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Nugget News

Neurologist finds purpose inspiring love of science
By Jim Cornelius

Bob Collins
Photo by Lynn Woodward

American students are lagging behind the rest of the developed world in science education. According to a CNN report, American students score 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries.

That statistic troubled Bob Collins.

"We are far below the middle," Collins laments. "We're below places like Serbia and Turkey. It's just hocking."

Simply shaking his head in dismay isn't Bob's style.

"You've eventually got to say, well what am I going to do about it," he says.

Collins co-founded the Sisters Science Club, which in just one year has elevated science education for both youth and adults in Sisters – and provided a whole lot of fun along the way.

It all started with a conversation over coffee with his friend Cal Allen.

"We really started off marveling at how this community supports the schools," Collins recalls.

There's a high level of support for the arts, music, athletics and many other activities.

"We said to each other – more or less at the same time – 'Where's the support for science?'"

The seed of the Sisters Science Club was sown. Collins and Allen talked with Sisters Schools Superintendent Jim Golden about creating an organization to support enhanced science education and got an enthusiastic reception.

"You bring a match near him, it's like lighting a propane stove," Collins said.

Since its inception, the club has brought a long-term Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) Brain Teasers exhibit to Sisters High School; staged a large and wildly successful science fair; sent teachers to a National Science Teachers' Association Conference in Seattle, and staged several lectures by eminent scientists, all of which have drawn capacity crowds.

Collins is well-qualified to lead a resurgence of interest in science in his adopted community. For many years, he headed the Department of Neurology at UCLA, spearheading the drive to make it a research department. He left that career to move to Sisters seven years ago.

The original impetus for the move came from a family reunion he and his wife attended in Camp Sherman in 2000.

"Valerie and I were walking along a dirt road and said, 'Why aren't we living here?'" Bob recalls.

In 2002, Realtor Annie Andreson, who has since become a close friend, showed the Collins' a house on the edge of Indian Ford Meadow with a panoramic view of the meadow, the forest and the mountains.

"I didn't even see the house," Bob confesses. "I just looked out this window."

As soon as they could manage it, Bob and Valerie left L.A. for Sisters.

"We made a very impulsive decision of the heart," Bob says. "People thought I was nuts."

In Sisters, Collins found a welcoming community that nurtured another side of his nature. He's an artist.

"That's one of my hidden passions," he says. "Valerie and I have done art for years."

Local artist Kit Stafford encouraged his efforts and now his sculptures can be found in the garden at Depot Café in downtown Sisters and in other places around Sisters Country.

Sisters Science Club has opened a world of opportunities for Collins as well as for the people it serves.
"The biggest reward, right away, was actually meeting the people in the school system, the science teachers," he says. "They are turned on and excited." As a direct result of their participation in the Science Fair, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle hosted eight Sisters High School Science students for a tour of what Collins calls "a top-drawer research lab."

"That was completely unexpected," he says. "And that kind of thing just keeps happening."

The Sisters Science Club is also bringing the Casey Eye Institute mobile van to town to provide assistance to needy families through Sisters Family Access Network. In association with that effort, there will be educational lectures and demonstrations on the science of vision.

Ideas keep percolating among Collins, Allen and fellow board member David Hiller. They've also taken on the restoration of a greenhouse at Sisters Middle School, which will be used as an educational resource for some hands-on biology education.

The future of science in America relies upon folks like Collins who are focused on bringing back the sense of joy and wonder people find in discovering the principles that make their world operate.

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