Spotlight on Excellence: Dr. Vanessa Robinson Brings College-Level Research to Saddle River Day Upper School Students

Spotlight on Excellence: Dr. Vanessa Robinson Brings College-Level Research to Saddle River Day Upper School Students
Gretchen Lee

Science Department Chair, Dr. Vanessa Robinson exemplifies a philosophy of education that focuses on empowerment and self-sufficiency. Spend a few minutes with her, and you'll see that she's dedicated to teaching with an emphasis on long-term learning and growth, utilizing her own research project on fruit flies as her teaching tools.
For the past several summers, Dr. Robinson has offered students a real world laboratory research experience by allowing them to assist in her study of the molecular impacts of social isolation on fruit flies. This year, that summer class has evolved into a year-long upper level science course during which students, working within the realm of sleep, circadian rhythms, the microbiome, immunity, and metabolism, and still working with fruit flies as their test subjects, and will have the opportunity to discern their own research question, design a set of experiments to test their hypothesis, evaluate their conclusions, and present their findings at the end of the year.  
By basing the class format on the real process a graduate student would go through to begin a research project, Dr. Robinson is able to give her students – all of whom have either taken or are currently taking AP Biology – exposure to the process they will encounter in college and later, as research professionals. Students will be required to regularly present their progress during lab meetings, demonstrating the data they’ve collected, and soliciting feedback from their classmates. Dr. Robinson is assisted in this class by a current 5th year PhD student in her former lab at Columbia who will provide students with access to different fruit fly mutants to utilize in their experiments.
But the most important thing that the students in Dr. Robinson’s class will take away from this year will be a head start on most of their future classmates with regards to an understanding of how research works. The Saddle River Day School students who complete this class will enter college with the ability to identify the research projects that align with their interests, and the credibility and learned experience to immediately make them valuable members of any research team. The knowledge of how to navigate academia will enable them to better set themselves on a path to graduate school and, eventually, into a doctoral degree program. 
For her part, Dr. Robinson loves working with high school students because they’re curious, open to learning and instruction, and fearless when it comes to advancing hypotheses and interrogating new ideas. In particular, she loves working with the Saddle River Day School students because the model at SRDS is one of academic discovery where scholars are encouraged to challenge themselves, work to the best of their ability, expose themselves to new experiences, and pursue learning for the sake of knowledge rather than just achievement. She regularly reminds her students that where they attend college doesn’t matter as much as what they do once they get there. With her guidance, Saddle River Day students are well positioned to take advantage of every opportunity they are offered from the first day they arrive at the college of their choice.