An Interview with Mr. Ma

Mr. Ma examines a petri dish in TSC 1

Mr. Ma examines a petri dish in TSC 1. Photo: Sophie Devincenti

Carl Ma has been a science teacher at Branson for a number of years. Along the way, he has taught biology, chemistry, and has led the annual Island School trip. Besides his passion for teaching, he enthusiastically jumps at any chance to play ultimate frisbee, and currently serves as a sophomore advisor. I sat down with Mr. Ma to talk about his time at Branson and what effect it has had on him and his life. We discussed everything from education equality, to meeting his fiancé for the first time, to accidentally setting the fire alarm off amidst a rainstorm (and making the entire school evacuate).

What is your role at Branson?
“I have stuck through teaching bio most of the years, which is a lot of fun because I was a bio chemistry major. So now, teaching chemistry, it’s taking me back to my college days—making me refresh and think about chemistry again. And it is really fun seeing students grow from one year to the next. And in the past, I had also done model UN and that was a lot of fun, but with a lot of things going on, I passed that one on. I did [model UN] in high school, but not as intensely as some of the students do here. But in model UN we did one or two local conferences a year. Here they’ve done some local conferences at Berkeley and Stanford, which are actually some of the biggest conferences in the nation. Yeah, that was a blast.”

What is the most rewarding part about your job?
“I think [the most rewarding part is] seeing students grow from year-to-year. Often times, in the bio tech course, I get to see them again and see that change in perspective and maturity over the years. Also getting to push students a little bit. And just maintaining relationships after they graduate too. Students come back and they can keep in touch by email and all these other ways. It’s really cool to see. All those things are really rewarding.”

What do you see as your greatest accomplishment?
“That’s a tough one. My greatest accomplishment is not work related — or school related for that matter… But I think I’m a really good big brother to my younger brother and younger sister. They’re in high school and college and we are nine years apart. We never fought and we don’t have the typical relationship of an older sibling, but at the same time I think I help them from almost a parent perspective too. I let them know about things that I wish I had known that when I was their age… and I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of.”

How did you come to know Branson?
“That’s a really interesting question. I got to know Branson through many different avenues before I came here. The first way I got to know Branson was because one of my good friends, her name is Margot, she was at the graduate school program I was in at Berkley. We became close and she was a Branson alum. She would talk about her high school experience and how she thought it was really almost like a mini college in a way because of the opportunities that she had. I thought: ‘wow that’s really really cool and it’s very different from my high school experience.’ So I got introduced that way… to a really amazing place.

“The other way was, we were at a holiday party and she introduced my to my fiancé, and she’s a Branson alum too. And over the last seven years we’ve been together I’ve gotten to see the way Branson shaped her as a person and that’s made me appreciate the school even more. As I started to get to know her more and she kept talking about Branson. As we were graduating she let me know that a position had opened up at Branson. So my first impression of the school was from meeting the great people that Branson molded.”

Are there any funny anecdotes from your time here?
“I’m sure there are so many. It’s always good to laugh whenever. We laugh over if I make a mistake or if [students] make a mistake. It’s a lot of fun, in a very lighthearted sense.
“For funny things that happened over the years, I remember my first year that I was doing this demo and it was something very little. The fire alarms are really sensitive in TSC and I learned that the hard way. It was raining outside and I said: ‘oh, I’ll just do the demo inside since the demo generates one little single puff of smoke because I didn’t want to get the students wet.’ So we did the demo inside and it generated smoke, but it was right under the smoke detector. And then all of a sudden [the alarm] starts going off, so I forced the entire school to evacuate in the midst of a winter, when it was cold, while it was raining, and I felt so bad. But, when those things happen, you can look back at them and laugh.”

Is there one piece of advice that you want students to know?
“Be open to new things and new people. Be open to traveling outside of the context of life as you know it. That’s been honestly one of the most important things for me. One of the things that I remember from my traveling when I was super young—I grew up in China and then came over to the US and I went to China to visit during the summer—I was riding the bus with my mom dad and outside there was this young girl and she couldn’t have been older than nine or ten. She was riding this bike with a huge bed in the back filled with full water bottles, not in school, during a steaming hot day. The thing must have weighed hundreds of pounds. It really was eye opening. Not everyone has those types of opportunities, traveling and getting to see the world outside of here. And traveling made me grateful and made a positive impact on me.”

What do you hope for the future?
“I think education is incredibly powerful, but not everyone is able to access it. I’m interested in thinking about educational possibilities on a larger scale because education has the enormous power to change people’s lives. There are a lot of changes that are happening right now with technology and partnering and it’s really interesting to see how those things pan out.”