By Alisa Poppen, Upper School science teacher and department chair
Editor's note: Alisa gave the following talk—lightly edited here for style and context—during a September 3 Upper School chapel that explored creativity in academics and life.
If you’re a sophomore in chemistry right now, I wouldn’t fault you for thinking that science is solely about precision. We’ve spent days and days making sure you know how to include the appropriate number of digits in a measurement. Most of you are with one of two women who seem strangely enthusiastic about the difference between 12 and 12.0.
When, in first-period chemistry last year, then-sophomore James Welt said, “In math, those two numbers might be the same, but in science…,” I nearly teared up. And then quoted him at least 25 times. And possibly mentioned it at parent-teacher conferences. And in the first semester comments. And, most importantly, secured his permission to mention it, again, today.
The start of the year has been all about measurement and certainty. And doing it right. And if that was all you learned, you might lose sight of the fact that science is, at its essence, a creative endeavor.
If you’re in Advanced Topics Biology, you’ve been counting and counting, and then carefully making graphs on which you place your error bars correctly to represent the range in which we would expect to find most sample means. In short, the start of the year has been all about measurement and certainty. And doing it right. And if that was all you learned, you might lose sight of the fact that science is, at its essence, a creative endeavor.
An example: In the 19th century, Gregor Mendel bred pea plants. Lots and lots of pea plants. He knew that, like many flowering plants, peas were most likely to self-pollinate, but he asked, “What if I force them to cross-pollinate?” When he finished, he counted pea plants. This many with purple flowers, this many with white…that’s all he had: numbers of purple and numbers of white. But to make sense of those numbers, he imagined. What could be going on, deep inside those pea plants, to explain those numbers? He settled on this: each plant has two factors, pieces of information, only one of which was transferred to offspring. He couldn’t see those factors with the naked eye, but he imagined they must be there. How else would those numbers make sense?
Mendel's rudimentary model inspired others—far too many to name—to creatively search for and characterize his factors. Spoiler alert: they’re chromosomes, composed of DNA. Along the way, we’ve realized that Mendel’s factors alone don’t determine how we develop. And so we continue to look. A woman in California, Jennifer Doudna, characterized a protein complex from bacterial cells called CRISPR, and because of her work, we now ask questions like this: what if we could modify our own DNA? And (for Upper School ethics and English teacher Dr. Carolyn Hickman) if we could, should we?
We get to imagine. Anyone who tells you that creativity belongs only to the artists, or the writers, hasn’t been paying attention. Science is, at its core, the act of asking questions—What if? How? Why?—and then creatively designing experiments to test those questions.
The summer before last, I worked in a lab that uses cotton as a model to study how genomes change. I would love to go on and on about the work, but to keep this short, I’ll just say this: the cotton seeds were breathtakingly uncooperative. On Monday they behaved one way, and on Thursday they were completely different. The data were never the same twice. After testing several possible explanations, we were stumped.
Sitting in the lab one afternoon, I threw out a possible explanation that, truth be told, I wasn’t completely sure of. Justin, my grad student/mentor, thought for a moment and then said, “What if that’s it?” and then grabbed three paper towels and a Sharpie. “We could do this,” he said, while sketching out the experiment. “And if we’re right, the results will look like this,” and he quickly drew a graph. We then sat quietly for a minute or so, staring at the paper towels, and then he said this: “This is my favorite part, when we get to imagine what the experiment would look like.”
We get to imagine. Anyone who tells you that creativity belongs only to the artists, or the writers, hasn’t been paying attention. Science is, at its core, the act of asking questions—What if? How? Why?—and then creatively designing experiments to test those questions. Testing a scenario that hasn’t been tested before. Yes, we measure, and yes, we replicate, so that the answers to our questions are supported by evidence. But the measuring and the replicating is always preceded by an act of creativity. And that, for us, is often the favorite part.
Rowland Hall alumnus Jeff Norris lives his purpose treating and advocating for underserved populations as the medical director of Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego When Jeff Norris ’03 applied to medical school, the admissions office at the University of Utah called him in for a rare second interview. He had submitted a personal statement focused on the connection between medicine, public health, and social justice, and that intersectional approach raised some eyebrows.
Admissions officers asked Jeff if he was sure he wanted to go to medical school, and not study public health or social work. But he assured them: he knew he wanted to be a clinician who worked with, and advocated for, underserved populations.
