Students Showcase Science Research at SciTech

Ariella Frommer, Staff Writer

The Science Research Program hosted the 11th annual SciTech event this Tuesday. The event featured keynote speaker Dr. Alexandra Sakatos ’03 and a poster gallery which highlighted research done by Upper Division (UD) students in the Science Research Program. 

“SciTech is the culmination of the work that we do in the Science Research Program, and it provides a great opportunity for people who may be interested in the program to see the kind of work we do,” science research teacher Melissa Doellman said. “[SciTech] feels like a real science conference, and it’s an excellent exercise in how to make a poster, how to present, and how to talk to people in a context they understand.”

After obtaining a BA in neuroscience from Carleton College and her Ph.D. in microbiology from Harvard University, Sakatos became a venture founder at Deep Science Ventures — a venture fund that creates companies to solve healthcare and technology problems, according to the SciTech website. Shortly after, Sakatos co-founded Ancilia Biosciences, an early-stage company hoping to develop a new class of live biotherapeutics for treating chronic disease. 

Doellman and Program Coordinator Dr. Christine Leo picked Sakatos because of her career path and accomplishments as a scientist, Doellman said. “Her area of work, biotherapeutics, has a lot of potential applications in the real world,” she said. “Seeing an HM alum who is not only in science but is also starting her own business brings in a whole new dimension.”

Sakatos’ presentation further illustrated how science can be applied in the real world because her product can change technology, Doellman said. “I hope that the fact that she is a HM grad who went through the same programs as these students are in shows that you have the opportunity and capability to really change things in the world.”

Science Department Chair Lisa Rosenblum hopes that students were inspired by Sakatos’ career change from practicing medicine to research, she said. “You can try a couple of different things, and your path might be a little windy along the way, but in the end, it’s going to be super interesting.” 

Similarly, Science Research 2 student Ethan Waggoner (12) was impressed with Sakatos willingness to enter a new field, he said. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for people stepping out of their comfort zone in this field because there is high risk in research.”

Ellen Wang (9) decided to attend SciTech to gain insight on science research and the school’s program, she said. She found Sakatos’ career path inspiring and different from what she typically hears, she said. “Her experience of how she switched onto the research track was very cool to hear because it’s extremely relatable for probably many students.”  

Students in the Science Research program created posters for the event based on the experiments they have conducted in the program. Because the school offers two levels of science research, the students in each level presented on different topics. Students in Science Research 1 presented on mycelium-based bioplastics, whereas students in Science Research 2, presented on the independent research they conducted over the summer. 

Doellman and Leo chose mycelium as the research topic because there was an opportunity to connect biology, chemistry, and physics, Doellman said. Therefore students could be potentially interested in the project regardless of their preferred subject, she said. 

For their projects, students in Science Research 1 tested the effects of different variables on mycelium growth, Lily Wender (10) said. Her group tested the compressive strength of mycelium under different hour amounts of light exposure, she said. “Because mycelium is a fungus and doesn’t need photosynthesis, we wanted to see if light would have any effect on the growth of mycelium.” 

In Science Research 2, students spent the first semester writing papers on their summer research topics and analyzing their data, Doellman said. At SciTech, most year 2 students presented on the research they did over the summer, she said. They began creating their posters for SciTech at the beginning of the second semester, she said.

While most projects were a continuation of research, COVID gave Waggoner’s group the opportunity to be the first researchers in the field, he said. “High schoolers in the US have never been to online school before, so there was no background research on it.”

After running their mycelium experiments, students compiled their data, made graphs and charts, and finally created their posters for SciTech, Harris said. Each poster included preliminary research, methods, photos, and a conclusion, which discussed their findings and if they supported their hypothesis, he said. 

At the event, the mycelium presentations caught Wang’s eye, she said. “I’ve never heard of anything like that before, and even though I haven’t had any exposure to it, the projects made it really easy to understand mycelium.”

At SciTech, students presented to small groups in a more informal setting. “I always feel like papers are too formal and while anyone could read my paper, it’s pretty hard to digest,” Waggoner said, “It was a lot easier for me to convey my research just by talking to people with a poster behind me and showing them the visuals.”

Being able to articulate the work one did over the year in ten minutes is not easy, Rosenblum said. “Explaining your research versus actually writing it out on paper or publication is a different skill to learn.”

The energy of in-person SciTech this year cannot be matched online, Rosenblum said. “I felt like the students were buzzing with energy, which was really palpable.”

Wang was impressed by the depth of every presentation, she said. “I had additional questions, but there weren’t any presentations that had obvious holes,” she said. “The fact that high schoolers can do research like this that can actually be impactful in the world is such a cool privilege to have at HM.”

Seeing students’ joyfulness about their projects, instead of frustration, was rewarding for Doellman, she said. “As a teacher, you know or want to think that students are enjoying what they’re doing, but to watch students proudly take pictures with their posters, to get excited when they’re talking, to check other posters out is the best part.”

While being in the Science Research program is time-consuming, it was a great experience, Harris said. “If you want a really hands-on experience, learn what it takes to develop a research question, make a hypothesis, and conduct experiments, I definitely recommend the Science Research course.”