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Custom Class: post-landing-hero

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?

teacher talking to students

Alisa Poppen talks to chemistry students about a lab for which they're creating a representative sketch of an experiment and graphing actual results.

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.

STEM

‘Scientists Get to Imagine’: A Teacher’s Case for Science’s Inherent Creativity

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?

teacher talking to students

Alisa Poppen talks to chemistry students about a lab for which they're creating a representative sketch of an experiment and graphing actual results.

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.

STEM

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Sara Matsumura playing volleyball.

Haverford College senior Sara Matsumura ’16 added to her impressive list of achievements on September 9, when she was awarded the Centennial Conference’s Player of the Week after being named Most Valuable Player of the Ford Invitational only two days earlier. Then, on September 16, the NCAA announced that Sara was ranked third in Division III in total digs and seventh in service aces.

“I am over-the-moon ecstatic,” Sara said about the start of her senior season.

Despite the recent attention she has personally received, the Haverford volleyball co-captain remained focused on her team. “It is amazing to see all of our hard work coming to fruition and so motivating to see everyone reaching and playing at their full potential,” she said. “I feel a lot of appreciation for the group of girls I get to play with."

I am over-the-moon ecstatic. It is amazing to see all of our hard work coming to fruition and so motivating to see everyone reaching and playing at their full potential.—Sara Matsumura, Class of 2016

Kendra Tomsic, Sara’s former coach and Rowland Hall’s director of athletics, was not surprised to learn of Sara’s focus on teamwork. “Sara never cared about individual stats or accolades—she loved her teammates and celebrated their accomplishments as if they were her own,” she said of Sara’s time playing for the Winged Lions. “Her unmatched work ethic, positive attitude, fiery spirit, enthusiasm, heart, and passion for the game were an inspiration to her teammates and coaches.”
 
Kendra also praised Sara’s athletic prowess. “Sara is undoubtedly one of the most talented volleyball players to come out of our program. Her stats were tops in nearly every category, and she was instrumental to our winning several consecutive region titles,” she said. “I am so very proud and excited, but definitely not surprised, that Sara has continued to excel and has made such an amazing impact on her Haverford College team.”
 
Sara credited Rowland Hall for preparing her for success at the college level, both on the court and in the classroom. “The endless support I received from Rowland Hall’s coaching staff gave me the confidence I needed to gain an I-own-the-court mentality. As a back-row player, that is essential and has definitely been tested when facing strong teams,” she said. “Rowland Hall also prepared me to balance school and volleyball, as academics is our top priority at Haverford too.”
 
These balancing skills, first gained at Rowland Hall and then strengthened at Haverford, are essential to Sara’s success. When she isn’t excelling on the court, the chemistry major is researching microplastics and bioplastics for her senior thesis. After graduation, she plans on taking a gap year to work at an environmentally focused company, then earning a PhD in environmental engineering or chemistry. Armed with an arsenal of skills she has gathered as a student-athlete, we have no doubt she’ll continue to do great things, and we can’t wait to see them.


Top of page: Sara Matsumura playing in a Haverford College volleyball game. (Photo courtesy David Sinclair)

Alumni

Kendra Tomsic coaching a volleyball game.

Kendra Tomsic fell in love with sports at a young age, but when she was growing up, schools didn’t offer girls’ teams. Instead of deterring her, that early experience sparked a passion that still drives her today.

“As a pre-Title IX athlete who never had a coach or even the chance to compete until college, I vowed to help make certain others would have the opportunities I didn’t,” Kendra told attendees of YWCA Utah’s Leader Luncheon on September 13, as she accepted this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award for Sports and Athletics.

As a pre-Title IX athlete who never had a coach or even the chance to compete until college, I vowed to help make certain others would have the opportunities I didn’t.—Kendra Tomsic

She continued, “I made a commitment to become a coach and athletic director who would not only teach female athletes skills and strategies, but who would use sports to teach and model leadership, strength, confidence, courage, tenacity, resiliency, and the importance of teamwork.”

