The Science of Not Knowing

How do you figure out the answer when you’re not quite sure of the question?

By Naomi Shulman / Illustrations by Tara Murty ’14

Ectonucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase 5. It’s hard for Jade Moon ’13 to say. “Ectonu-ectonucleos . . . let’s just call it endpt5,” she finishes with a laugh. Jade’s trying to talk about what she did on her summer vacation.  She signed on to do lab research through MIT’s Research Science Institute, a highly competitive summer program for students from all over the world. It’s geared toward high schoolers, but once there, students are paired with professional researchers in labs around the city—Jade was placed at Harvard Medical School—and suddenly any resemblance to high school vanishes.  “I was intimidated,” she admits. “I was the only high school student at the lab, and I hadn’t taken AP Bio yet, actually. I have a fair amount of biology and molecular bio, but a lot of people here at Deerfield know more than I do.”

ScienceMeanwhile, a continent away in London, Jade’s classmate Nina Sola ’13 was having a similar out-of-body experience, even though she was on her home turf. On a typically overcast day, Nina headed to Imperial College, the English answer to MIT, her nerves mounting as she approached. Undeterred, Nina walked resolutely up to a large door and pulled. Only to discover it was the wrong door. 

“I did finally find where I was meant to be,” she says. But that’s not to say she found her footing . . . not right away at least. Here, there would be no curriculum, no grades, not even any other high school students. This was a project involving real-world technology that would have real-world results: an exploration of hybrid fuel-cell technology that could have long-term effects on the planet. “I was working with lithium polymer batteries, looking at different voltages, getting data that would validate a model of how a battery should act,” she says. “It was daunting.”

This might come as a surprise to Nina and Jade, but their experiences—and the accompanying insecurity—couldn’t please Dr. Ivory Hills more. Last year, for the first time, Hills set out to coordinate the fledgling summer science research program with the intent to help science-minded students land the kind of internships and research positions that can, in the long run, launch a career. Rather than depending on their own (or their family’s) resources, students can now turn to Deerfield—and specifically to Hills—to navigate summer research opportunities around the country, and even overseas. 

Hills isn’t just trying to place students in labs and research programs, though; he wants to push them out of their intellectual comfort zones. “Deerfield students are objective-driven,” Hills says. “That’s what we encourage: come up with a plan and try to execute it appropriately.” Assignment, homework, quiz; lather, rinse, repeat. Students everywhere, not just at Deerfield, have been trained to ask a certain overarching question—What does my teacher want?—and most are quite adept at answering it. “They’re focused, they have drive,” concedes Hills, “but something that’s inconsistent with it—that you have to overlay on the objective-driven mindset—is this: What happens when the objectives are unclear?” What’s an A student to do when the teacher doesn’t have the answer . . . or when the question itself is unformed?

Materials and Methods

Ever the diligent pupil, Tara Murty ’14 walked into UMass Amherst’s Gierasch research lab last summer having done what homework she could. “I had done a little bit of reading about the general ideas of what was happening in the lab,” she recalls. “And my mentor had sent me a couple papers.” Tara would be looking at chaperones—proteins that help other proteins to fold properly. When they don’t, they can aggregate with other proteins, which in turn contributes to a variety of bad scenarios—including Parkinson’s and cancer. But chaperones weren’t on Tara’s plate on the first day; Tara’s first day was all about orienting herself. “I was shown around—looked at what people were doing, where we grew the e. coli, where we did some protein extraction experiments. Then my mentor said, ‘Why don’t you test things out, see if you can get the right numbers?’ So the first thing I did was figure out where everything was in the lab.” Tara pauses. “It felt pretty symbolic of what happened that summer, actually,” she reflects. “I was given ideas of what to do, and then I went on and learned what to do myself.”

Jade’s mentor also gave her some free rein. Like Tara, Jade was looking at a similarly small piece of molecular biology that could also have far-reaching results.

Science1-1024x812“It was previously thought that if you starve a tumor cell, it will start dying— but that isn’t always the case,” Jade explains. Researchers at Harvard had found instead that some cells, at least in lung tumors of mice, are sensitive to dietary restriction, but others are resistant. Plus, there’s this: “Ectonucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase 5,” says Jade. “My mentor noticed that bronchiolar cells had higher levels of entpd5, so I studied the connection between the expression level and how it affected the sensitivity of the cells to dietary restriction.” 

Thus Jade spent her summer in the lab, as did Tara and Nina and more than a dozen other Deerfield girls and boys, foregoing other summertime pleasures in the name of searching for answers that may not exist, on projects for which they would receive no grades.

Discussion

They would, however, be asked to share their work with the Deerfield community. One evening in late September, with summer but a fading memory, Tara, Nina, Jade, and other summer research participants gathered in the Garonzik Auditorium to talk about their experiences with one another, Dr. Hills, and other faculty. 

“It’s actually one of the keystones of our new science curriculum,” says Dennis Cullinane, chair of the Science Department and a faculty member whose classes provide rigorous research opportunities for students during the school year. “Critical thinking, working as a team, problem solving . . . and presentation of your work. Deerfield has made a concerted effort for kids to be stepping up and presenting, and I think it’s paying off.” With this expectation comes encouragement for students to organize their thoughts and articulate the point of their work. It’s one thing to show up to the lab every day, after all; it’s another to have a nuanced understanding of the research happening there, and to be able to explain it to someone else. 

