Dr. Vanessa Robinson
Joined SRDS Community:  2018
Degrees: B.A., Biochemistry & Molecular Biology; minor in Psychology, Boston Univ.; PhD., Cellular, Molecular, & Biomedical Studies, Columbia Univ.
US Biology

What did you do your undergrad/Ph.D. degrees research on, and why?
My undergrad research was on Retinopathy of Prematurity, a retinal disease that can blind infants. I used fluorescence microscopy to study the structure of rat retinas with a similar disorder. The goal was to learn more about the development of the disease, but I also learned quite a bit about the challenges of starting a research project. For my Ph.D. work, I chose a much broader question: what is the function of sleep? Though we all understand that sleep is important for proper health, it still isn’t known on a molecular level precisely what sleep does that is so important. To answer this question, I used a number of different fruit fly mutants that sleep less than usual (yes, fruit flies do sleep). I found that my fly mutants all had a similar sensitivity to something called oxidative stress. This finding suggests that sleep acts as an antioxidant for the brain, essentially clearing out harmful oxygen-containing chemicals that build up in our brain over the course of the day. So, the bottom line is: not getting your Z’s is actually toxic to your brain. 

Why did you want to go into teaching?  What do you love about being a teacher?
I’ve always had a passion for teaching, but one summer, I had a high school student volunteer in the lab. It was a challenge to teach her some of the more complicated concepts behind the research, but it was incredibly rewarding to see her light up when she mastered these concepts. This was when I realized that I’m well-suited for teaching high school. I love that high school students have such an open mind. They haven’t decided on their life paths yet, so they are excited to explore new topics and are often amazed by the things that they learn. That’s what I love most about teaching - the look of awe that you see when a student learns something incredible about themselves or about our world. 

Why Biology? What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Nature is incredible, inspiring, and it affects all of us. We all contain a complicated system of tiny proteins constantly working to keep us alive. And each of us has an impact on our planet. It is so important for all students, regardless of their future aspirations, to learn about their bodies and how their actions affect our planet. For those students who are aspiring scientists, I encourage you to keep asking questions and never be discouraged by failure. Every failure teaches you something that brings you closer to your goal. 

How does our curriculum and teaching at SRDS prepare students to succeed in college and beyond?
SRDS has a unique curriculum tailored by each teacher to provide students with the knowledge they need for the real world. In my classroom, we apply our knowledge to real-world situations so that students can understand the value of what they’re learning. My students are also challenged to design, build, and create as part of a project-based learning model that allows students to direct their own learning. Taking an active role in their education now helps them to develop the critical thinking skills they will need to teach themselves in the future. 

What has been a favorite memory of yours during your time at SRDS?
I love finding fun ways to teach topics that might otherwise come off as a bit dry or boring. My favorite memories thus far have come from some of these activities. For the past two years in Biology, I’ve used a bubble lab to teach about the properties of cell membranes. I will never forget the pure joy that this lab brings to the students. This year I tried a pickle autopsy to teach directional terms to my Anatomy & Physiology class. I planted tiny bullets, rubber band tapeworms, and even a pickle fetus for the students to discover during the autopsy. This was a great memory as well. As a teacher, the fondest memories come from seeing your students enjoying the experience of learning.