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Taming the juggler

Gales Creek fourth-grader Chandler Schaak, whose dyslexia 'grabs' his words, is helping a doctor with neuron research at OHSU
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FOREST GROVE - When Chandler Schaak was almost five, his preschool teacher thought he should stay one more year before moving on to kindergarten.

His mother, Ragna TenEyck of Forest Grove, didn't argue. Even then, she knew her son was dyslexic.

Chandler wasn't diagnosed with dyslexia - a condition that makes it difficult for him to learn to read and write - until the first grade.

It was then that the slight, dark-haired boy, whose dimples deepen every time he smiles, came to know 'the juggler.'

That's the name he's given to the neurological phenomenon that causes his brain to mix up letters when he's trying to read and transpose them when he writes.

'The juggler grabs my words and jumbles them up,' explained Chandler, now 10 and a fourth-grader at Gales Creek Elementary School, where he also is considered a gifted student. 'The words get all fuzzy in my head.'

He's made peace with his condition, which makes reading and writing a challenge. 'I call it a 'learning difference,' not a learning disability,' he said.

He remembers when his friend, John Bloomer, taught him to spell 'cat' a few years back. 'We're still friends,' Chandler observed.

A rabid video gamer and a black belt in Taekwondo, Chandler oozes self-confidence.

He goes rock-hounding and fishing with his father, Donald Schaak, who's also involved in Chandler's Cub Scout activities.

Although he's regularly pulled out of Kellie Weigel's classroom at Gales Creek for specialized tutoring, Chandler knows he's smart.

'I'm really good at memorizing,' he said. 'If someone tells me something, I remember it.'

This winter, Chandler is studying electricity along with his classmates. He just finished the state writing test that measures student accomplishment in that area.

'You pull out the dictionary,' Chandler said. 'You write, and you hope that everything's spelled right.

'I really like spell-check better.'

TenEyck, who is a lawyer, spends an hour or more a day helping her son with his studies - a drag for the precocious only child.

'I do not like homework, and I do not like being held in from recess,' Chandler declared. 'I do like my two cats and one dog.'

Doing neuron research

As a board member for the Oregon branch of the International Dyslexia Association, TenEyck had the opportunity to take Chandler to the OHSU/Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Brain Fair last year.

It was there that Chandler met and made friends with Dr. Agneiszka Balkowiec, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biosciences at OHSU's School of Dentistry.

Chandler's engaging personality and love of science won her over. Balkowiec invited the boy to her lab on Pill Hill.

Since then, about every other week, he's traveled to Portland to help her carry out neuron research on dissected rats' brains.

'I asked her, 'what's a neuron?,'' Chandler said of his first visit to Balkowiec's eighth-floor office on Campus Drive. 'She said they're things that carry impulses.'

Chandler peered through a high-powered microscope at a stringy tissue mass called a ganglion - and the budding scientist was hooked.

'It was cool,' he said. 'I learned about unipolar, bipolar and multipolar neurons.'

He also found out that sensory neurons 'tell you something hurts' and that motor neurons 'tell your body what to do.'

Balkowiec asked her young protégé to analyze two control groups of neurons - one natural and the other infused with 'growth factor,' a naturally occurring protein capable of stimulating cell proliferation - to see if the outcomes were different.

For the next several months, Chandler counted neurons and made charts from colorful images of neuron batches.

'You dissect the brain, take out the ganglia, put it in the Petri dish and add growth factor or not,' Chandler said. 'Then it incubates and you watch what it does.'

He concluded that the group with added growth factor was the most productive, with 430 'good' neurons to the natural group's 150.

'It was hard work'

'I figured out that growth factor actually does help with your neurons and the connections,' he said. Chandler presented his findings to his class at Gales Creek, and Balkowiec came and talked to the students.

'I was proud because it was hard work. It took a while and it had a lot of math,' he said.

Balkowiec and her colleagues plan to take things a step further this spring, drilling holes in rats' teeth to see whether added growth factor makes them more susceptible to cavities and decay.

Chandler isn't sure where his own research will go from here.

'I told Agneiszka, 'I just do the research - you guys do the medicine,'' he said. 'I plan to just get good grades and wait until they need me again.'

In the meantime, Chandler will continue acting as a youth spokesman for dyslexia awareness at various conferences and events. He took to the podium last fall at a seminar sponsored by the OHSU Partnership for Educators, describing to teachers and parents what it's like to have dyslexia.

His speech notes include hand-drawn diagrams depicting how his brain works.

The juggler is a stick figure with as many as eight arms and a thin layer of color-crayon 'fog' surrounding him.

'Those are his hieroglyphics - his mental reminders,' said TenEyck. 'When he can't read the words fast, the pictures help.

'It's Chandler's way of organizing things in his brain.'