Jeff credits Rowland Hall with launching his career trajectory. In high school, under the mentorship of then-faculty member Liz Paige, he volunteered with Amnesty International and prepared and served food at local youth groups. The positive experience of serving others and making an impact—and relevant content in history and psychology courses—got the wheels turning in Jeff’s brain: “I started reflecting on my role in the world and how I could try to do something to make a difference for others. What is my purpose for being here?”
Jeff's self-described “deliberate and diligent” approach to his career—melding his interests in science and social justice, being motivated by a desire to give back to the world—has been nothing short of a success.
The service and activism Jeff began at Rowland Hall carried through his years as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as a med student at the University of Utah, and as a Family Medicine resident at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. His self-described “deliberate and diligent” approach to his career—melding his interests in science and social justice, being motivated by a desire to give back to the world—has been nothing short of a success: in 2016, Jeff became the medical director of Father Joe’s Villages, an award-winning nonprofit that provides integrated services to people experiencing homelessness in San Diego.
Jeff’s day-to-day work requires a breadth of skill, knowledge, and tenacity: he estimates he spends about 40 percent of his time treating patients and the other 60 percent engaged in clinic administration, fundraising, and advocacy—including ensuring that state and federal legislation supports nonprofits like his. He serves on a number of boards, including a large network of clinics with over 100,000 patients in the San Diego area. For Jeff, it’s about more than staying connected and representing the interests of Father Joe’s Villages. “It is being present in the community to advocate for the needs of not just those experiencing homelessness, but underserved populations more broadly.”
At the clinic he leads—which serves walk-ins along with residents of Father Joe’s Villages and people receiving assistance from other local agencies—Jeff focuses on decreasing the barriers his patients face in getting adequate care, and staying on the cutting edge of what they need in order to improve their health. “The challenges our patients face are pretty unique, compared to most patient populations,” he said. “Their lives are very chaotic, and they have a lot going on medically, psychiatrically, behaviorally, socially…in all senses.” A significant portion of his time is spent managing programs to deliver medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD)—drugs such as buprenorphine (suboxone) or naltrexone—and for alcohol abuse.
At the clinic he leads, Jeff focuses on decreasing the barriers his patients face in getting adequate care, and staying on the cutting edge of what they need in order to improve their health.
Among the most recent and cutting-edge programs Jeff and his team at Father Joe’s Villages are running is the Street Health Program, which launched this spring and is already impacting lives for the better. As the name suggests, the initiative involves going out into the streets and providing healthcare directly to people experiencing homelessness. So far, they’ve reached a number of people who’ve avoided or been underserved by traditional healthcare. One example: a man who had been using heroin for 30 years and had never before been interested in treatment. Pending a grant, the street health team hopes to treat patients with OUD at the first point of contact. In the meantime, they wrote a prescription for this particular patient because, as Jeff said, “it was the right thing to do.”
One of the long-term goals of the Street Health Program is to develop rapport with individuals so that they will visit the clinic for treatment. Additionally, the launch has created quite a buzz throughout San Diego, so Jeff hopes other clinics and treatment centers will consider similar programs (which do already exist in other large metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco). “It can’t just be us,” he said. “There are enough folks experiencing homelessness that we certainly cannot meet the need unilaterally.”
Jeff is rightly proud of his advocacy work and the impact his clinic makes on a daily basis, and he speaks passionately of the need for everyone to recognize the homelessness crisis—not just in San Diego, but also in Salt Lake City and urban areas throughout the country. While rising housing costs and relatively stagnant wages are the two primary drivers of the problem, Jeff doesn’t discount the power of the individual to make a difference, whether through volunteering, donating goods, or elevating the dialogue to fight the stigma against those experiencing homelessness.
When he’s not working, Jeff stays active outdoors, taking advantage of all that San Diego’s famously temperate climate has to offer. He also prioritizes time with his family: two-year-old daughter Alex keeps Jeff and wife Sonia Ponce—a practicing cardiologist—quite busy.
Rowland Hall’s Director of Ethical Education Ryan Hoglund is not at all surprised that Jeff is making a difference in the lives of others. He recalled how, as a high school student, Jeff was always highly engaged and motivated to serve, often being the last to leave a volunteer event. “Jeff always treated those he served with dignity and compassion,” Ryan said. “It is wonderful to see him intently living his purpose, in the intersection of bettering human relationships as a way to improve healthcare.”
Jeff always treated those he served with dignity and compassion. It is wonderful to see him intently living his purpose, in the intersection of bettering human relationships as a way to improve healthcare. —Ryan Hoglund, director of ethical education
Just as Jeff credited Rowland Hall for sparking his interest in a life of service to others, Mr. Hoglund credits Jeff for setting an example of genuine student leadership at the school. And, to the student leaders today, Jeff sends these words of encouragement: “Figure out what gives you energy and makes you feel like you're contributing to the world in some positive way, then grab that bull by the horns and don’t let go of it. That’s where you're going to be able to make a difference, to be satisfied with who you are and what you're doing in this world.”
