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Individual attention during the college-admission process empowers students intellectually, socially, and emotionally, helping them to confidently find the right-match schools of their choice.
Rowland Hall’s college counselors promise to:
know and care for each student;
guide students to discover colleges that reflect their interests and aspirations;
work with students to present their strengths in the best light possible; and
offer expert counseling to students and their families throughout the college-admission process.
Guiding students and their families through the highly competitive, complex college-admission process requires an expert degree of knowledge, counseling, professionalism, networking, and skill. Our college counselors draw on many years of experience in college admission and advising when they discuss each individual student’s and family’s goals for the next step after Rowland Hall. You can expect informed guidance regarding schedule planning, college-entrance tests, creating a college list, teacher and school recommendations, and college essays and applications. We provide current and accurate information about a range of colleges and universities, as well as information about trends in the ever-changing college-admission environment, to help students gain admission to institutions that best match their interests, academic record, and aspirations, along with family financial considerations.
Historically, all Rowland Hall graduates continue their education at a four-year college or university, including the nation's most competitive and well-known institutions. Keeping in mind the high cost of tuition, many of our graduates wisely choose to ultimately attend colleges that offer merit scholarships, packages not offered by some highly selective colleges.
College counseling at Rowland Hall is a student-centered process and draws on the resources, history, and tradition of the Upper School as well as on the professional relationships and broad experience of three highly qualified and well-respected college counselors. Rowland Hall juniors and seniors meet frequently with the college counselors in group meetings and individual conferences, and the College Counseling Office offers a wealth of resources and perspectives to help students and families navigate the process.
Just as Rowland Hall expects students to assume greater responsibility for their own education throughout their years at school, the college counselors expect students to complete tasks and meet deadlines throughout the college-admission process.
Annually, the college counselors offer a several-day tour of colleges and universities in a different area of the country. Popular with juniors and sophomores, these trips combine college visits with tours of historical and cultural points of interest. The most recent destinations have been the Chicago area, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Boston.
Get Ready, Get Set
Each fall, college counselors visit ninth graders during first-year seminar and sophomores during a 10th-grade core class. The college counselors present separate meetings for parents/caregivers of ninth and tenth graders to introduce the college process for younger students.
The Rocky Mountain Association for College Admission Counseling (RMACAC) recently named College Counseling Director Michelle Rasich one of two recipients of their 2019 Roger H. Campbell Award—the organization’s most prestigious distinction, signaling career-long excellence.
The Roger H. Campbell Award was presented for the first time in 2000 and honors individuals who have made significant contributions to RMACAC and our profession through their many years of service. This award recognizes those who have met the highest standards of commitment to our college admission profession. The Roger H. Campbell Award is the highest tribute RMACAC can give to recognize individuals who exemplify excellence and dedication to serving the needs of students in the transition from high school to college.
Michelle has worked at Rowland Hall since 2010 and has made international waves in her field by popularizing a new approach to letters of recommendation, among other accomplishments.
“All who serve and sacrifice in furtherance of the RMACAC mission inspire and motivate me to work smarter, dream bigger, and innovate faster,” Michelle said after receiving the award, adding she was grateful for and humbled by the recognition.
Michelle received the award at an industry conference May 22. RMACAC is a nonprofit professional association consisting of over 450 people from secondary and post-secondary institutions. They’re an affiliate of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
In the late ’90s, John Christensen visited the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. He watched fishmongers toss massive fresh catches to one another while effortlessly interacting with throngs of tourists, and realized that despite the smiles, jokes, and radiating positivity, throwing heavy fish for an audience all day was tedious work.
Yet the experience for everyone was always happy, because regardless of variables—from bad weather to long work shifts—the fishmongers were always happy. They were always positive; they were always present; they actively sought ways to make their audience’s experience memorable; and they always had fun.
Leadership is complex, but at its core, it should be something we enjoy. Successful leaders are consistent and have fun, and we should instill that in our students. People who embrace that philosophy are more impactful and sustainable leaders than those motivated by expectation alone.
