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Deerfield Magazine Winter 2011

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. 

load6Cullinane’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.

Litmus Test 

It’s a philosophy very much in keeping with Deerfield’s academic culture. Peter Warsaw, academic dean, says that with so many exceptional students—not to mention exceptional teachers—it can be a tricky balance, making sure the kids can pursue their passions while still getting a rigorous, classic high school education. “We’re proud that we have students doing extraordinary things,” he admits, “but we’re also conscious of the risks of early specialization.” That applies not just to academics but also to arts and athletics. 

Warsaw offers up an example: “Fifty years ago, you’d see varsity athletes in three sports—that kind of generalist is almost extinct now. We lament that.” High school is the time to play the field, so to speak—and the Deerfield faculty wants students to do just that.

load-multiple-photosTo that end, faculty members act as models for students by being “triple threats.” (“That’s a term we can’t get rid of,” Warsaw says sheepishly. “It would be better to refer to it as ‘triple hats.’ But that term has stuck.”) Whatever you call it, it’s the norm at Deerfield; it’s expected that teachers will play several roles. “It’s a model that has eroded at many schools, but we’re committed to it here. It’s a healthy, albeit demanding, lifestyle for the faculty,” Warsaw maintains. “But it’s also tremendously helpful for the students. It offers multiple opportunities to connect.” 

That being said, it is difficult to find men and women who are willing to devote the majority of hours in a day (and night!) to teenagers who are not their own, and consequently, Deerfield appreciates and strives to retain those who do make that commitment. 

When Cullinane came to Deerfield, this was new territory to him. He was fresh from a stint as assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Medicine; prior to that he’d taught at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and at Cornell University. The curricula in these programs were top-notch, but schooling at this level isn’t usually focused on providing students a well-rounded education. Teaching the whole student, rather than a single compartmentalized aspect of the student, was a challenge at first.  

“I was not a seasoned high school teacher,” Cullinane confesses. To tackle his learning curve, he took his cues from other faculty members, like health and science teacher Kristin Loftus (“she has really amazing classroom organizational skills”), Science Department Chair Ben Bakker (“he’s not afraid to let his students tinker in his classroom”), and especially science teacher Andy Harcourt, a longtime faculty member with a stellar reputation among  his peers and students alike. “He’s an entertaining teacher, as well as a vigorous one who takes his subject very seriously,” Cullinane says.  “I watched, learned, and copied all the other teachers here when I arrived.” 

By all accounts, he caught on fast. “We met Mr. Cullinane on Mia’s first day freshman year,” Mia’s dad, Julian Hecht, says, “when he was a brand-new faculty member and Mia’s advisor. Little did we realize he would have such a huge impact on all our lives.” 

Characteristic of most faculty/student relationships at Deerfield, Cullinane knew who Mia was before he became her teacher. And when Mia had to spend a month in the infirmary with a chronic illness during her sophomore year, Cullinane, who was no longer her advisor or her teacher at that point, came to visit (and, ever the scientist, capitalized on the teachable moment). “He explained to me what was happening to me physiologically,” Mia remembers fondly. And that’s exactly what Peter Warsaw is talking about. 

“All these intersections help to develop more trust, more caring, and more comfort in the Deerfield community,” he says. And that kind  of trust and comfort leads to the kind of quiet morning in the lab two autumns ago, the kind of morning where a diligent student stumbles upon something unexpected, turns to her mentor, and asks, “What’s this?”

Crash Anatomy Course

“I was dissecting crab legs, isolating the joint,” Mia remembers. “This particular morning I’d finally figured out how to do it without breaking the surrounding shell, and I began examining the joint structure under the microscope.” 

load10-e1337276648960That’s when things took an unexpected turn. “The joint was far more intricate than depicted in research papers. I’d researched the topic extensively,” she says. And so she asked Cullinane to come take a look. “I didn’t truly realize we’d found something new until Dr. C smiled, flipped through some of the scientific journals I had shown him, and told me we now had a topic for my research project. I was happy, but I didn’t realize the importance of what had just happened, or where it would lead us.” But Cullinane, who had been accustomed to teaching at the medical school level, did.

Crash anatomy course: We vertebrates, with our internal skeletal structure, have a vast network of load-distributing bones. Invertebrates lack this; arthropods, in particular, are dependent on the external cuticle and “outpocketings” to bear the stress of everyday wear and tear. What Mia discovered, and shared with readers of the May 2010 issue of Arthropod Structure & Development, is that crabs (and probably other related species as well) actually have a stress-distribution system of their own—a system of what look and behave like struts in their joints, reducing the concentration of pressure by disseminating it throughout the exoskeleton.  

“Think of the ceiling of a cathedral,” Cullinane explains. “Think of the buttresses bearing the weight of the cathedral ceiling. They’re like struts—what you find within the human femur. Or, for that matter, under the chassis of your car.”  

