Riverdale’s Aspiring Scientists Take Advantage of Research Opportunities
With an accelerated science program, an annual science symposium, and a student research laboratory on campus, it is clear that Riverdale‘s science department encourages students to delve deep into their scientific interests. These opportunities allow students to explore their passions for science outside of the traditional classroom environment with limited adult guidance and extraordinary hands-on experiences.
The Lisman Research Laboratories located on campus are a prime example of just one opportunity provided to curious students who wish to improve their scientific exploration abilities. For over ten years, students and faculty have been working together at the Lisman Lab to conduct cutting-edge biomedical, genetic, and engineering research. For five weeks each summer, this group of students and faculty work to design their own experiments, collect and analyze data, and learn how to present their findings at regional and national symposiums.
Directed by Upper School science teacher Dr. Rachel Cox, this program focuses on experiments that inform students about the local Bronx environment.
Research projects include an analysis of stress responses occurring in plants in the Bronx River estuary, a heavily impacted watershed near our campus. This project asks students to evaluate physiological adaptations in various species and their causes. Another study, which began in 2017, includes a trip to the Alaskan Arctic for experiments regarding ecological changes in that environment.
The hands-on experience that students find at the Lisman Lab is what drew senior Leanne Chen to the program. After her freshman year, Chen knew she wanted to be involved in experiential science.
“I wanted to delve deeper into science and discover more,” she said. “After reading some articles about the environmental research Dr. Cox was directing, I was immediately intrigued because I have always been passionate about helping the environment.”
Chen was not only motivated by her love of nature, but was also drawn to the student-focused design of the program. Chen chose to work at the Lisman Lab over other options because she could work alongside her peers rather than a scientist in a less familiar lab.
“At Lisman, I was able learn from people my age who shared my passion,” she said. “The teachers provide some advice and mentor us, but the students really have the freedom to decide what they want to do.”
In fact, in just her first summer with the program, Chen led a pilot experiment to understand how plants in two different sites responded to a pollutant. Her role consisted of collecting samples, exposing them to propane, and analyzing the samples’ proteins and DNA.
To ensure that Chen was surrounded by other students with the same degree of passion that she had, Dr. Cox developed an application process for the program to find the most talented and interested students. An interested student first sets up a series of meetings with Dr. Cox to explain why they want to conduct research and what drew them to the Lisman Lab. They then read a paper that her lab published and analyze it to prove that they understand the material.
After completing this process and getting accepted, senior Maddy Noah joined Dr. Cox’s research team to help collect smooth core grass samples from the Bronx River. She then studied molecular changes such as the global DNA methylation of these samples.
“We got to do everything,” she said. “I dug up samples from the Bronx River and brought them back to the lab myself. Typically, a high school student is getting coffee for a scientist, but at the lab we could truly take ownership of our studies.”
In fact, Noah was so invested in her research by the end of her first summer that she decided to come back for a second summer. As a part of her research, Noah even got the opportunity to go backpacking in Alaska for a week to collect samples on Spruce Trees. With the knowledge she took away from her research, Noah took up the challenge of sharing her findings with the greater scientific community. She not only presented at Riverdale’s Science Symposium, but also at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Junior Science Symposium in DC where she spoke in front of a room full of students from around the nation.
Looking forward, Noah hopes to stay connected with the research she has done as she moves onto college and is currently working on a research paper with Dr. Cox which will outline and summarize her studies and the implications of their results.
Though the program at the Lisman Laboratory is a fantastic way for students to get involved in hands-on environmental research, it is just one of many opportunities offered by the school. Other possibilities include the semester-long Science Research elective course taught by Dr. Cox. This class helps students like junior Grace Lieberman who want to get involved with research, but did not go to the Lisman Lab. Working alongside senior Juliette Egan, Lieberman created a study to learn about the correlations between sleep, sports, and academic engagement.
“The science department supported me in my research idea and provided me with any and all the materials I needed,” she said. “They proofread my work and gave me constructive criticism in order to better my presentation. They even provided me with insight into the process of creating a scientific presentation and prepared me for any challenging questions I might encounter.”
To collect qualitative data, Lieberman created a survey of multiple-choice questions which she distributed to the Upper School students. She then analyzed the data and presented her conclusions at Riverdale’s Science Symposium.
“From the research I conducted, I learned about the criteria necessary to draw conclusions and the difficulties that one may encounter while researching,” she said.
Lieberman’s story demonstrates that there truly is a way for everyone to get involved in science research, and the Science Department is a great resource for any questions related to extracurricular involvement in science.
Though some of these programs may seem quite challenging at first glance, the community environment that they foster allow students to delve deeper into their passions while simultaneously learning about what the world of professional science has to offer. And though there is a specific code of conduct in a lab setting, Riverdale students have found ways to bring fun into their research.
“A highlight of the program for me,” said Chen, “was at the very end of the summer, we used our leftover supply of liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. Everyone brought their own ingredients, and we celebrated our five weeks of hard work with some homemade dessert.”