Science Teachers Reflect on Years of Research and Exploration
You may have gotten to know Riverdale’s science teachers in terms of their work here in the Riverdale community, but have you heard about the incredible work they have done and currently do outside of the Riverdale science classrooms?
Dr. David Eby is a Riverdale physics and astronomy teacher, and he participated in interesting work both as an undergraduate and graduate student in college. Dr. Eby spent time researching a star made of quarks and containing extremely dense matter but whose existence as a whole is not actually certain. Dr. Eby explained that, along with his advisor at the time, he “did calculations on what happens on the surface of that star because the matter breaks into weird shapes..” “It is amusingly called ‘quark pasta,’” he continued, “because the star forms into one, two, and three dimensional circles” that when put together resemble a lasagna shape.
Later, in graduate school, Dr. Eby shifted his work to focus on another type of particle called neutrinos, which “interact so rarely that it has taken us about eighty years just to try and build some very bare-bones information about how they act,” he described. “As we are starting to unwrap that puzzle, there are a lot of different ideas about how it might lead to a better understanding of fundamental physics.” For his personal work, Dr. Eby focused on a variety of theories that tried to use symmetry to understand particle behavior. For mathematicians and physicists, this type of symmetry is a repeating pattern, so he and his peers used a type of geometrical symmetry to try and better understand neutrinos. Dr. Eby thoroughly enjoyed his work as both an undergraduate and graduate student, but he is equally excited to be a teacher at Riverdale to help students grow and discover their passions as young scientists.
Dr. Siobhan Armstrong, a Middle and Upper School biology and physiology teacher, engaged in very different but equally interesting scientific research outside of the Riverdale community. Dr. Armstrong is a physiologist by training, and she focused mainly on steroid hormones. “The research that I was most invested in focused on how reproductive hormones like estrogen and progesterone alter the stress response,” said Dr. Armstrong. At the University of Michigan, Dr. Armstrong worked with sheep by giving them different types of stressors and observed if they could still reproduce normally. She then took the results and “realized that the interaction was interesting enough that the ‘other way’ worked as well. When women are at different points in the reproductive life cycle, either premenstrual, menstrual, pregnancy, postpartum, all the hormone levels are different, and that affects how women can deal with stress.”
Dr. Armstrong became interested in this work in the late 1990s, when she travelled to Arizona for an exercise physiology graduate program. “I ended up doing a study where a bunch of doctors were looking at PET scans of women’s brains at different points in the menstrual cycle and correlating that with reproductive hormone levels,” said Dr. Armstrong. From there she went on to do her work at the University of Michigan and ultimately came to teach at Riverdale. After giving in-depth focus to a single area of study during her research, Dr. Armstrong believes she now “has a much broader picture on interpreting any kind of information” and is more able to solve problems in a meaningful way.
Dr. Rachel Cox is also a biology teacher at Riverdale, in addition to co-teaching Thinking About Thinking and being the Director of Science Research.The science research in which she is engaged, however, has been very different from both Dr. Eby and Dr. Armstrong. Dr. Cox is a research associate at Columbia University for the department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, and she presents seminars there for the department once a year. At the university, Dr. Cox is involved in research that looks at how arctic tree lines are adapting to climate change. Dr. Cox finds her work so important because she recognizes that while climate change is affecting people in many communities, it is also affecting plant life. Dr. Cox finds her work particularly meaningful;“all the work that I do outside the school,” she describes, “allows me to maintain authentic research with high school students.”
Dr. Cox is currently engaged in several ongoing research projects, one of which is actually with a Riverdale alum, Zachary Halem ‘14. Dr. Cox and Halem presented a detailed poster together at the Toolik All Scientists Meeting, a conference in Portland, about tree adaptation in the arctic. In February, they and a few other Riverdale students submitted a plant research proposal to the Black Rock Forest Foundation, and in March they found out that they would be granted funding for their project, which both Dr. Cox and Halem are very excited about. “That kind of thing would not have been possible without my collaborations outside the school,” said Dr. Cox. “But everything I am doing outside the school, I am bringing back into the school.” As the Director of Science Research at Riverdale, Dr. Cox finds it important that students are engaging in research that interests them and that can have a real social impact.
If you are interested in doing your own science research project, definitely reach out to Dr. Eby, Dr. Armstrong, or Dr. Cox to find out more about their research projects and how they can help guide you to find what you would be most interested in exploring further.