All photos courtesy of Father Joe's Villages.
Rowland Hall won its second-consecutive Utah Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (UIAAA) 2A Directors Cup for excellence across three areas: athletics, academics, and sportsmanship and student leadership.
Athletics Director Kendra Tomsic said the prestigious award, announced July 13, demonstrates that Rowland Hall is home to some truly gifted student-athletes. “I am so very proud of our athletes for their efforts in the competitive arena as well as in the classroom,” Kendra said, “and thankful to our coaches who are so supportive of our student-athletes' academic commitments.”
Strong showings at state tournaments—along with high GPAs—helped Rowland Hall secure its second Directors Cup in the award's nine-year history. The UIAAA recognized seven of our teams for having the highest GPAs among their 2A competitors: volleyball, girls basketball, boys cross-country, boys tennis, boys track, and girls and boys soccer. And top-five finishes at state competitions included first place in 2A for girls soccer, second place in 3A for girls swimming, second place in 2A for boys soccer, third place in 2A for boys golf, third place in 2A for boys basketball, third place in 2A for girls golf, and fourth place in 3A for boys tennis.
The description of the Directors Cup, from UIAAA:
The UIAAA Directors Cup is awarded each year to the top school in each class that demonstrates combined excellence in athletic, academic, and sportsmanship and student-leadership [categories]. Each category makes up a percentage toward a school’s total ranking:
- Athletic (40%): The place or position a school team finishes in the state tournament.
- Academic (40%): Varsity team GPA.
- Sportsmanship and student leadership (20%): School’s participation in UHSAA-sponsored sportsmanship and leadership initiatives.
The top-five ranked schools in 2A:
- Rowland Hall: 15.26 points
- Gunnison: 13.47
- Waterford: 12.8
- Kanab: 10.12
- Layton Christian: 9.65
Rowland Hall's score also amounted to the fourth-highest point total among all classifications in the state.
The debate season is the longest of any activity in high school—for some Rowland Hall debaters, it didn’t end until late last month. After another fine regular season winning local and regional tournaments, a variety of exceptional debaters set a new standard for competitive excellence in our three postseason tournaments.
Rowland Hall “plays up” a division into the 3A classification. Ria Agarwal ’20 won the title in the solo event, known as a Lincoln-Douglas debate. Additionally, two duos—Jacque Park ’21 and Auden Bown ’21; and Ty Lunde ’21 and Maddy Frech ’21—closed out the final round of policy debate, making them co-champions.
National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) Nationals
The NSDA is the largest speech and debate association in the country. The qualifying tournament for Nationals is a special double-elimination competition where everyone in the district (from Logan to Lone Peak) debates each other until only two entries remain. Those two entries qualify to Nationals in June. This year, Peter Chase ’20 and Steven Dotorman ’20 along with Ben Amiel ’20 and Justin Peng ’20 outlasted the competition to control the two Nationals qualifications in policy debate. Cas Mulford ’19 and Zoey Shienberg ’20 qualified in public-forum debate. The outstanding placements, along with other wins from younger debaters, resulted in a district championship for the school.
The Tournament of Champions (TOC)
The TOC is considered the most prestigious debate tournament, especially for students interested in debating in college. The tournament is held every year in Lexington, Kentucky, and university representatives from around the country attend to scout and recruit talent. Only the top 68 teams in the country are invited to participate. To be eligible, debaters must have placed in at least two different national tournaments during the regular season. This year, six of our students qualified: Celia Davis ’19, Steven Doctorman ’20, Adrian Gushin ’20, Ben McGraw ’19, Sydney Young ’19, and Robin Zeng ’19. This is the second-highest number of students Rowland Hall has ever sent to the TOC. Building on that momentum, students had tremendous success at the tournament. Only six Rowland Hall teams have ever made it to the elimination rounds of the TOC, and all of them lost in the quarter-finals. Sydney and Adrian broke the “quarters curse” and made it to the semifinals, finishing in third place overall. “This performance is legendary,” praised Mike Shackelford, our debate coach since 2007. “It’s the best finish in Rowland Hall history.”
Over their seven-month season, these debaters heard judges give them over 500 decisions, both for and against us. But one decision was unanimous: the Rowland Hall Debate program had another incredible season, thanks to our hardworking students the sage leadership of Coach Shackelford.