Her Science Lessons Have an English Accent
By Jeff Hansen
Carmel McNicholas-Bevensee grew up in Manchester, England, the world’s first industrial city. Her dad was a carpenter and joiner from Ballyglass in County Mayo, Ireland, and her mum grew up in nearby Greyfield.
Both of her parents were upbeat people, and that family attitude kept 19-year-old Carmel going when her dad died of a heart attack at age 53.
“You have to deal with the problems in life,” said Carmel, an assistant professor in Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “You either roll with it, or you crumble.”
Carmel speaks with an accent that mixes her Irish roots and English upbringing, somewhat like Julie Walters, the English actress with a County Mayo mother. Walters played Molly Weasley, matriarch of the Weasley clan, in the Harry Potter movies. It’s an accent that fascinates children when Carmel does outreach in Hoover elementary schools to give children a hands-on experience in science.
“They say, ‘You sound like Harry Potter,’ and they all think you know the queen,” Carmel said.
“Oh, yes,” she quipped in an aside, “I go out to tea with her once a week.”
After coming to UAB in 2000, Carmel found a home in the Russet Woods neighborhood of Hoover.
“We heard the Hoover schools were good,” she said
Her children are now in those schools, 12-year-old Clare at Bumpus Middle School and 10-year-old Sean at Brock’s Gap Intermediate School.
“We’ve been really happy with the school system,” Carmel said. “And I’ve really enjoyed Russet Woods. It’s just a friendly neighborhood — when I walk my dog, Ella, I always chat with someone.”
Carmel did her undergraduate degree and doctorate work at the University of Manchester so she could stay nearby and help her mother. The offer of a postdoctoral position at Yale University lured her to the U.S., followed by a job running a cardiovascular drug discovery lab at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Princeton, N.J.
At Yale, she worked on ion channels — the tiny molecular gates that let ions flow into or out of a cell — and their relationship to kidney disease. Now she focuses on ion channels related to heart and lung disease, including cystic fibrosis.
But Carmel also makes time for science outreach at area elementary schools using a program adapted from the American Physiological Society. In the past three years, she and her colleagues have worked with more than 4,000 children.
“We try to put that seed in their heads, that science can be interesting,” she said.
The children measure their own lung volumes and listen to the beating of their hearts and breathing of their lungs, or the noises their stomachs make as they drink a glass of water. Carmel also brings pig lungs and hearts for hands-on experiments.
“When we inflate the lung with a bicycle pump, they think that’s the coolest thing ever,” Carmel said.
The children work with an anatomy model to see how the inside of the body fits together, and they get to cut open a heart to see the chambers and major vessels.
Four years ago, when Carmel inherited a farm in Ireland from her uncle, she took her children on a trip to England, where her mother still lives, and to Kiltimagh, Ireland, where her grandparents lived.
“Our family (her mother’s Lavin line and her father’s McNicholas line) goes back generations in Ireland,” she said. “It seems every other tombstone in the Kiltimagh cemetery is either Lavin or McNicholas. When you walk down the street, there’s the McNicholas travel agents, the McNicholas butcher. That’s why I took the kids there — they can see some real roots.”
Last year Carmel sold the County Mayo home that had been built by her grandfather. The property was overgrown and too far away to keep up.
“It was sad. Some of the furniture had been built by my grandfather — we had to throw it out,” she said.
But like her parents, Carmel has grown new roots in a different country.
When Clare and Sean were still preschoolers, Carmel took yet one more step into her adopted home. She raised her right hand at a naturalization ceremony and recited the Oath of Allegiance to become a U.S. citizen.