Fords dip into collegiate research

Aditya Sardesai ’20 working in Penn’s Rader Lab – photo by Dr. Xin Bi

While some of us spent the summer at the beach, traveling the far corners of the globe, or playing sports, five Sixth Formers were pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. 

     Sixth Formers Toby Ma, Alexander Greer, Daniel Chow, Aditya Sardesai, and Jack Ballenger are all part of the Advanced Lab Research Program—led by Biology teacher Mrs. Kara Cleffi—which exposes students to a professional lab environment over the summer, where they can work with real scientists.

     Ma, Sardesai, and Ballenger worked in labs at the University of Pennsylvania, while Greer researched at MIT and Chow assisted researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

     Ma and Sardesai were both in the Rader Lab at the Perelman School of Medicine at UPenn, where they worked on gene therapy methods and learned about the ways proteins worked in the body and affected bodily functions.

     “I got to work under a mentor who was investigating a protein that helps regulate cholesterol levels,” Ma said.

Toby Ma ’20 at Penn’s Rader Lab – photo by Dr. Donna Conlon

     Sardesai, who worked on similar proteins, said that this research allows scientists “to better understand the chemical pathways that may let [them] determine someone’s risk for heart disease and increased cholesterol levels, allowing [them] to develop better treatments.”

     Across the street, Chow participated in the Akizu Lab at the CHOP Research Institute, which specializes in studying early-onset brain diseases that occur in children.

     Meanwhile, Ballenger worked in the Wilson Lab, which focused on AAV gene therapy, a process that involves using viruses to replace DNA sequences and cure certain genetic diseases.

     While the other four were working on projects closer to home, Greer labored at MIT in the lab of Dr. Ellen Roche. Unlike his peers, who worked primarily on biology and physiological research, Greer spent his summer continuing his work in the Soft Robotics Club at Haverford by developing new biocompatible soft robots for use in physical therapy and drug delivery. 

     Greer was surprised to learn how the work the Soft Robotics Club weighs against the research being done at MIT.

     “What Haverford has been doing with soft robotics has been at a comparable level [to MIT],” Greer said, “and the field shows a lot of promise for innovation from high schoolers.”

     The students all said they had learned a great deal about the scientific fields that they had studied in school. However, it seems that the students learned more about working in a professional lab environment, more so than the science itself.

     Ballenger said, “I learned a lot about the time and effort required for research and discovered that there are often setbacks in the lab.”

     “I learned a lot about how professional lab research is conducted, and what lab researchers do every day,” Ma said.

“I learned a lot about the time and effort required for research.”

Jack Ballenger ’20

     Now that the summer has drawn to a close, the students will be shifting their focus from their labs to summarizing their results in a research paper that they will write over the fall and present early next year. Once this year’s group is off to college, their work will be hung up on the first-floor wall near the science classrooms, next to the work of their predecessors.

     All five of the participants highly recommend the program, which is open to all Fifth Formers, who should contact biology teacher Mrs. Cleffi if they are interested.

     “To be doing research at a really forward-thinking institution like Penn, and some of the top labs, which Haverford has connections with, is a really good opportunity to experience research at a really high level,” Sardesai said.

     Chow said, “For any [Fifth Formers] passionate about anything STEM related, I highly recommend the program.”

Author: Yan Graf '20

Co-Editor-in-Chief Yan Graf has written for The Index for the past four years. He has previously served as Managing Editor. His piece “Tensions flare in condiment smackdowns” earned a Silver Key from the 2020 Philadelphia-area Scholastic Writing competition. In 2019, he earned a national Scholastic Gold Key for his piece on North African immigration to Europe.