By Naomi Shulman
Here’s a little story about what happens when chance, ambition, and luck converge. During winter break 2010, Joe Sullivan, Class of ’12, was spending time with his family on Lake Burton, GA. “I’m a big lake boarder. I’m always in the water, splashing—and falling,” Joe laughs. “But soon I noticed my contact would rise up in my eye—it wouldn’t stay centered on the pupil.” Joe went to an ophthalmologist his dad knew in Atlanta. But it turned out that his dad’s friend wasn’t in the office that day, so Joe saw one of his colleagues instead. “He told me I had an allergic reaction to the lake water,” Joe says. “Some kind of amoeba caused little red bumps on the inner part of my eyelid, and they would grab the contact every time I blinked.”
A straightforward problem with an easy fix, so Joe and the eye doctor started chatting about other things, like what Joe was studying at school. Joe mentioned he was thinking about attending the competitive Disease Detective Camp at the Center for Disease Control. Which is how it came up that this doctor’s wife works in the Division of Local Readiness at the CDC. And then it was like dominoes falling, one after the next—connection, application, acceptance. A few weeks later, Joe had landed a plum internship, the kind that can help lay the foundation for a career: researching pediatric pandemics at the CDC with the associate director of science.
Joe’s internship, impressive as it was, is hardly unheard of. Students at Deerfield have long spent their summer months in meaningful ways. The circuitous path that led to Joe’s internship is pretty common, too, but that’s about to change. A new program, launching for the first time this year, seeks to help passionate young scientists find their own plum assignments, so that students’ fortunes won’t depend on who was in the office that day, or who happens to be married to whom.
Instead, they will depend on Dr. Ivory Hills, a former senior researcher at a drug company, who ditched it all for life in academia. With a doctorate from MIT and senior research experience at Merck, Hills came to Deerfield this past fall not only to teach but also to create and implement the new summer program for science and research. For Hills, who had long had the ambition to teach but had been wooed by Big Pharma, it has been like coming home. “You know, I was a little naïve—I thought pharmaceutical companies were interested in making drugs. They’re interested in making money,” he says with a rueful smile. “After my decision to leave Merck, I knew that I wanted to teach. I’m most interested in helping foster students’ ability to think critically, and I think that’s best realized in a high school setting, since the students are still in their formative years.” It might seem like a risky move, but Hills points out that moments of risk are when the most interesting things happen—whether you’re trying to break into research internships at 16 or making a career about-face at 34. “Look, there are no guarantees,” he says. “The only guarantee is you can’t win if you don’t play.” It’s age-old advice, and students are responding, opening themselves up to the risk of intense research work. As of this past February, about 30 ambitious kids had already eagerly signed on.
Hills wasn’t surprised at the quick response. “Over the last couple years, there’s been an uptick of interest in the sciences,” he notes. “It may be a consequence of students hoping that their interests and ability will be their hook for getting in to the college of their choice; it may also be a consequence of science and technology being more integrated in our lives.” Whatever the catalyst, the result is a thriving science curriculum, with around 125 students taking AP science courses, and 45 participating in yearlong, in-depth research projects. And then, of course, there are those few who are taking it to the next level.
Louisa Hanson ’13 spent her afternoons last winter at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in nearby Greenfield. She shadowed doctors, witnessing surgery and endoscopy, but she also painstakingly collected and analyzed data, outlining the medical history of patients with diabetes and evaluating the efficacy of their health plans. This summer she’ll be transferring those skills to a project at MIT, studying dyslexia. “While patients are hooked up to EEG and MRI machines, they’ll identify different words so we can see which areas of the brain are stimulated,” she explains. “It’s interesting because the researchers are helping to define what dyslexia is, what set of requirements to use.”
Tara Murty ’14, a sophomore with a growing science resume, is another student undertaking real research; this summer will find her at UMass Amherst’s Gierasch Lab, exploring how amino acid sequences define the three-dimensional structure of a protein. “That’s the large question,” she says. “I’ll be working on some smaller questions, such as looking at in vivo proteins and how they fold. We understand amino acid sequences as ladders, which is a two-dimensional idea, but we don’t know how the sequence affects a three-dimensional protein. Understanding that would help us see how protein mis-folding happens, which can be applied to medicine and general science.”
Louisa and Tara are ambitious, driven science students, who would likely find some kind of summer opportunities on their own, but they are grateful to have a constellation of support. “Dr. Hills encouraged me to look around, to feel free to consider different options,” says Tara. “It’s so great to have Dr. Hills to talk to, see his connections, his ability to reach out to different faculty. Students who are from further away may not know what’s local to them in the Deerfield area.” Louisa worked with Hills to nail down not just where she would go, but why. “Dr. Hills helped me figure out what I actually wanted to do,” she explains. “He helped me realize that you have to think about time constraints, what’s really going to be manageable. It was helpful to have that resource.”
And that’s a big part of the point: to have a font of information and guidance to help these high-achieving students make their goals a reality. “How do you do it?” asks Hills. “If you’re doing it on your own, you get on the Internet, or your parents know people.” In other words: Even if you try hard, it helps to have a bit of luck. Consider Joe Sullivan; he’s a go-getter, so he would have found something on his own eventually. But it wouldn’t have been the amazing CDC internship if he hadn’t been in exactly the right place at the right time. “So my role was to come in and formalize the support and make it more uniform,” says Hills. “That addresses the potential gap that exists for whether your parents know someone, or are connected or not. If your parents have a connection, that might be good for you; but now, if any science teachers at Deerfield have a connection, that will be good for all of our students.”
