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.”