For the last four years, I’ve worked as Rowland Hall’s associate director of college counseling. In the fall, our office is dedicated to supporting the needs and nurturing the anxieties of over 70 seniors, and we often find ourselves at a loss as to how to serve everyone to the fullest degree.
The last straw was when one admissions representative visited our school without meeting a single one of our students. He represented a college that my colleague and I knew would be a great fit for a number of our seniors, but because it wasn’t in the 25 perennial favorite “reach” schools of students and their parents, no one signed up. The representative was instead left to meet with my colleague and me. This experience, along with the daily stress of meeting the needs of students and visitors, inspired our college counseling ambassadors program.
The tenets—choosing your attitude, being present, finding small ways to make someone else’s day, and infusing fun into your work—serve as the perfect platform for a student-leadership program.
So what does a new student-leadership program have to do with fishmongers? Well, with my unwritten but foremost job responsibility being relationship building, I live my own version of the fishmonger’s story every day. The FISH! philosophy, the leadership theory that Christensen developed as a result of his Pike Place observations, is now used by organizations the world over. It’s a natural match for Rowland Hall. The tenets—choosing your attitude, being present, finding small ways to make someone else’s day, and infusing fun into your work—serve as the perfect platform for a student-leadership program.
Our ambassador team began with a group of second-semester sophomores who completed applications and interviews and participated in two months of training. Each ambassador developed a campus tour highlighting their unique Rowland Hall experience, then conducted mock tours with their peers and provided constructive feedback to ensure everyone would lead successful visits. Starting in the fall, they turned that training into concrete leadership as they adapted to last-minute schedule changes, guided peers on what to expect while talking with college reps, and synthesized and relayed institutional highlights in weekly emails to entice seniors to attend college meetings.
As the semester progressed, their confidence grew, and I witnessed—while they experienced—the FISH! philosophy in action:
Choose Your Attitude
We all have days when things don’t seem to be going right. For our ambassadors, this might mean they overslept or have anxiety over a test. But when it’s time to don that name tag and welcome college reps to campus, ambassadors choose to have a positive attitude. They ensure guests leave knowing more about Rowland Hall, and that their time here was valued. This is a major goal of the program and a key component in developing students’ abilities to be positive leaders.
For our ambassadors, being there doesn’t just mean showing up on time. It means staying engaged throughout a rep’s visit, asking questions during their presentation, and cultivating curiosity about the opportunities an institution provides.
Our students exist in a culture that is constantly propelling them forward, providing little reward for being present and getting out from behind a screen. For our ambassadors, being there doesn’t just mean showing up on time. It means staying engaged throughout a rep’s visit, asking questions during their presentation, and cultivating curiosity about the opportunities an institution provides, even if they don’t think it would be a great fit for them personally. Being there also manifests in an ambassador’s ability to think on their feet and adjust to schedule changes. Focusing on the present helps them adapt to unplanned or less-than-ideal situations.
Make Their Day
Emotional intelligence is an important component of leadership development. For our ambassadors, this takes shape when they find small ways to make reps special. Ambassadors ensure that reps have the opportunity to set their bags down or get a drink of water before their tour. They also send reps handwritten thank-you cards. Helping our ambassadors develop the emotional intelligence to read and respond to situations empowers them to make others feel valued.
Ambassadors may not be be enthusiastic about every college they’re assigned, and they may not always be jazzed about drafting yet another email on what they learned about a university. But we can still have fun. Celebrating successes—whether by hosting our end-of-semester breakfast or by sharing compliments paid to ambassadors via post-visit surveys—is an important practice that our lead ambassadors (a new component of the program this year) are now adopting. Taking a step back to find joy in your work is an important facet of leadership.
So as I kick off my 27th school year (as a student and counselor) with a new crop of ambassadors and our first crew of lead ambassadors, I’m energized by the enthusiasm of my students diving in headfirst. Our lead ambassadors are learning how to mentor our new folks, and in each interaction, I see them actively choosing positivity, finding ways to make each other’s day, and exploring new opportunities to infuse play into every aspect of the program.
