Portrait of a Graduate In Action: Science Research

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Portrait of a Graduate In Action: Science Research

November 3, 2023

Portrait of a Graduate in Action is a weekly feature that provides greater meaning and examples to the Warwick Valley Central School District’s Portrait of a Graduate, a representation of the district’s priority goals for teaching and learning to create graduates who are collaborators, communicators, creators and innovators, ethical and global citizens, resilient individuals, problem-solvers, and life-long learners.

Warwick Valley’s Science Research Program is a rigorous three-year program that WVHS students begin in their sophomore year. It is a component of the University in the High School program, offered in partnership with SUNY Albany and recognized by the New York State Board of Regents.

Science Research provides students with the opportunity to participate in the scientific research community by engaging in authentic research of their own design. Students develop advanced research and life skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication, time management and public speaking. To complete the program, students must:

  • Select and investigate topic of interest
  • Develop skills in research protocol
  • Read and summarize peer reviewed journal articles and critique professional scientific papers
  • Practice formal presentations of peer reviewed articles or independent research
  • Maintain a professional laboratory notebook
  • Build a scientific portfolio
  • Communicate with professionals
  • Design and conduct original research
  • Discuss and analyze results at symposia
  • Write a final research paper

Science teacher and program advisor Kristin Touw has guided a number of inquisitive Warwick Valley students through the program, and recognizes how high the bar is set for this program. That being the case, she also said that by the time research students reach the end of their program and are preparing for graduation, they’ve already grown beyond high school expectations in many regards.

“We’re always very proud to hear that many times the level of work that our high school students are doing [with their mentors] is applauded and commended for being at a higher level than some of first year college students.”

In fact, Ms. Touw sees many ways in which the science research program helps students develop the seven qualities of the district’s Portrait of a Graduate, which is our community’s way of articulating the many aspirations we have for all students as we prepare them for the world after graduation.

“One thing is definitely their newfound and growing ability to be a collaborator,” said Ms. Touw. “While they work in isolation and their projects are independent, when it’s time to lean on each other for constructive criticism, or to do things according to the scientific method, they remind each other of that, and are there for one another with positive and constructive feedback.”

Collaborators foster a strong group dynamic by being open to opinions and valuing the input of others, and can unite people around a common goal. They consult multiple sources to inform their opinions and conclusions. Science research requires students to work with other people, particularly mentors and research teams, and has the scientific process at its core.

“I’ve always loved science and I’ve always been a ‘questiony,’ curious person, but I started falling in love with science as I got older,” said senior Ava Gell, whose research has been about the effects of tryptophan supplementation on mood. “When I saw the science research class, I thought, ‘why not try it?”

Ava definitely sees how the science research program has helped her develop her skills as a collaborator and communicator.

“We do what’s called RATS Hours, which is Research Assistance to Sophomores,” she said, explaining how upperclassmen work with the sophomores to get their project up and running. “We actually only have one sophomore this year, so it’s more of an everybody-helps-everybody type thing, and I’ve definitely gotten closer with a bunch of the people in the research program.”

Ava said she is looking forward to seeing her project come to fruition, and remembers being a sophomore in the program and how three years seemed like such a big commitment.

“Now, I’m looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, looking forward to seeing how this all plays out, and being the person that I’ve aspired to be for so long. That’s exciting to me.”

Ashley Fitzgerald, a junior whose research has been on Epilepsy and the ketogenic diet and an enzyme adenosine kinase in the brain. She has been working with a mentor based at Rutgers University, and values the communication and collaboration skills she’s developed.

“It’s helped me learn how to effectively communicate, even on a national scale,” said Ashley. “And it’s really helped with my public speaking and presentation skills. I feel a lot more confident now giving presentations, and that’s helped me a lot in my other classes as well.”

Ashley and Ava agree that the collaboration between peers in the program is critical to the process.

“I often have to resort to my peers to solve problems or figure out where I should go next,” said Ashley. “It’s very much an, ‘I’ll help you, you help me,’ kind of thing. We all need each other to do this, because it’s a really hard course.

It goes without saying that the Portrait of a Graduate qualities of being an Innovator and a Problem Solver are nurtured in every way possible by this program, but Ms. Touw feels that there is one other tenet that is, maybe, the most important of them all, being a Resilient Individual.

“These students become incredibly resilient,” said Ms. Touw, giving examples of situations that have seen students make minor detours in their research, to completely overhauling their projects. “For example, a lot of what we’re doing is a big ask of [professional mentors in their field], so their requests might be turned down. Or, the project they write may really need a lot of attention to be approvable. You can’t hold on too tight to one idea, and your ideas have to shift and develop, because there will be turns along the way. These are real ‘back to the drawing board’ moments they work through, and that’s an incredible life skill to have.”

Evan Grundfest is another junior in the program, and he has been researching prion disease, specifically Koitzfeld Yakov disease, with his mentor, Dr. David Yeager, a neurologist at Crystal Run.

“A lot of this course is adaptation, finding ways to actually make your research feasible. A lot of things don’t exactly happen the way you planned them to, and that’s okay,” said Evan. “Finding ways to overcome those challenges is one of the fundamental parts of the course, knowing how to look at a certain problem and adapt to it.”

Evan plans on taking the knowledge and skills he’s worked on in eth program into a college and career path in medicine, either the pre-med route to become a “straight up a doctor,” or something in the growing field of biotechnology/bioengineering.

“These students are meeting a bar that I’ve set pretty high. Obviously, they’re getting skills that they’re going to carry right into college and beyond,” said Ms. Touw. “This program is great at showing the students what their futures could look like, and getting them ready for it.”

Ms. Touw said some of her favorite things about advising the science research program are the confident and accomplished emails she receives from students in the years after graduation.

“They’re sitting in a college lab and they tell me, ‘I was ready for this,’” she beamed.

And what about being Ethical and Global Citizens? That particular quality may not strike us as scientific in nature at all. But, it is through science and innovation that we address the issues affecting us and our neighbors – here and around the world.

“We can’t solve all the world’s problems in a three-year program,” said Ms Touw, “but we certainly take great strides toward understanding our role in the process.”

Students in the Media Center

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