Not long after becoming Pueblo Community College’s science lab coordinator, I saw a notice that the Packard Foundation was offering small grants to boost preschool learning programs. I’d just left a preschool teaching job, and I’d been admiring the lab gizmos and thinking how much kids could get out of experiencing them, so I had a brainwave: wouldn’t it be cool if we could check kits out to teachers, so every kid in class could have a set of bottles full of magical but harmless chemicals to explore?
I talked to my bosses Regis Opferman, who approved the project, and Gail Kingrey who made suggestions for the proposal and then brought in a grant specialist.
He liked the idea but said we needed to ask for more money because foundations don’t like to mess with nickel and dime projects.
“Oh, I know,” he says, “you can make videos to explain how the chemistry works.”
The only thing I knew about making videos was that homemade videos were usually lame. Even Hollywood movies can be awful, so what chance did I have of making good ones? But Gail didn’t see any problem, and we got the grant, so I did what I could.
There was so much to figure out: what experiments to include, how to label bottles for nonreaders and explain the procedures and reactions to preschool teachers who didn’t necessarily see science as friendly. Then I discovered that I had a superpower. The whole college seemed to be behind me on this project. Gail explained the concepts I wasn’t sure of. Henri Santiago drew cartoonish pictures of lemons, bars of soap, and milk cartons to use as labels, then recruited her husband to write and record the theme song.
Scott Richards in communications is the busiest person I’ve ever known, but he agreed to film the videos and even advised me on writing scripts and producing. Jean Gardner and Effie Romero in the library were happy to handle the checkouts. When the kits were ready, Gary Franchi in PR helped get the word out.
Later I took the kits and my work-study students to Colorado State University-Pueblo for their annual Chemistry Day. The 3rd year I signed up to go, the director of that program told me that, of all the displays and demonstrations offered by various organizations, our Kids Chemistry Kits always booked up first. That’s what comes of having PEEPS.
My mother tells me I tended to be nervy about taking on things that seemed like a lot, but after that Kids Chemistry experience, I knew I had wings, and I’d be crazy not to fly. I decided to become a freelance travel writer. I hadn’t traveled or written much, but I took two English classes from Luis Nazario, and with his help, eventually got published in magazines and newspapers all over the country.
When I became chair of the college safety committee, I didn’t know how to run a committee or keep a college safe, but I got a PCC grant to create a safety training program for all PCC employees and then recruited Loretta Opferman to research and write it. I also saw that the state safety agency asked for nominations for various safety awards, which seemed like a good way to promote safety, so I put in for them. PCC raked in all kinds of awards– including one for the safety training program that Loretta Opferman did a bang-up job on. Go Loretta!
When my first book, Rocky Mountain Walkabout, came out, Dr. Davis found his way to my lab, bought the book, and after he’d read it, took me to lunch to discuss it. I doubt that any of the previous presidents knew my name, but Dr. Davis knew my real name and my pen name and sometimes asked when my next novel was coming out. We were devastated to lose him to a plane crash, but I will always thank heaven for Mike Davis and other PCC folk who encourage big dreamers while so many roll their eyes at loonies who go around reaching for stars.
Speaking of going for the gold, let’s talk Dr. Regis Opferman, a science department chair who contributed his own brand of inspiration. While I was writing Mile High Lab Rat, Regis was on a mission to climb all of Colorado’s 54 14,000’ peaks. When Regis had a few extra minutes, he went to the elevator to use the perfect ledge there for practicing 1 or 2 finger pullups. Did he make it? Silly question. He probably climbed some of the peaks with one arm tied behind his back.
He’s also a veterinarian. I’ll never forget watching him remove a tumor from a lizard’s tail under the fume hood. I thought it was strange that he would do that using nothing but his fingers, but Regis explained that pulling the tumor out allowed the flesh to break along natural planes and did less damage than using a scalpel.
He knew a lot, but his specialty was humor. Being the microbiology instructor and a veterinary, I think he especially related to the joke about Joe who was going fishing. Joe’s friend asked if he had worms. Joe said, “Yeah, but I’m going anyway.”
To those who’ve read Mile High Lab Rat, it may seem obvious that my character named Grant is actually Regis in real life, but the truth is that Regis is more like Grant’s way more amazing older brother.
So not only did I get megatons of support, encouragement, and inspiration at PCC, my 22 years as a lab rat provided a treasure trove of background to make Mile High Lab Rat 100% authentic even though it’s not true.
Today, this 100% authentic, retired lab rat needs people more than ever because readers generally choose books that other readers recommend. Please read Mile High Lab Rat, and if you like it, tell everybody! Tell them in person, on social media, and on Amazon and Goodreads. You are the literary influencers that can lift this lab rat to best sellerdom.
I’m counting on it, so thanks in advance! And to those of you who are already spreading the word: you are the best!