Coral graduated from the gcLi Leadership Lab in 2017. The lab, by presenting a foundation in developmental psychology and brain science, helps educators develop the ability to identify, utilize, and create teachable moments to transform individuals, classrooms, sports teams, and whole schools.
College Counseling Director Michelle Rasich has helped to fine-tune a new, effective format for recommendation letters. Now she's leading the charge to teach her peers about it, and it's gaining traction across the globe.
When College Counseling Director Michelle Rasich and three colleagues from other institutions learned they'd be presenting a conference session in a 20,000-square-foot ballroom at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, they suspected there'd been a miscommunication.
The group was scheduled to give a presentation called "Recs that Change Lives" early on Friday, September 15, at the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) annual conference.
"We were convinced there had been a mistake, that this was not the right room for us—we were supposed to be in a smaller room," she said. A coordinator confirmed the roughly 1,000-seat space was indeed for them, and 958 attendees showed up that Friday morning.
"None of us had ever presented to a group that size," Michelle said. "I was more energized than nervous, because I was so excited to have that reach and to be able to affect that many people."
According to feedback from attendees, she and her presenters lived up to the hype. Comments included, "THIS alone was worth the travel to Boston"; "Best I've attended in my 31 years!"; "Life changing"; and "Michelle is amazing. I want to go to every session she does at every conference."
Word had already been spreading on "Recs that Change Lives," organized-narrative letters of recommendation for high schoolers applying to college. Michelle named the concept as a nod to Colleges that Change Lives, a book and subsequent organization of student-centered colleges well-known among college counselors. The letters use a series of headers and bullet points so they're easier for admissions officers to read and simpler for college counselors to write. Specifically, Michelle coined headers such as "Distinctive Qualities" and "College Readiness and Recommendation" based on what admissions officers told her they're trying to find in the letters.
"They're on a scavenger hunt," she said. "They're looking for this, so why not just give it to them instead of making them dig for it."
There has to be a better way, Michelle told fellow counselors, to work smarter, not harder, and to better advocate for high schoolers while taking into account the realities faced by admissions officers.
When Michelle started at Rowland Hall in 2010, she devoted ample time to writing traditional two-page letters. "I was spending a lot of time in transition—making sure that paragraph one was logically and smoothly tied to paragraph two," she said. She spent up to two and a half hours on one letter, while a college-admissions officer spent 15 minutes reading an entire 15- to 20-page student file. Accordingly, the number of college applications continues to increase in part due to the Common Application, Michelle explained, but individual colleges aren't necessarily hiring more admissions staff.
While on a bus tour of midwestern colleges with peers from the Association for College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), Michelle broached the problem to colleagues. There has to be a better way, she told fellow counselors, to work smarter, not harder, and to better advocate for high schoolers while taking into account the realities faced by admissions officers.
Some of Michelle's New England peers discussed a format they'd long been using. It entailed organizing letter content in a more visual way, with headers and bullets, so readers could more easily find what they were looking for, whether that was extracurricular activities or academic growth and trends.
The Data-Driven Solution
We don't want to assume that we're doing our jobs in a way that is beneficial to students and college readers. We want to know for a fact.—Michelle Rasich, college counseling director
So counselors on the ACCIS bus tour mocked up a sample letter, and over the summer, Michelle—data enthusiast that she is—gathered feedback on admissions officers' reactions to the new format. Michelle and Associate Director of College Counseling Coral Azarian care very much about collecting data to assess their work, Michelle said. They regularly poll students, for instance, to track trends related to college counseling.
"We don't want to assume that we're doing our jobs in a way that is beneficial to students and college readers," Michelle said. "We want to know for a fact."
Michelle surveyed the 25 colleges that (a) Rowland Hall students most frequently apply to, and that (b) accept letters of recommendation. Seventeen representatives responded with positive feedback, and Michelle made minor adjustments to headers based on suggestions. She implemented the new format the following school year, and surveyed admissions officers once more. Feedback this time, she said, was even more positive. A representative from Vanderbilt University, for instance, wrote, "I really like the format, as it allows me to focus on a certain section. The categories that you've chosen are helpful and things that we would look for in our process." Other admissions officers encouraged Michelle to continue using the new style and to teach others about it.
