Liz Lee Heinecke

My story (so far.) A letter to my kids.

By Elizabeth Heinecke

Everything comes full circle. Growing up, my parents surrounded me with family, nature, music and love. My most vivid childhood memories are of backpacking trips and singing folk songs. Like most kids, I had no idea how privileged and blessed I really was. Now, as a parent myself, I've tried to share some of these experiences with you, only to find myself on the receiving end once again, seeing nature through your eyes, getting choked up when I hear you sing or play piano and feeling unbelievably lucky. 

Your story is part of mine, just as mine is part of yours, so here's my story so far.

From Outdoor Science Lab for Kids (Quarry Books 2016)-photo by

My parents, Ron Lee and Jean Hanson met in Ames, Iowa at a party where my dad was playing guitar. They were married on June 19th, of 1966, honeymooned in Estes Park, Colorado and moved to Manhattan, Kansas, where my dad became a physics professor at Kansas State University.

Mom, dad and me at 1513 Nichols Street in Manhattan, KS.

I came along in March of 1967, and my sister Karin arrived in 1969. We lived at 1513 Nichols Street in Manhattan, in a ranch house with a beautiful garden tended by my mom. Our unfinished basement featured a trapeze, built by my dad and a well-used ping-pong table. The living room had hardwood floors, where I remember dancing to the Nutcracker Suite, sliding around in our socks. 

My dad played his guitar every night, and we spent our evenings singing folk songs together. Mom, a former home economics teacher, was an active member of the League of Women Voters. They both sang in our church choir.

Dad played guitar for us almost every night.

Every year, when school was out we'd drive to California, and live there for the summer. My dad worked at Lawrence Livermore Lab. (I got my first glimpse of Kangaroo Rat DNA there, suspended in a test tube encased in a glass display. I was hooked.)

I got lots of blisters from my hiking boots, but it was worth it!

We backpacked at the Point Reyes National Seashore and in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Besides lots of blisters from my hiking boots, I especially remember trips to Lake Ediza and the Baboon Lakes, drinking Tang, eating gorp, fishing, and lying on warm granite slabs, looking up at snowy peaks. 

I saw my first whales from a bluff at Point Reyes' Coast Camp, and my favorite place to fish in the mountains was a hidden jewel, called Sunset Lake, where the water was so clear you could watch trout follow your lure.  

Fishing at Sunset Lake, near Baboon Lakes in the Sierras

Back in Kansas, my sister and I were regulars at 4-H days, singing folk songs and John Denver covers. Note the denim tuxedos. 

Aunt Karin and I playing at 4-H Days.

Around the time I started middle school we moved to a house with a kitchen created for The Cook's Workshop, the first cooking school in Manhattan, KS, designed and run by my mom. Needless to say, we enjoyed delicious leftovers and learned to be fearless in the kitchen via culinary immersion. 

In high school, I sported a perm (big hair was all the rage in the 80s), played in band, orchestra and jazz band and was the first girl to be first chair trombone in the Kansas All-State Jazz Band. 

I played a nun in The Sound of Music, trombone in the Music Man, and spent a summer at Interlochen Music Camp, where I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing. 

Luther College, my dad's alma mater, was my next destination, and I headed there in the fall of 1985. I started college as a music and biology major, played trombone in the concert band, ran on the cross country team, and spent too much time socializing to be very successful in classes like organic chemistry. 

A trip to the Picasso museum in Paris inspired my to put down my calculator and pick up a paintbrush, and I graduated with an art major, a biology minor, more good memories than I could count, and a smart, funny, basketball-playing boyfriend named Ken Heinecke.

After Luther College, Ken went on to graduate school to study Economics at the University of Iowa, and I went to work as a research assistant at the University Hospitals just across the river. That's where I learned my way around a lab, and how to play with DNA.

We got married in Minneapolis in 1992 and moved to Kansas City for a few years before landing in Madison, Wisconsin, where we spent five blissful years biking through rolling hills, visiting the farmer's market and sitting by the lake on the terrace. I worked in a microbiology lab at the university there, continued to play with DNA and hung out with lots of fun people, while studying for my master's degree in Bacteriology. 

In 1999, we returned to the Twin Cities and settled down in the Morningside neighborhood of Edina. I worked in a genetics lab at the University of Minnesota until I changed course to stay home with you three bundles of joy, energy and noise. My thirties are a blur of beautiful warm babies,  growing toddlers, and an occasional watercolor class or guitar lesson. I have never been more happily exhausted.

Things came back into focus around the time I turned forty. You were eagerly exploring everything in sight, and I was ready to explore with you. Your short strides and endless curiosity forced me to slow down, and I started to experience the world again with fresh eyes. The endless stream of "whys" made my head spin (in a good way.) 

Naturally, we started doing science experiments together, and I wrote about our adventures in my Kitchen Pantry Scientist blog. We saw a Monarch caterpillar transform to a mint green chrysalis, isolated DNA from strawberries, and created more than a few messes with baking soda, vinegar and food coloring.  I was on a mission to teach every parent and grandparent how fun and easy it is to do science with kids.

Around the same time, social media arrived on the scene, which made it easier to spread the science love.

One day, a local news anchor asked if I'd do a science demonstrations on her Sunrise News show. I said yes, and soon I was making regular appearances on Minneapolis-St.Paul TV stations. You got up early many mornings to assist me on-air, and thanks to Twitter, I got to take a trip to a NASA Tweetup at Kennedy Space Center for a space shuttle launch.

NASA Tweet-Up for STS-134 launch.

I started singing in church choir again, learned to play electric bass, joined a garage band called the 952, and played at lots of neighborhood parties, which is why you know lots of songs by Prince and the Cure.

You were all in school, which gave me more time to write and do other science-y stuff, like teaching microbiology to nursing students.

We spent long summer weekends at Grandma and Grandpa Heinecke and Grandma and Grandpa Lee's cabins in Northern Minnesota, where you swam like fish, caught fish, ran around barefoot and spent time with your cousins. Luckily, that hasn't changed.

Life is good at the cabin.

Between soccer games and band concerts, I kept doing outreach, writing about science online and demonstrating experiments on television. 

Making slime on Twin Cities Live. Photo by Glenn Griffin

I also made an experiment app called KidScience with a friend. One day, a publisher (Quarry Books) asked me to write a book, and I said yes. 

You know what happened next. Lots of photo shoots. Lots of writing. Lots of science experiments. My first book, Kitchen Science Lab was published in 2014, and Outdoor Science Lab comes out in June, 2016.

From Kitchen Science Lab for Kids (Quarry Books 2014)-photo by


Today, I'm well aware of how privileged my life is. I still get outside every chance I get, play the banjo, read, sing, run, paint, and do science. Most of all, I love to spend time with you, dad and the rest of our family. Life is good, even on the hard days.

Dinner at the cabin. (Horseshoe Lake)-Photo by Grandma Lee

I know you'll find your passions too, whether acting, singing, storm chasing, or sitting by a lake listening to the loons call. Don't let them slip into the background. Do what you love, say yes to opportunities, stay connected to family, be thankful for what you have, always be kind, and focus on the good things.  

You've already started writing your own life stories. I can't wait to see what happens next! 


Liz Lee Heinecke
Personal History
Liz Lee Heinecke
Personal History