Nightingale Students on the Scientific Frontier

November 20, 2020

A highlight of the Upper School science curriculum at Nightingale is the Independent Science Research Program, which is open to highly skilled, motivated, and dedicated students of science in Classes X–XII. By applying to the program, students in Classes IX and X indicate an intention to commit at least six to eight weeks to intensive science research during one or two subsequent summers. While most research placements involve a lab setting, field placements, as well as remote research are possible as well. Dr. Naomi Kohen, a member of Nightingale’s science faculty, oversees the Independent Science Research Program.

This summer, Nightingale students in the Independent Science Research Program, Alexandra Paulus '21, Ellie Whitehouse '21, and Anna Jamison '22 worked with alumna Michelle Lee '19 in Dr. Nina Papavasiliou's lab P'14 P'16, which is part of the German Cancer Research Institute (DKFZ), located in Heidelberg, Germany. Fortunately, this summer they were able to complete their internship while working remotely.

Their work was cutting edge – exploring whether genetic mutations of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 could be used for geotracing the spread of the virus across the United States. To perform their research, they wrote scripts in the programming languages Python and R in order to analyze publicly available SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequence data from the National Institute of Health. They then developed a model to correlate the quantity and type of mutations in the coronavirus genetic sequences found in patients infected in the United States, with the patient's location in the United States (at the state level).

They found that indeed some regions in the United States had specific characteristic genetic mutations unique to them, and that this information could potentially be used to trace the disease geographically.

Along with their research mentor at Dr. Papavasiliou's lab, PhD candidate Mr. Rafail Tasakis, the students are currently preparing a manuscript of their research to submit to the BioRxiv preprint survey, as well as to a peer reviewed scientific publication, by the end of this month. Anna shared, “It was amazing to be able to build on my own skills and put them to use in a field of great relevance and importance in the world today, even in a small way. Seeing the scientific method in action really impressed on me the value of independent problem solving and made me incredibly excited about pursuing science in the future.”

In November, Mr. Tasakis and our Nightingale students presented their cutting edge research to the *Science Seminar class. This marked Mr. Tasakis's second visit to Science Seminar - he presented last year with Sophia Fend '20 and Alexandra Paulus '21 on their research studying RNA editing enzymes. The Science Seminar class has also been fortunate enough to have Dr. Papavasiliou visit from Germany and present her research to the class, along with alumnae Sophia Fend' 20 and Michelle Lee '19 in previous years as well.

Reflecting on her internship experience, Ellie noted, “It was so exciting to partake in research that is relevant to my own life. Though I knew much about COVID from a social and cultural perspective, I was thrilled to learn about it from a scientific framework.”

We are very grateful for Dr. Papavasiliou's support of Nightingale students and we look forward to continuing the research collaboration between Dr. Papavasiliou's lab and Nightingale!

*Science Seminar is an Upper School science elective course open to all Nightingale students in Classes X–XII by application. Students accepted into the Independent Science Research Program are required to enroll in the course each year. In the multi-year course, students develop advanced scientific literacy and communication skills. Students present talks on research they have conducted in a lab or field setting, as well as on current topics of interest from a scientific lens. Students also hear from outside speakers and attend educational programs at local universities and research institutions. In addition, students are guided and supported through the process of securing a science internship. Dr. Kohen also teaches Science Seminar.