Evangelizing 'Recs that Change Lives'
As an alumna of Bowdoin College, Michelle is a staunch believer in the common good. So after admissions colleagues praised the new format in the second survey, she led the charge to share "Recs that Change Lives." She wanted to spread the gospel on this effective method that steered counselors toward a more concise style—Michelle now spent about an hour on each letter—without sacrificing the personal details admissions professionals desired.
For several years, Michelle and her colleagues presented the concept at regional conferences. Traction at that level inspired them to present at NACAC, which opened the floodgates. Every day for a month after that Boston session, counselors from across the world emailed Michelle requesting the presentation materials. Now, six months later, knowledge of the format is nearly ubiquitous.
John McLaughlin, associate dean of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, co-presented with Michelle at NACAC. He's seen more organized-narrative recommendations come across his desk over the past year. The format allows writers to get to the point, he said, which can be useful for recommenders writing dozens of letters. "I think Michelle's work to share the approach has been a key factor in its growing popularity," he said. "It was thoughtful and generous to do that, and that's Michelle."
Michelle likes to bill the letters as a win-win-win: "It's a win for the student, because we are able to advocate more effectively based on the feedback; it's a win for the reader; and it's definitely a win for the counselor," she said. "I always put the counselors last in that equation because that's how it should be focused—the student, the audience, the writer."
Writers may be last in that equation, but they're still reaping benefits. Michelle said public-school counselors have told her time saved writing letters now goes back into spending more nights and weekends with their families. And of course, there's plenty of buy-in here at Rowland Hall, where 90 percent of teachers who write recommendation letters use the new format. A group of 12 early adopters included Math Department Chair Brian Birchler and English teacher Kody Partridge. Kody said the format keeps her focused on key components of the letter without surrendering to a formula. Brian said it helps him provide a clearer picture of the student, and to do so more efficiently: "As someone who has to spend a long time to write well, the bulleted format really lets me focus on telling the story of a student's experience with mathematics."
Service work by Michelle and Coral continues to bolster Rowland Hall's already-strong reputation in the fields of college counseling and admissions.
"Recs that Change Lives" has shone an international spotlight on Rowland Hall, and Michelle is still soaking it all in. "I'm so proud to be representing Rowland Hall at this level and to be contributing to the common good of all counselors and admissions professionals," she said. "This is a career hallmark."
Beginning in January, juniors attend monthly group meetings that kick off the college planning process in earnest. College counselors meet personally with juniors and their parents/caregivers throughout the late winter, spring, and early summer. Junior parents/caregivers participate in an introductory group meeting in January, and they receive regular communication from the College Counseling Office as the year continues. In January of their junior year, students begin exploring Naviance, a powerful web-based college-planning resource that Rowland Hall has used for a dozen years.
Rowland Hall seniors confer regularly with the college counselors and participate in dedicated workshops on a wide range of topics: application boot camp, college essays, application case studies with admission professionals, mock interviews, college-bound athletes, and college-bound performing and visual artists. Students also meet with some of the nearly 50 college and university admission representatives who visit Rowland Hall each fall. The college counselors advise students on developing their college lists, drafting and revising their college essays and application supplements, considering early application/decision plans, taking the SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Tests, making college-visit plans, and much more.
With a collective commitment to their class-chosen values of respect, kindness, honesty, empathy, and compassion, the 72 graduates of Rowland Hall’s class of 2023 have done something remarkable: they’ve shown us all how a supportive, collaborative, and fun-loving community both buoys individuals and positively impacts the world.
Driven to make a difference, these graduates have devoted themselves to their studies, accumulating impressive academic achievements. The group includes eight National Merit semifinalists, an affiliate honorable mention recipient of the 2023 National Center for Women in Information and Technology awards, an honorable mention recipient of the Westminster Honors College essay contest, the Utah winner and national runner-up of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition, and a four-time qualifier for the prestigious American Invitational Mathematics Examination. Several top-tier debaters are among these graduates, including four individual state champions, three Academic All-Americans, two National Speech & Debate Association and Tournament of Champions qualifiers, and the captains who led Rowland Hall’s debate team to their third consecutive 3A state title.