Quiet and approachable, Hills doesn’t seem like a name-dropping sort of guy, but when pressed, he ticks off a few of the connections he personally brings to the table. “Based on my previous experience, I know the chairs of the chemistry departments at almost every East Coast school—Yale, Columbia, MIT; also at CalTech, UCLA—these are the places we’re focusing on.” Academic Dean Peter Warsaw underscores this. “Ivory is incredible. First of all, he’s brilliant, and also incredibly conscientious. But he also has as much experience as anyone we’ve ever had at Deerfield, and he’s putting all of that to bear on this project.”
When an internship originates at Deerfield, it gives Deerfield the chance to stay on top of what kind of enrichment students are actually getting, points out Dean of Faculty John Taylor. “We’d like to expand opportunities for students, but we also want to have a better sense of the quality of the program,” Taylor emphasizes. “When we organize a language trip, it’s with our faculty, so we have control of the quality. Ivory is speaking with coordinators, developing a relationship, then getting feedback, so we’ll have a much better sense of what programs are worthwhile.”
Since time is at a premium during the academic year, many students use the summer to pursue special interests. “It’s not a new model to enrich over the summer,” Warsaw points out. “What’s relatively new is that scientific research is a sanctioned mode of specialized interest. We are simply helping students consider, among their many alternatives over the summer, the opportunity to spend that precious time developing science skill—if that is their passion.”
The strong student interest at Deerfield speaks volumes. “I think the big picture is we realized students were doing this on their own, and we could help them do it better,” points out Bakker. “We’re in the business of getting these kids where they want to go, whether in science, in music, whatever their passions happen to be.” Taylor echoes that sentiment. “Really devoted students have long pursued their specialized interests over the summer. What we’re adding is a new dimension in terms of expanding the options,” he says. “It’s something of an apprenticeship. It’s more profitable for students if we can help them debrief, continue to work on what they’re doing, make it more continuous with what they’re doing here—and then present it to colleges.”
Meanwhile, Hills is also getting the students ready for a little bit of culture shock. These are not typical summer jobs, after all. Let’s circle back to Joe, who got into the CDC’s Disease Detective Camp, where students could attend mini lectures by CDC experts, participate in a mock press conference in the CDC press room, and probe hypothetical disease outbreaks—a tremendous educational experience, no doubt about it. But the internship itself? There was nothing mock or hypothetical about that. “My main task was to help investigate and conduct research for pediatric pandemic preparedness,” Joe explains. “We looked into Hurricane Katrina and how many children were left on the streets, essentially. I prepared a presentation on the subject for the director of science and presented it to the departments of local and regional readiness. The director then presented it to the Institute of Medicine.” This kind of experience doesn’t just prepare students for real-world work; it gives them an opportunity to test the waters of their future ambitions.
Hills is already working to prepare students for what that means. “We believe science is an integral part of society and may hold some of the answers to some of our key problems. If some of our students go on to be science majors in college, then we’ve built a strong foundation for that. If they go on in international policy or theater, fantastic—just having a basic scientific literacy is great too,” Hills insists. “And how are they are going to internalize that basic scientific literacy? Hands-on activities, struggling with problems.” Hills pauses, trying to come up with the best analogy. “I could give you eggs, flour, baking soda, oil, water, and a detailed recipe on how to bake a cake. And if you go bake the cake, hurrah, but who cares, right?” He shrugs. “But what if I don’t give you a recipe. Maybe the first cake you make is completely horrible, and you systematically start changing things. By the time you’ve baked the seventeenth cake, it might even be better than the original recipe I withheld from you.” Hills smiles. “That would be fantastic.”
Hills’ cake analogy is apt, articulating a goal inherent in the school’s strategic plan. Deerfield is preparing the current crop of students, all born at the tail end of the twentieth century, for the realities of the twenty-first—and what defines the twenty-first century? One can argue that so far, it’s the shared access of knowledge via technology. Facts—or recipes—are everywhere, so there’s no premium on simply collecting data anymore. Warsaw feels this acutely. “That means converting from consumers of knowledge to creators of knowledge,” he says. “The more you have students doing actual research and writing their results, presenting them to the Deerfield community and even the greater community in publications, the more you are adding to the world’s knowledge,” he says.
That expectation, bringing knowledge back to the community, is integral to the summer research program’s goals. In the fall, students will contribute to a symposium where they can share their results and experiences with their peers. “In my mind, that would complete one full cycle,” Hills says. Which means the end of summer will not so much be the end but rather to be continued. Tara and Louisa are both gearing up for the expectation that they will present their experiences, and perhaps inspire their peers to tread similar ground. They know they’re breaking new territory, but they’ll be coming back to as supportive a community as they could hope for. “I’ve tried to tell my students to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Hills laughs. “That’s something they really have to deal with, when they’re not in the comfort zone of their school. That’s part of the reason why I want to be in touch over the summer—you know, ‘How are you doing? It’s okay, it’s fine that you don’t understand everything.’ That’s the point! The leading edge of knowledge discovery is practically defined by not knowing everything. That’s what makes it interesting.” ••