Kendra’s 42 years of dedication to this work—28 of them at Rowland Hall in roles including director of athletics, PE teacher, and volleyball, softball, and basketball coach—led YWCA Utah to select her as one of five women honored at this year’s luncheon. Award recipients are community leaders who advance the well-being of Utah women and girls, and who exemplify the YWCA’s mission of eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. In her roles as an administrator, educator, and coach, Kendra has harnessed her passion for athletics to empower Utah girls and women and to promote high school athletics at the state and national levels.

“It's not possible to overstate her positive impact on athletics in general and girls’ athletics in particular in Utah,” said Head of School Alan Sparrow. “Her commitment to getting women's athletics treated with the same opportunities and respect as men's athletics is inspirational. Through her dedication, diplomacy, and tenacity, girls’ athletics in Utah high schools have improved dramatically. She is universally respected by her peers and they listen to her when she points out inequities.” They’ve also celebrated her: Kendra’s long list of accolades includes a national Distinguished Service Award and state Athletic Director of the Year. But it’s praise from students that best illustrates the importance, and reach, of Kendra’s work. When news of the YWCA award was posted on Rowland Hall’s alumni Facebook page, an outpouring of love quickly followed, resulting in the page’s highest interaction to date.

“I am proud to say I know her.”

“There’s no one more deserving!”

“She’s amazing in every way and her dedication to making young women better athletes and, above that, better people cannot be topped!”

Kendra Tomsic with YWCA CEO Anne Burkholder.

Kendra Tomsic, right, with YWCA Chief Executive Officer Anne Burkholder at the September 13 Leader Luncheon. (Photo courtesy Charles Uibel Photography)

Kacie Tachiki Turcuato ’99 is one alumna who can attest to Kendra’s transformative power. The former volleyball player remembers her coach as a true mentor who believed in her potential, and who had the special ability to bring out and refine her strengths.

“I’m not a natural-born athlete,” Kacie said. “I’m super short and in my first year of high school I was very weak; I couldn’t even get a serve over the net. I just played because it was fun and recreational. But Kendra believed in me, she worked with me, and by the time I left Rowland Hall, I was a stronger athlete: I got the school’s Senior Athlete of the Year, I got Salt Lake Tribune’s Prep Athlete of the Week. I went from feeling like I couldn’t do anything to really feeling accomplished.”

Kacie called Kendra one of the most influential people in her life, and that influence didn’t stop at graduation. Her guidance has inspired Kacie in many ways, from pursuing a career in physical therapy to returning to Rowland Hall as an assistant volleyball coach.

Students have the utmost respect for her, because they just know who she is. When she talks, everyone’s engaged and they trust her.—Kacie Tachiki Turcuato ’99

“I feel so lucky because I honestly think I’d be somewhere totally different without her,” Kacie said. “I’ve had a very fortunate, successful career and life, and I can’t imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t met her. She can really bring out the best in you.”

Alan also spoke of this capability. “Kendra's deep commitment and caring for each and every player and coach she works with is obvious,” he said. “You can hear it in her tone of voice when she speaks to the students. You can see it in the compassion she shows when a player or student is upset or hurt. You notice it when she genuinely shows interest in her students’ lives outside and inside of school.”

Kendra’s compassion comes up again and again when people talk about her; it’s an important factor in how she mentors others. Coupled with an ability to build trust, Kendra successfully models life skills such as confidence, resiliency, and teamwork on the court and field—and students respond to it. “Students have the utmost respect for her, because they just know who she is,” said Kacie. “When she talks, everyone’s engaged and they trust her. It’s pretty cool to watch.”

This is true for Gita Varner ’05, a former volleyball and softball team manager, whose strongest memories of Kendra involve the life lessons she learned from her and now uses every day.

“Kendra was a role model for me on how to be true to yourself and accept everyone as they come,” Gita said. Kendra’s high standards also taught her the importance of hard work. “She helped instill a strong work ethic in me because she always expected me to be doing something.”

Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, and guts—that’s what little girls are made of. To heck with sugar and spice!

And it may be inspiring students to use, and then themselves model, those life skills during and after their time at Rowland Hall that means the most to Kendra. As she closed her remarks at the Leader Luncheon, she shared a quote from professional surfer Bethany Hamilton-Dirks, along with a reminder of the role we all play in female empowerment: “‘Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, and guts—that’s what little girls are made of. To heck with sugar and spice!’ It is my work, and your work, to continue to send that message to young women, the future leaders of tomorrow.”

Thank you, Coach T, for this important lesson, and for the many others you teach student-athletes every day. Congratulations on this well-deserved recognition.

People

Claire Wang in front of US Capitol
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


In her daily fight against climate change, Claire Wang’s weapons of choice include her bicycle, travel utensils, and reusable water bottle.

But the 21-year-old’s real arsenal is her character: her empathy, intellect, and contagious optimism that she wields to mobilize peers, negotiate with institutions, and drive environmental progress locally and nationally. Now, Rowland Hall’s first Rhodes Scholar graduates to the global stage.

There’s no choice but to be hopeful. We have a collective obligation to keep working towards a better future. Giving up would be a selfish act.—Claire Wang ’15

In Claire, the daunting problem of climate change finds a formidable opponent: the former nationally ranked Rowland Hall debater loves what she does and refuses to be discouraged. “There’s no choice but to be hopeful,” she said. “We have a collective obligation to keep working towards a better future. Giving up would be a selfish act.”

Claire was always interested in science and environmentalism; after coming to Rowland Hall in seventh grade, relevant curriculum furthered her interest in climate advocacy, while debate turned her into a policy wonk. In high school, she started volunteering for Utah Clean Energy through a school connection. “That was the moment I realized that I love this work and I want to do it for a living,” Claire said. “Rowland Hall was really supportive of that.” As a senior, she co-organized a press conference—held at the McCarthey Campus and covered by local news outlets—advocating against new fees on solar panels. And just before she finished high school, the Sierra Club asked her to help plan a national youth-led movement for renewable energy.

Claire Wang speaks with a broadcast news reporter at a 2015 press conference on solar panels, held at Rowland Hall.

Claire graduated as valedictorian and accepted a full ride to Duke University, where she majored in environmental science and policy. As a freshman, she worked with college administrators to secure Duke’s official support for renewable-energy policy reform. Then, Duke Energy—a large utility company unaffiliated with the university—announced plans to build a natural-gas plant on the university’s campus. It was the first of eight small-scale gas plants planned for the Carolinas. Claire spent two years fighting the campus plant proposal, and the university suspended the plans in spring 2018. Since then, none of the other North Carolina plants have entered the planning process. “Turning the tide early with the first plant ended up being really impactful,” Claire said.

Claire thrived in community campaigns at Duke and beyond—she even won prestigious Truman and Udall Scholarships in recognition of her work—and envisioned a career in national policy. But a 2018 study-abroad program on climate change and the politics of food, water, and energy spurred a shift. She visited a hydroelectric dam in Vietnam, and an ethnic-minority community displaced because of that dam. She also learned about how extreme weather impacts farmers, from drought in Bolivia to hail in Morocco. Now, Claire wants to reduce financing for fossil-fuel infrastructure, especially in developing countries. “We're not going to be able to achieve a livable climate future without cutting those back,” she said.

Eschew the conventional belief that salaries define successful careers. “Instead, focus on the impact you have on the world,” Claire said. “What you do with your life is not just a job—it’s a legacy.”

That global perspective drove Claire to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship—the oldest award for international study, covering graduate school at England’s University of Oxford. When she learned she’d been selected, Claire was elated, but incredulous. “It was a mix of nervousness, excitement, pride, and a general sense of, ‘Wait, did this actually happen?’”