Driven to make a difference, these graduates have devoted themselves to their studies, accumulating impressive academic achievements.
In addition to their high school classes, these students tackled subjects at the college level, enrolling in courses in architecture, Python, calculus, engineering, and linear algebra. Some spent their summers engaged in subjects including philosophy, AI, and government, law, and ethics. They also explored careers and further engaged in real-world learning through internships with the Huntsman Cancer Institute, McNeill Von Maack, the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Park Record, PINK Concussions, Suzanne Harrison, The Sharing Place, and the University of Utah, among others.
Winged Lion seniors were instrumental in capturing 24 region and 10 state titles as teams, and earned several individual region and state championships. Eighteen seniors were named All-State and nine were named All-Region, while 23 earned Academic All-State and 36 received Academic All-Region honors. Four athletes have committed to play at the college level. Rowmark Ski Academy's four graduating seniors achieved career-best performances this winter, including 19 top-ten finishes, 13 top-five finishes, and five podium finishes in Fédération Internationale de Ski races. One Rowmarker, the youngest athlete on the US Ski Team’s Alpine Development Team, finished the season ranked first in the world for her age in giant slalom and as the team’s Rookie of the Year. The class also includes members of Park City Ski & Snowboard, Altabird Freeride, and the Salt Lake City Composite Mountain Biking Team, as well as a powerlifter, an ultramarathoner, a water polo player, a Utah PGA Junior Series golfer, and several competitive basketball, volleyball, soccer, and hockey players.
The class of 2023 has given back to their communities, donating hundreds of hours to organizations and groups. Some even created their own organizations to better fill or meet the needs of communities.
The class of 2023 has given back to their communities, donating hundreds of hours to organizations and groups including The City Library, Holladay United Church of Christ, Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, Mundi Project, Planned Parenthood, Primary Children's Hospital, Salt Lake Peer Court, Salt Lake Youth City Government, Sunnyvale Community Center, and the Utah Attorney General’s Youth Advisory Committee. Several students applied classroom lessons to issues that impact them and their communities by lobbying and advocating for vaccines, gun control, women’s rights, public health, and full-day public kindergarten; others canvassed for political candidates or registered voters. A knowledgeable water conservation advocate shared her voice with both The Salt Lake Tribune and community radio station KRCL. One volunteer earned the Bill Casper Humanitarian Award for his work with nonprofit First Tee, while another received the North Carolina Lt. Governor's Volunteer Recognition Certificate for his work with the Zakat Foundation of America. Some created their own organizations to better fill or meet the needs of communities: one founded a charity to make hockey equipment more affordable for young players, while another led a math tutoring nonprofit. Two budding developers even created the Lending Lions app to connect peers with charities and to track donations.
This creative class has also made the world more beautiful with art. In addition to contributing to school theater and dance productions, as well as creating pieces that reflect their studies, extend their voices, and address social issues, these students have shared their talents with wider communities. One graduate is a Greek dancer, while another practices Bharatanatyam, a form of classical Indian dance. One young artist’s work was selected by the Utah Division of Arts & Museums to travel the state in rotating exhibits and to be displayed at Hogle Zoo. Many of these students play instruments—some which they took up during the pandemic—including the guitar, cello, piano, bluegrass fiddle, trombone, and violin. One exceptional pianist earned a superior rating at a state solo music competition, while another, a longtime student of The Royal Conservatory of Music, recorded a piece composed by her father for The Royal Conservatory's Music Lights the Way piano concert.
We wish each member of this class all the best, knowing that wherever their paths lead, they will live extraordinary lives.
As this group of graduates begin a new chapter of their lives, many will be furthering their education: the class of 2023 earned admission to 149 colleges and universities, with 75 percent of them receiving at least one merit scholarship. As they begin their next adventures, we wish each member of this class all the best, knowing that wherever their paths lead, they will live extraordinary lives and leave their own authentic, indelible marks on the world. Congratulations, class of 2023!