Walking up to the podium, Tara stood before her peers and pointed out that the work she’d done on protein folding could have far-reaching results—extraordinarily far reaching. When a protein is being bound to a chaperone so it can fold properly, looking at the differences in their peptide binding will help to find ways to specifically inhibit the one that’s in cancer cells. “So that was my overall goal—to find the specific differences that could specifically target certain proteins,” she explained at the symposium. “Because then it could potentially . . . cure cancer.” 

Tara laughed a little at that last statement, but everyone at the symposium got what she was saying. Would her work cure cancer? No. But it could make a contribution toward that larger question—a huge, gaping question that has no answers, one that we’re not even quite sure how to ask. That’s what scientific inquiry is—delving into the unknown, with little guidance, no roadmap, and no certainty that you’ll come out the other side with any clear data. Students at Deerfield are learning to become comfortable with this kind of discomfort—partly because their teachers are deliberately creating a lab-like environment for them on campus, but also thanks to access to summer projects in actual labs. 

“On a departmental level, our goal is to expose kids to science the way science is done in the real world. That’s the way they learn,” Cullinane points out. Imagine Deerfield is perfectly in line with this mission. “Pro research, pro projects, pro problem-based learning, experiential-based learning, inquiry-based learning,” ticks off Cullinane. “The summer research program is exactly what we’re looking for—a culmination of a Deerfield education—like our research classes that we teach in house; they’re designed to be the capstone of a Deerfield science career.”

Hills agrees wholeheartedly. “That’s part of our philosophy: get students to think critically, and to use those skills to tackle a problem that on day one they cannot see the answer to, but they have the skills in place to work toward it,” he says. That’s why seeing his students a little vulnerable at the start of the summer was, in Hills’ opinion, exactly what they needed. “The world is changing at such a fast pace that we can’t be certain the education we’re providing will be relevant years from now,” he admits. “The best thing we can do is prepare students for a world that may be significantly different, but allow them to achieve in that world. That requires a love of learning, because they’ll have to be self-teaching all their lives.”

Results

This was only the first year out, but both students and faculty are pleased with how the summer research program is shaping up. (“Pleased” might be understating the case; “smashing success” are the words Cullinane used.) In fact, students who did more traditional summer programming have been inspired to work more independently next year. Consider Tara’s classmate Peter Shaw ’14, who spent four weeks at the University of New England focusing on neuroscience. “For the first two weeks, we sat in a classroom, like regular school,” he explains. But then that shifted; by the end of his time there, he spent his days in a neuroscience lab, working on ways to prevent arteries from bursting in the brain.  

Science2Peter finds it’s now having a direct impact on his schoolwork. “I’m taking biology this year, and I’m always coming across concepts and words in my biology textbook that I remember from the program,” he points out. “The material has saved me on biology tests a couple of times.” It’s not just boosting his GPA, however—it has also fanned a flame of curiosity. “Before doing that neuroscience project,” Peter admits, “the variety of topics we were going over, the endless possibilities, were a little too intimidating to think about. But once I started doing it, homing in on what I was truly interested in, it opened the realm of independent research for me. I’m more keen on doing that now.” 

Hills and Cullinane both see this as the best endpoint for the research program. Getting A’s is great, but the real goal is to ignite enthusiasm. Peter is an example; Cullinane also points to Nina. “I never really pegged her as science-y kid,” he says. “And that’s the target for this kind of program. Here’s this experience that takes a wonderful student and lights a fire inside of them.” Cullinane pauses. “My job in the classroom isn’t necessarily to teach material,” he confesses. “They’ll forget the material. But once a flame is lit . . . it’s difficult to extinguish.” 

That’s a good thing, because that kind of burning curiosity can be what helps students get past the biggest challenges of all. Sometimes it’s not simply a matter of not knowing the answer. Sometimes you take a stab at it and you’re wrong. Jade describes opening herself up to making mistakes as adjusting her lens toward school. 

“I would always try to accomplish what I intended to do, but throughout the process I had to redo several experiments,” she says. It’s an extremely frustrating scenario for a normally careful, deliberate student. Hills knew it would be hard for them, but stood back and let these students move through the experience. “They do have a certain level of discomfort at the start. But that’s a valuable lesson for them: ‘I was uncomfortable, and it didn’t kill me. I overcame it, and I thrived,’” Hills emphasizes. “It’s good to get that experience under your belt. It can be applied to so many things. Students want to know the guidelines to the game they’re playing so they can optimize their score… but sometimes the game is just go in there and mess around and see what happens.”

Which brings us back to the moment when Jade tells us how she spent her summer vacation. She still can’t say ectonucleoside triphosphate diphosphohydrolase 5 without hesitating, but she has a sense of humor about it—and she’s taking an increasingly philosophical approach to her work. “At first I got mad at myself for messing up, but more and more I expect that I won’t always be able to have the answer on the first go,” she reflects. It’s exactly the lesson her teachers want her to learn. “The process of not knowing can help you learn better than you would otherwise,” she continues. “I’m trying to embrace the fact that I’ll make mistakes, because those mistakes lead to new things. I learn from them.”••

Naomi Shulman has written for The New York TimesLadies’ Home JournalWhole LivingFamilyFun, and other publications. She is a frequent contributor to Deerfield Magazine.