Claire will be at Oxford for two years, starting with a one-year master’s in environmental change and management. She expects to land in policy, perhaps working for the government or an international group. Regardless, she’ll be doing work that’s meaningful to her, and she encourages other young people to follow suit: eschew the conventional belief that salaries define successful careers. “Instead, focus on the impact you have on the world,” she said. “What you do with your life is not just a job—it’s a legacy.”


Top photo: Claire in front of the United States Capitol. Over the summer, Claire interned with the Natural Resources Defense Council as part of the Truman Scholars' Summer Institute.

Alumni

Phinehas Bynum performs in Candide
Winged Lions on the Rise—title page graphic featuring six alumni.

Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.


Phinehas Bynum makes “whizbangs and gizmos” to automate mundane things in his Minneapolis house. A motion sensor on his washing machine messages him when the washer stops. Between loads, he composes and plays music in his DIY home-recording studio. It’s a delightful showcase of his two biggest passions.

Phinehas—Phin, for short—holds a music and computer science degree from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. By day, he works for software company Jamf on a technical-implementation team that teaches and trains clients. But the renaissance man has also been a lifelong singer—performing with the likes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a fourth grader, the renowned St. Olaf Choir as a college student, and operas around Minneapolis, including the Minnesota Opera (MNOp), since college.

You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song. And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.—Phinehas Bynum ’08

“I was just about born singing,” said Phin, whose parents prophetically gave him a name that means, among other interpretations, mouth of brass. “Every time you say ‘Phinehas’ a trumpet gets its wings,” the alum quipped. Naturally, young Phin also dabbled in reverse engineering. “Mama and Papa stepped on clock springs and screws on the daily because I took everything apart to see how it worked,” he said. “Computer science was an extension of tinkering for me because you could change how something worked just by telling it to change, no take-apart required.” 

Phin has deftly balanced singing and computing, which he said similarly fulfill him. “You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song,” he said. “And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.” And he continues the balancing act, in part, because of Rowland Hall. “I was always encouraged to spend time doing what I was passionate about, and that goal has stuck with me,” he said. “Ultimate frisbee, robotics club, cross country, choir, jazz band—most of the things I am doing now, I was also doing in some form in high school.”

Actors on stage in front of orchestra.

Phinehas Bynum, second from left, stars in VocalEssence and Theater Latté Da’s March 2019 production of Candide. (Photos by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence)

Now, Phin’s arts life is expanding. The singer made his theatrical debut in March to rave reviews. Two Minneapolis arts organizations collaborated to present Candide, a reimagining of the Leonard Bernstein operetta. Phin landed the titular role. Tickets to the five-night, 505-seat show in the heart of downtown sold out early, so the final dress rehearsal became a sixth production. Phin called the performance—his largest to date—transformative. He described his character as an optimist whose misadventures make him wiser instead of bitter. “I'd consider myself a stubborn, but quiet optimist,” Phin said. “It was core-shaking to inhabit a character who lives his optimism completely on the outside, and it challenged me to let the rest of the world, the audience, see that element of me.” His months of practice paid off. In the Star Tribune, critic Terry Blain praised Phin’s performance: “Bynum cut a convincingly boyish figure, his light tenor imparting a touchingly artless quality to songs.”

Since Candide wrapped, Phin has spent more time making his own music—an exploration of jazz, pop, and electronic. He’s recording an album, a longtime dream that combines his musical and technical pursuits. He’s also excited to sing with MNOp again. “I get to sit in a room of wonderfully passionate and diverse folks and bring feelings and ideas and notes and rhythms off a piece of paper and into reality,” he said. “It's the best.” 

Phin credited Rowland Hall for a solid foundation, and expressed gratitude to teachers and administrators—particularly the late Linda Hampton, a beloved Upper School staffer who attended nearly all of his performances. “Linda called herself my ‘biggest fan,’” Phin said. “I’m blessed that my musical endeavors have always been supported by my family and friends, but Linda will always have a special place in my heart.”

Alumni

You Belong at Rowland Hall