Since childhood, Jada Crockett has played a lot of sports.
“I've been involved with sports from a very, very young age,” she said. “My parents put me in gymnastics, tennis, swimming, basketball—almost every sport. And that gave me the opportunity to continue the sports that I enjoyed the most.”
For much of her life, Jada found herself most drawn to two sports: soccer, which she started playing as a preschooler, and track, which she first tried in fifth grade. And while over the years she often took long breaks from track to concentrate on soccer, by her sophomore year, Jada decided to fully devote herself to running.
“I wanted to do track at the highest level that I could,” she said.
I wanted to do track at the highest level that I could.—Jada Crockett, class of 2023
And as a member of Rowland Hall’s track and field team, Jada certainly pushed herself to new heights. Some of her top accomplishments as a Winged Lion include taking first place in the 100 meter and second place in the 200 meter at state (as well as setting school records in these events) as a sophomore, completing the 200-meter dash in 25.46 seconds as a junior, and taking first, and setting a new 2A record of 56.74 seconds, in the 400 meter as a senior.
During her time on Rowland Hall’s team, Jada also worked toward a goal to run track at the NCAA Division I level, a hope that recently became a reality when she committed to join the track and field team at California State University, Fresno. Not only will she get to run at Fresno State, she shared, she’ll also enjoy a big school with good academics, diversity, and year-round warm weather. Jada said she knew Fresno State would be a good fit as soon as she set foot on campus, where she was able to get a feel for the team, coaches, and academics.
“I went on an official visit a few months ago and as soon as I got there, I just knew it was the right spot,” she said. “ It was just a great environment. I was very confident in my decision. I'm super excited to go out there and continue to run.”
To celebrate Jada’s decision to run for Fresno State, we asked her to share a bit more about her athletic journey and what she’s looking forward to in college. The following interview has been lightly edited.
Congratulations on committing to Fresno State! What do you love about running that made you want to continue the sport at the college level?
I enjoy the individual and team aspect of everything, just being able to run for yourself as well as get points for your team. And it's just a time where I can really free my mind of everything, clear my head. It's a good getaway from all the stressors in my life.
What are you looking forward to as a college athlete?
I want to continue to improve my times and get close to all my new teammates. And I'm really excited to figure out what my major will be and to use all the tools that I've been given from all the teachers at Rowland Hall.
Looking back on your time as a Rowland Hall athlete, both in track and field and in soccer, what moment as a Winged Lion are you most proud of?
It's very hard to narrow it down just to one, but I'd say my top two would definitely be winning state soccer my freshman year with my sister, because that was the first time we ever played together, and the last time, so that was an amazing moment. And I'd also say probably last year, my junior year, winning state in the 100 and 200 and breaking some of the school records was exciting.
Rowland Hall has definitely prepared me for this next chapter in my life, and I want to thank the faculty and staff, my peers, and my family for all their support because I wouldn't be where I am today without all the support of my amazing village.—Jada Crockett
Tell us about the skills, both academic and athletic, you built at Rowland Hall that you'll be taking with you to Fresno State.
I'd say the biggest thing is definitely time management because being a student-athlete at Rowland Hall, with the heavy workload and everything, made me manage my time and be very productive whenever I got the chance. I'll definitely bring that to college.
Is there anything else you want our community to know about your athletic and/or academic journey?
I want to say that Rowland Hall has definitely prepared me for this next chapter in my life, and I want to thank the faculty and staff, my peers, and my family for all their support because I wouldn't be where I am today without all the support of my amazing village.
Congratulations, Jada, and best of luck at Fresno State!
The below text is an abridged version of this story for Fine Print. If you would like to learn more about the science behind the academic paper highlighted in this story, we invite you to view the full version.
With more than 20 years of experience as a molecular and cell biologist—including over a decade as a breast cancer researcher, with a particular interest in racial disparity among breast cancer outcomes in the United States—Upper School science teacher Dr. Padmashree Rida has had plenty of opportunities to support other scientists.