But they couldn’t be sure, not yet, how the structure worked. In order to examine it properly, Cullinane knew they needed finite element modeling capability—which engineering professor Ian Grosse, at the nearby University of Massachusetts, Amherst, could provide. Finite element modeling is a numerical technique that allows for detailed computer imaging of how structures move, revealing stress distribution and displacement that would not be obvious to the naked eye. The methodology has commonly been used in engineering; cutting-edge biologists are increasingly using it as well. 

Grosse and Cullinane had never met, but their shared passion for this type of research made them natural collaborators. “I’m always interested in applying finite element analysis to new material,” Grosse said. He welcomed Mia and Cullinane into his lab, and even took it upon himself to explain to Mia the (very high-level) math behind their findings. “I was glad of that,” Cullinane happily admits. “That’s not my background.”

A High Premium on Time

After the excitement of that project, Grosse is onboard to collaborate with BIO 400 students in their next projects, and thanks to Deerfield’s close proximity to UMass and the other “Five Colleges,” Professor Grosse is happy to make the short trip to the Deerfield campus. “We have finite modeling capability here, now,” Cullinane points out. “But Professor Grosse still brings his expertise.” 

load9-1024x924Why does he bother? “Because it’s fun, of course,” laughs Grosse. “I mean, I have plenty of work to do at UMass, but seeing this methodology—that I’ve dedicated my life to—being used at the high school level? It requires special students, but this proves that with the right mentoring from teachers, this technology can become part of a high school curriculum.”

The facilities in the Koch Center don’t hurt, either. “Are you kidding me? They’re fantastic,” Grosse exclaims. “Any college would be delighted to have labs like those. I’m not sacrificing a thing when I go over there to work.”

But shiny new labs, while nice to have, aren’t the most crucial ingredient. Balancing this in-depth research with the broad education Deerfield prizes, points out Warsaw, also requires the gift of time. “Students benefit directly from a faculty modeling lifelong learning,” he says; of vital importance is “creating time for faculty to develop their academic passions and interests, and support faculty growth across careers.”

Time is what can allow teachers like Cullinane, and his colleagues across all departments, to extend themselves just a little more—to explore things a bit more deeply. “Deerfield is such a vigorous environment. Almost every moment is allotted,” Cullinane explains, and the call for more time is a rally cry for students and teachers alike. That being said, the majority of faculty members are so deeply passionate about their subject matter that they manage to eke out time here and there in the pursuit of new knowledge—often bringing students along for the adventure—and that’s outside of the classroom.

BIO 400, in particular, places a high premium on time, in part because the work students undertake is always fresh; it also fosters collaboration—with outside professors such as Ian Grosse, and within Deerfield’s own faculty. Cullinane is not interested in questions that already have answers. After all—if you know the answer, what’s the point of asking? “No mere lab exercises,” he insists. “We don’t do projects that have already been done.” 

Accordingly, each September brings an entirely new line of research to the table. This year, the students settled on three separate projects: a computer modeling of bruising; a domestic violence study in collaboration with local criminologists; and a cardiology study of the effects of exercise on resting cardiac output.

Charlotte McLaughry ’11, one of this year’s BIO 400 students,  is most passionate about the domestic violence study. “It’s focusing on the real world, on a problem that is occurring right now and needs to be solved,” she says. “We’re gathering police reports of domestic violence cases, and we’ll make data tables assigning a value to the severity of violence in each case, which should help police analyze each case and figure out how best to proceed.” 

load7-682x1024McLaughry’s interest in BIO 400  was piqued when she received emails from students last year, looking for test subjects for ambitious projects. The opportunity of a class like this at the high school level wasn’t lost on her. “It’s independent and creative. We’re structuring our own time, and we know that we’ll get out of it whatever we put into it.”  This implicit trust and mutual respect is a hallmark of Cullinane’s interaction with students. “Dr. C is really in tune with the kids in his class, and we can always communicate with him. He’s always available, even when he’s not on duty.” 

McLaughry’s classmate Kendall Carpenter ’11 agrees. Carpenter is focusing on the cardiology study this year, looking at the effect of basketball training on cardic output.  She, like McLaughry, had Dr. C last year for AP Bio, and admits it was no cakewalk. “It was hard! It was my hardest class of junior year. But somehow it didn’t feel burdensome to study eight hours for a test. I mean, it took a toll on my sleep,” she laughs. “But my interest level was always high. This may sound silly, but I think the atmosphere in his classroom is conducive to learning because it’s so comfortable.” 

Cullinane does trust and respect his students, but there’s something else, too: He has an almost prescient sense of what lies ahead for them. Along with the rest of the faculty, he’s helping guide them toward it. “Deerfield kids tend to be passionate about the work they do,” Cullinane says. “They take ownership of their projects. Their futures as doctors or researchers is palpable to them—and I see it, too.” 

Perhaps that’s why Mia stresses that she wasn’t learning just biomechanics in BIO 400. In addition to incorporating skills learned in other classes, such as math and English, she marvels, “I was allowed to do something completely new. I learned how to collaborate with a professor, research a specific topic extensively, contact other specialists nationwide. It’s hard to believe I received the kind of research training I did in high school. But most importantly, I was learning how to be self-reliant. I learned to think for myself.”••