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Doc Avis & Miss Pliscz: Inspiration for Generations of St. Markers

When I first arrived at St. Marks I was graciously welcomed into the Science Department by Doc Avis. I found him to be always supportive and encouraging and a good listener. Early on, in my first year, I asked if we could purchase an analog computer kit for the AP Physics students to put together, he approved it and took interest in what the device could do. Later on, the school installed our DEC digital computer, Doc Avis agreed it would be only available for student use, with an open door policy. He also agreed to modify the III Form Science course (required of all) replacing the physics trimester with computer science. This had many future ramifications, as students were able to study what the machine could do, the results of this policy you can find in the ranks of our alums.

--Richard Rader, St. Mark's Faculty, 1959-2000

Anna Pliscz had the remarkable capacity to transport her students to scientific heights in her teaching laboratory, at once demanding our full intellectual commitment all the while giving back her all to our progress as learners. She inflected the trajectory of my life in science and medicine. I will always feel indebted to her.

--Michael Jensen '82

I had originally planned to give this Chapel Talk on March 24, 2020. Indeed, it was all ready to go. Well, you know what happened in March of 2020: COVID-19 upended so much of our lives. And so the focus of my Chapel Talk, which I gave when our learning resumed—remotely—on March 30, 2020, needed to reflect on meeting the challenges of the Spring Term.

When I looked back over the text I had prepared for March 2020, it seemed appropriate to give today, even though some of you have yet to see the STEM Center walls I reference. So, here goes:

On the walls of the STEM Center's first-floor hallway, close to the FAB Lab and physics classrooms, you see photographs of some distinguished St. Mark's science and math teachers from an earlier era.
Above (Left to Right): Miss Pliscz, Mr. Avis, Mr. Wales, and Mr. Rader
Each of these teachers served St. Mark's for decades and built a love of science and mathematics for generations of St. Mark's students. I had the good fortune to be one of those students.

These photographs are meaningful to me for many reasons. Seeing the photographs reminds me of how much I learned from these teachers and how they created a fascination with science that continues to the present day. Reflecting on the photographs also makes me happy for you because I know that each of you is being touched by highly skilled caring adults, like the ones represented on the STEM Center walls, who are fostering your intellectual growth, your personal growth, and a love of learning—in a variety of disciplines--in ways that will remain with you for your entire lives.
We are all fortunate to be part of a school where students have had the opportunity to be touched by highly skilled and caring adults since 1865. The continuation of that tradition depends on adults of one generation passing on values, and an example of how to approach students and colleagues, to those who come after them. Long-serving adults provide inspiration and role modeling to adults new to the community, and those adults new to the community who stay at St. Mark's become, themselves, the long-tenured adults who serve as inspirations and role models for the next generations.
Two of the outstanding educators pictured in the STEM Center whose impact I hear about frequently from adults currently at St. Mark's, and from graduates, are Frederick Avis, who we called Doc Avis, and Anna Pliscz, who we called Miss Pliscz. You will hear the Avis and Pliscz names on Prize Day because appreciative former students endowed a Science prize in their name.
Above (Left to Right): Doc Avis and Miss Pliscz
While I had the good fortune to be taught by both Doc Avis and Miss Pliscz, Miss Pliscz is the most memorable to me because of my time in her Advanced Biology class as a VI Former. I cannot think of a more extraordinary learning experience during my many years as a student, starting in kindergarten and extending right through a doctoral program. Many memorable parts of the Advanced Biology curriculum, which had actually been developed by Doc Avis in the 1950s, can no longer be employed because of changing views about what is ethical regarding student work with animals.
The Advanced Biology curriculum, which was still considered very innovative in my VI Form year, 1973-1974, involved euthanizing and anesthetizing mice and frogs. Now, as Ms. Lohwater explained to me, laws forbid causing undue stress for an animal and forbid the sacrifice of any animal for student research. While I am certainly not here to defend the way mice and frogs were used in Advanced Biology in my student days, under the guidance of these extraordinary teachers what I learned provoked a deep fascination and desire to learn. Indeed, the work we did with mice and frogs was a powerful 1970s example of experiential education.
From direct experience of working with euthanized mice we learned about anatomy and physiology—the organs of a body and how they function. Studying mouse organs, that we saw with our very own eyes, provided a compelling way to learn about the nature and functions of organs of many species—animal and human.
We were required to learn the shape, color, and function of each organ, which was easier to do when we were able to see them, after opening up the chest cavity.