Prior to joining Rowland Hall in 2021, Dr. Rida worked as a university research scientist, a role that offered her regular opportunities to advise graduate students working on original research and academic papers. A natural-born mentor, Dr. Rida has always enjoyed opportunities to help others blossom in their careers. But she’s also seen how disheartening it can be for scientists who, years into their professional journeys, realize that academic research—a field rife with opportunities for failure in everything from choosing the right hypothesis, to uncovering negative or inconclusive results, to the struggle of getting top-notch journals to publish work, to securing grants—isn’t for them. “There are no guaranteed returns in research; it’s always a gamble,” she said. “You can put in so many years to discover you were barking up the wrong tree.”
When Dr. Rida was invited to contribute to a special issue of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, she saw an opportunity for a teaching experiment. What if she were to invite one of her Rowland Hall students to assist her? She thought it may be an ideal way to challenge a promising young scientist, exposing them not only to the processes, skills, and risks of real-world research, but also to the nature of scientific collaboration.
So in April, when Dr. Rida was invited to contribute to a special issue of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences (IJMS) focusing on hypoxia, a state of oxygen insufficiency in the body, she saw an opportunity for a teaching experiment. What if she were to invite one of her Rowland Hall students to assist her? She thought it may be an ideal way to challenge a promising young scientist, exposing them not only to the processes, skills, and risks of real-world research, but also to the nature of scientific collaboration, as Dr. Rida would be working closely with one of her long-standing collaborators, Dr. Nikita Jinna, and a group of Dr. Jinna’s colleagues from the City of Hope cancer treatment and research center to write the article. She thought the opportunity could be similar to an internship, allowing a student to try out a career option, risk-free, to get a sense of fit. “They could get their feet wet and ask if it’s for them,” she said.
For the student to do well in this project, though, they would have to have a certain set of skills: a strong biology background, of course, as well as the ability to critically read and write, as they would be reviewing dense academic materials, drawing conclusions, distilling insights, and synthesizing information. Dr. Rida saw these traits in Max Smart, then a senior in her Advanced Topics in Biology class.
“Dr. Rida recognized a project like this was perfect for me,” said Max, a Rowland Hall Lifer whose love of the natural world has driven his lifelong interest in the sciences, and who also loves to write. And Max recognized how valuable the experience could be. “I could tell this was a phenomenal opportunity,” he remembered. He said yes and, after completing finals in May, began assisting Dr. Rida, first by helping her and Dr. Jinna look into the role hypoxia may play in patient resistance to androgen receptor inhibition, a treatment option for a subset of patients with a particularly lethal type of cancer: triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). “We knew these treatments often work successfully for a short period, but most patients eventually develop resistance,” explained Dr. Rida. “Consequently, their disease relapses or progresses, and when this happens, we don't have good next-line treatment options for such patients.”
With several lines of evidence supporting their suspicions on hypoxia’s role in therapeutic resistance, the team focused their IJMS article on the topic, hoping their research would help shed light on how and why existing treatments fail, offer a broad view of study results on treatment options, and, because such therapeutic resistance is a problem for some other androgen-signaling-dependent cancers, make progress that could potentially have wide benefits. And though early evidence indicated a promising direction, as they began writing, Dr. Rida, heeding her own experience, made sure to set Max’s expectations. “There’s no guarantee we’ll find anything,” she remembered telling him, “but that’s the gamble with science.”
That gamble didn’t deter Max, though, who jumped enthusiastically into the project, even, he said, as he faced a series of steep learning curves—beginning with getting acquainted with science writing. After Dr. Rida taught him how to use PubMed, a biomedical literature database, to search for primary literature with clinical trial data, Max remembered initially feeling overwhelmed as he worked to make sense of the jargon, acronyms, and medical terminology within these studies. “These are serious medical publications; it’s no joke,” he said. “It was like hitting a brick wall right out the gate—every sentence is riddled with words that mean nothing to you.” But after Dr. Rida recommended that Max make lists of unfamiliar words, terms, or methods so they could discuss them together, he got better at understanding the complex material. “With Dr. Rida's help, it became second nature,” he remembered. “Her mentorship broke down that brick wall.”
