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.”
- Homology Model of HspA1 based on undocked Hsp110 with differences in amino acid sequences between HspA1 and Hsc70 in blue
Meanwhile, 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?