We would also carefully move the organs with tweezers, thus seeing how the organs connect to one another—learning by doing. Miss Pliscz required us to draw—meticulously—the chest cavity complete with internal organs, an aid for memorizing the shape, the size, the color, the function, and the interconnection of the organs.
I also performed surgery on a mouse, removing the ovaries. Again, this surgery is not something you could or should do in a 2020 biology course. However, it was absolutely fascinating to my classmates and me. Doc Avis, in his Advanced Biology text, About Mice and Man: An Introduction to Mammalian Biology,[1] provides a very thorough explanation about how to develop the skills to perform such surgery—practice, practice, practice, on mouse cadavers—and then an explanation about how to perform the surgery.
Below: Doc Avis
Doc Avis, starting in the 1950s, developed a national reputation as a science educator and a science researcher. At that time, while the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union was raging, commentators worried that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in the quality of scientific research because the Soviet Union was producing more doctorates in science and engineering than the United States. One of those commentators, who wrote the Forward to
Doc Avis's textbook, identified Doc Avis as one of the nation's educators who would inspire more interest in the study of science because of the quality of the biology curriculum he had developed.
Doc Avis also gained a national reputation for cancer research, some of which he did in St. Mark's laboratories, with the help of St. Mark's students. While at St. Mark's, Doc Avis received a three-year grant from the National Cancer Institute, worth over a quarter of a million dollars in today's dollars, to study the effects of a new anti-cancer drug, 6-mercaptopurine, or 6-MP, on the liver and kidneys of a cow. 6-MP is still frequently prescribed by doctors today to treat leukemia, a cancer that starts in the bone marrow and results in high numbers of abnormal white blood cells. 6-MP is also prescribed to treat Crohn's Disease, a chronic inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract. I find Doc Avis's 6-MP work particularly meaningful personally because Dr. Warren's and my daughter Amanda, now 31 years old, and a mother herself, was diagnosed with Crohn's while in middle school, and 6-MP was an important part of her drug regimen for many years in keeping this chronic disease under control.
In addition to his cancer research, Doc Avis made many more contributions to the world of science that also involved St. Mark's. For example, Doc Avis collaborated with the School's physician, Dr. Stone, on a project evaluating the effectiveness of newly developed flu vaccines. St. Mark's students donated blood for that research. And Doc Avis and Dr. Stone also developed a test to discover if people had been exposed to radiation and the effects of fallout should a nuclear bomb explode in their proximity. In the 1950s and 1960s, the height of the Cold War, fear of radiation exposure because of bombs dropped by the Soviet Union was on everyone's mind. Southborough residents were told, at the time, that if a nuclear bomb were ever to explode near here, they should come to St. Mark's for radiation testing.
Doc Avis's innovative teaching was recognized with numerous awards. He received the Elizabeth Thompson Award for excellence in science teaching from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and also an outstanding teaching award from Brown University because, according to the citation, of his ability to inspire many young people to love science and because of his pioneering work introducing young students to scientific research.[2]
I certainly benefited from Doc Avis's extraordinary talent as an educator because of the opportunity I had to take Advanced Biology at St. Mark's, using the curriculum that he developed and that Miss Pliscz continued to refine from the moment she joined St. Mark's in 1956 until the moment she retired in 1990. Again, that innovative curriculum was at the forefront of what we now call experiential education. The outstanding manner in which Miss Pliscz taught Advanced Biology built for me and so many other St. Mark's students a lifelong fascination with Science, along with intellectual skills, and content knowledge that have stayed with us long after graduation.
Above: Miss Pliscz
Thinking about Anna Pliscz's teaching has prompted me to reflect on what outstanding teaching looks and feels like. I was blessed with many outstanding teachers during my time at St. Mark's. I hope you feel that the same is true for each of you. I suspect you will agree that teaching excellence comes in many forms. Indeed, defining what makes an outstanding teacher, based upon personal examples, can be a fun intellectual exercise.
Here is what, in my judgment, made Miss Pliscz a great teacher. First of all, she cared deeply about me and my learning, and I knew it, even though she never once said that directly. During the many hours I spent in the biology lab inspecting and drawing the organs of my mouse cadaver, Miss Pliscz was frequently at my elbow answering my questions and asking questions that helped me see more than I otherwise would have. I felt that Miss Pliscz was as invested as I was in my quest to master anatomy and physiology.