That mentorship continued as Max was challenged in other ways. He had to learn, for instance, how to pull from hundreds of pages of information the hard data that can benefit cancer researchers, and leaned on Dr. Rida’s advice to give himself space to process complicated material before looking for gaps or clarity within it. He also learned from Dr. Rida the importance of reading the literature critically, as well as broadly, to avoid scientific siloing. “Reading broadly allows ideas from different domains to network in ways that allow us to see things anew or from different vantage points,” explained Dr. Rida. So, in addition to reviewing studies on androgen-dependent TNBC, Max looked at studies on androgen-dependent prostate cancer, which behaves similarly to androgen-dependent TNBC and, because it has been researched for longer, offers an array of data on drug options and combinations that might be able to help researchers find what he called the “golden treatment” for TNBC patients.
Getting Max on board with this collaboration taught him team science—and all good science these days is team science.—Dr. Padmashree Rida, science teacher
Additionally, Max learned firsthand the essential, though often tedious, nature of academic collaboration: how a group of researchers narrows a paper’s focus, finds consensus, reviews drafts prior to submission to a journal for peer review, and revises a manuscript to address reviewers’ feedback and concerns. By letting Max participate in the full process, Dr. Rida was helping to prepare him for success in a world in which the best scientists, no matter their fields or roles, need to be able to go beyond the scope of their individual disciplines to solve problems or create change collaboratively. “We teach science in class, but we don’t talk much about how science is really done, how science is disseminated, and the community behind it,” she said. “Getting Max on board with this collaboration taught him team science—and all good science these days is team science.”
“I hope it’s going to play some small role in this field of research so we can get better treatments for people suffering from cancer,” he said. “If we helped just a tiny bit, that’s really gratifying.”
For Max, who will start at Middlebury College in January after taking a gap semester, it’s clear the experience will drive his professional decisions. Though he’s still deciding what he wants to study, working on this paper taught him how much he values using his passion for science and his love of writing—skills he worked on during his time at Rowland Hall—to help people. “I really appreciated being able to put knowledge and skills I’ve spent my entire academic career honing toward something that is actually going to, hopefully, play one tiny, small part in benefiting people who need good treatment,” said Max. “That was a pretty unique and awesome feeling.”
I really appreciated being able to put knowledge and skills I’ve spent my entire academic career honing toward something that is actually going to, hopefully, play one tiny, small part in benefiting people who need good treatment.—Max Smart ’22
For Dr. Rida, her self-described teaching experiment was also gratifying. Even before the rollout of Rowland Hall’s strategic priorities, she had been thinking about how she can harness her experience, resources, and background to give Upper School students opportunities to help find solutions to real-world problems and to participate in the construction of new knowledge. With this project under her belt, she’s even more aware of how she can best support them. “I learned so much about how to teach about clinical issues, to mentor, how students learn, what misconceptions they may have, and how to explain things,” she said of her time working with Max. She also learned how inspiring it can be to watch a high school student step up to a new challenge. “Max was willing to put in hours and hours of reading and writing, painstakingly plowing through literature,” she said. “Not once did he say, ‘I’m done.’”
And while she knows future experiences might not always be such a good fit, seeing how Max blossomed over their months together—his openness to new ideas, willingness to take risks, ability to successfully take feedback, and determination—showed her that offering them is worth the risk. Moreover, she knows such authentic learning experiences can impact young scientists’ identities, sense of belonging, and understanding of science. Thanks to this opportunity, Max took away an essential life lesson he’s grateful for—and one that will continue to give back to him, whether or not he becomes a researcher himself.
“I certainly got a taste of how some research can end up leaving you with very little to show. It can be discouraging. But then again, what isn't discouraging from time to time?” said Max. “It was an experience that helped teach me that anything you invest time and energy into can end up disappointing when it doesn't always pan out how you want. But when you hit those junctures, you just have to keep persevering.”