on a lot. I think it’s hard to be both a good lecturer and a good hands-on teacher.”

When Amy Behrman’s own kids were in high school—“a very good high school”—in Pennsylvania, she recalled, “I remember being very surprised—and not in a good way—at how un-messy the biology classes were. They weren’t wet enough; they weren’t messy enough.” Rose Nelson’s classrooms, by contrast, “were definitely wet and a little messy.”

She was also fun: she gave out jelly beans as rewards. “She’d ask a question in reference to something we were studying at the time,” said Dr. Semenza. “Depending on the difficulty of the question, the reward would be increased accordingly. You could give a two jelly bean answer or a three jelly bean answer, depending on how well you answered the question.” 

“It was just intensely fun to be in her class,” said Behrman. “You didn’t even notice how hard you were working.” Once, she and her classmates made a present for their teacher: a fetal pig made of paper mache, filled with jelly beans. “She wasn’t just respected; she was beloved.”

A tiny woman, by all accounts—“less than five feet tall,” said Semenza’s mother Kay, still a Tarrytown resident. Nelson needed a stool to be seen behind her lab table. “Very big personality,” said Amy Behrman, “very little body.” She taught at Sleepy Hollow full-time until June 1983 but returned part-time the following fall to teach another three years. 

She died in January 1991 at age 81—almost exactly a year after her husband died, said her daughter Margaret. In crediting Nelson for his Nobel Prize, Dr. Gregg Semenza reminds us of the importance of great teachers and teaching to the health of our society.

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