A second quality that made Miss Pliscz a great teacher was her absolute fascination about the subject matter. You could tell, from the sparkle in her eye and the passion in her voice, that Miss Pliscz absolutely loved learning more about—and teaching us more about—liver function. Her own passion for the subject matter in Advanced Biology was infectious; how could we not find liver function fascinating too?
Third, Ms. Pliscz knew absolutely everything there was to know about anatomy and physiology. She was a walking encyclopedia, and the depth of her knowledge, which she presented in a way that we students could understand and which we knew she was constantly building, engendered tremendous respect.
Ms. Pliscz's investment in my success, her love of her subject and her knowledge about her subject, created some sort of alchemy within me and my fellow Advanced Biology students. There was no way in the world I was going to let Ms. Pliscz down as a learner. I was going to do whatever it took to meet her high standards, to earn that smile, to earn that slight nod of the head which indicated, "yes, Mr. Warren (she always called us by our last name), that is good work." Even if the grade I managed to earn was not the best, the effort would be, and she would know that the effort was everything I could possibly give.
Miss Pliscz, as with other outstanding educators I have been blessed with—teachers and coaches—taught me what hard work looks like and feels like. She also engendered a fascination in anatomy and physiology and other aspects of biology that continue to this day. For a number of Miss Pliscz's students, the fascination in the subject she inspired influenced the decision to become a medical practitioner, a doctor or a research scientist.
Michael Jensen, Class of 1982 and uncle of 2020 St. Mark's graduate Grace Zawadzki, is one of those students. Dr. Jensen currently directs a childhood cancer research center in Seattle where he is leading a promising project to genetically engineer T-cells as a way to fight certain cancers afflicting children, an alternative to chemotherapy and radiation.[3]
Dr. Jensen will tell you that Anna Pliscz changed his life. He found Miss Pliscz's advanced biology course so fascinating that he decided right then and there to pursue a career in biological research. Dr. Jensen describes his cancer research in a fascinating TEDX talk he gave here at St. Mark's in the fall of 2015. I encourage you to invest the ten minutes to watch that talk, which you can find on YouTube.[4] Dr. Jensen feels such a debt to Miss Pliscz that he reserves two highly sought-after intern spots in his laboratory every summer for St. Markers, spots normally given to college students. In the summer of 2019, Sam Leslie and Sam Wang had that privilege.
Above (Left to Right): Sam Leslie '20, Dr. Karen Spratt, and Sam Wang '22 in Summer 2019
In addition to inspiring generations of students, Anna Pliscz is also one of those teachers who inspired generations of fellow St. Mark's teachers. Mr. Umiker, Ms. Putnam, and Ms. Wells are among those who express deep appreciation for the modeling that Miss Pliscz provided to them. The way Miss Pliscz went about every part of her work at St. Mark's provided an example of excellence that they sought to emulate and that they think about still.
Above: Miss Pliscz
Miss Pliscz forged a particularly special bond with new female faculty members. Miss Pliscz had been the first full-time female faculty member and the first female academic department head. When Ms. Putnam and Ms. Wells started at St. Mark's, they told me, they did not find our School, which had only recently become coeducational, especially welcoming to women. "Anna Pliscz validated me when I needed that validation," said Ms. Putnam, "and she made me feel that what I taught was valued." Ms. Wells considers receiving the Founder's Endowed Teaching Chair, the Chair that had been held by Anna Pliscz, a highlight of her career. "The significance of that symbolism," she told me, "was huge."
When you walk down the first floor STEM hallway, I encourage you to pause at the photographs of Anna Pliscz and Fred Avis, and also of Tom Wales and Richard Rader who are also worthy subjects of their own Chapel Talk.
Above: Wall Plaques in St. Mark's School STEM Center
Know that these outstanding educators have contributed in their own way—although indirectly—to the quality of the learning you are experiencing in your classes. Each of these individuals set an example that has been carried on by this generation of St. Mark's educators and that they will pass along to the educators who come after them.
[1] Portland, ME: J. Weston Walch, Publisher, 1957
[2] Information about Doc Avis's and Miss Pliscz's careers is largely taken from Chapter 24 of Nick Noble's history of St. Mark's, The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark's School, Hollis, NH, Hollis Publishing, 2015. Laura Appell-Warren helped sharpen my thinking about themes in their work.
[5] With Dr. Karen Spratt in the PreClinical Therapeutic Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute.
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John Warren '74