By Naomi Shulman
One morning a couple years ago, working quietly in the lab, Mia Hecht ’09 was dissecting a crab. She was hoping to find a clue to how nonvertebrates, such as arthropods, manage to lubricate their joints—a question that had always intrigued their instructor, Dennis Cullinane. Mia carefully popped open the exoskeleton of her crab and saw something she hadn’t seen before. And she couldn’t find it in her research materials, either.
What’s this? she asked, turning to her teacher. Cullinane took a look. And thought, Oh, my…!
Let’s back up a moment.
Deerfield recently instituted a new program—yearlong, post-Advanced Placement (AP) research projects in biology, chemistry, and physics, for that handful of exceptional seniors who are ready to take their work to an even higher level. One such project, the one Mia was working on, goes by the unassuming name BIO 400 in the course catalog, and was designed by the equally unassuming Dennis Cullinane.
- Besides teaching science, Cullinane coaches cross-country and track, is a faculty resident in Harold Smith, and is a member of the faculty Committee for Professional Life.
Cullinane’s business card is mildly deceptive. It lists him merely as “instructor”—which he is, of course. But, like all the faculty at Deerfield, the job goes way beyond that. In addition to teaching AP biology and forensics, he coaches cross-country and track; acts as dorm master for Harold Smith; and is a member of the faculty Committee for Professional Life. And has a wife and son. He even lifeguards at the Deerfield pool on weekends. And yes—somehow he also manages to run what he refers to simply as “the project.” Only he will tell you he doesn’t run it. “The kids do,” he insists. “I’m just guiding them along.”
Each year, a self-selected pool of outstanding students embark on in-depth biology projects—the subjects to be determined, largely by the students, early in the fall. And each year, that pool of kids is narrowed down to just eight or nine.
“A lot of biology research takes years to complete,” Cullinane says. “For this course, we work within certain constraints, enabling us to complete our projects in one school year.” Working within those constraints, Cullinane also focuses the program on the areas he finds fascinating—which may be why his students tend to be captivated as well; Deerfield faculty have a knack for transfusing their enthusiasm to their students. Last year, Mia Hecht, now studying pharmacology and therapeutics at McGill, was one of the lucky few to research a question of invertebrate anatomy. The work she did led to an article in the scientific journal Arthropod Structure & Development.
To publish a research paper in a scientific journal in high school is unheard of—and Mia did so as lead author. “To say it was exceptional is an understatement,” Cullinane comments. “Publishing, you understand, is a rite of passage for graduate students. But Mia—a high school student!—was the principal investigator.”
Mia, too, is aware of her good fortune. “Most undergraduates hope to volunteer in research laboratories…as glassware washers.”
However, more important than the prestige, says Cullinane, is this: “It’s real science.” Personable and easygoing, Cullinane speaks deliberately, choosing his words carefully and emphasizing the points he wants to make clear—as a good teacher tends to do. “It’s more than, say, a science competition. In fact, competition in science is an oxymoron. Competing for grants, sure, but . . . you don’t compete against ideas. Scientific inquiry is not about muscling someone else out of your way. The whole point of publishing is to share knowledge, and to add to the corpus of knowledge.”