Guest Blog: Scientific Opportunities in the USA

Perse Head of Science Jeremy Burrows submits a guest blog about his recent trip to Boston:

Travelling around the snowy outskirts of Boston recently I passed an enormous hole in the ground; a hole in the ground that interestingly sums up exactly why I was in that part of the States on my half term break. By 2015 that hole will have become part of Novartis’ Global Research HQ – a new $600 million development which will further increase this area’s world leading scientific opportunities. ‘Big Pharma’ is moving to Cambridge, MJCB blog hole in groundassachusetts for a reason.

I was visiting Boston to evaluate the possibility of a science-based trip which would expose Perse students to the scientific innovation on offer and hopefully inspire some scientists of the future. I visited two local high-performing High Schools, was given tours around cutting-edge Research Institutes and Technology firms, and attempted to glean some information about the top universities in the area.

Boston was swathed in snow and getting about was difficult. 24 hours before my arrival cars had been banned from driving on the roads: failure to comply would result in hefty fines or even a year in jail. As a result several schools were shut, so a certain amount of last minute re-scheduling was necessary.

JCB blog classroomThe schools I visited were Milton Academy and Roxbury Latin, both private schools to the south of Boston. Their laboratories all featured a ‘wet-and-dry’ layout with a Harkness table for written and discussion work – a truly wonderful learning environment for the students. The Headmaster of Milton, Todd Bland, is keen that we set up some links between our schools. I saw four excellent lessons at these schools and felt the academic demand was at least as high as at The Perse for equivalent ages.

During the trip I was fortunate enough to meet with several very impressive young people, all of whom were making excellent use of the advanced scientific opportunities on offer in and around Boston. I was introduced to some Harvard students who showed me around the campus and laboratories, whilst giving me an inside line on Harvard’s admissions procedures. During a visit to Merrimack Pharmaceuticals I spoke to four interns (all from abroad) who gave me a tremendous insight into the scientific opportunities in Boston. It was fascinating that they believed the real advantages from being in the USA came at post-graduate level, since UK and European Scientists get to specialise earlier at school. Even though their company’s approach to biomedical research is biology-based, they impressed upon me the importance of mathematical and programming skills in their work as modellers of biological systems. I also spent an enjoyable evening with a recent Electrical Engineering graduate from MIT whose current work is in robot design. He gave me several insights into applying to MIT, life at MIT and career paths after graduation.

JCB blog peopleI left these exceptionally bright people with the words of the great Harvard alumnus Tom Lehrer echoing in my head “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years”. It also got me thinking about how so many Perse pupils I have taught would thrive in this environment, working with these kinds of people.

As well as meeting with so many awe-inspiring young people starting out on their careers, I also visited a number of scientists and firms at the very top of their fields.

Once such individual was Michael Fairbanks, a prominent philanthropist and government economic adviser. Originally a biochemist he is a founding shareholder in Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, which has drugs currently undergoing FDA trials to fight cancer and autoimmune diseases. Michael showed me around their laboratories and offices in Boston, and introduced me to the interns I mentioned earlier.

The next day I met with the Director of MIT Museum, John Durant. As Adjunct Professor in the STS Program he also teaches students from both MIT and Harvard. We had a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion and I gained more insights into the subtle differences between MIT and Harvard.

I was lucky enough to meet Charles Jennings who is Director of the McGovern Institute Neurotechnology Program: he kindly agreed to show a future trip around the Institute. I was also fortunate to meet Dr Ralph DiLeone, associate professor of psychiatry and neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, who has developed techniques that can turn neurons on and off. His research focuses on discovering which brain mechanisms regulate eating and are important in the development of obesity.

I left Boston bowled over by the generosity of the people who had helped me on my trip, and excited that their welcoming and encouraging responses make me certain that an excellent trip of about a week’s duration would be entirely possible to organise if enough students are interested. It would appear that the best time of the year to visit Boston would be April –to coincide with our Easter holidays, the US Cambridge Science Festival and Milton Academy being in session.

There is a real buzz about all things scientific in Boston, and I am extremely grateful to have been able to meet and share ideas with such eminent people. I am thankful to our Headmaster for giving me the opportunity to visit and to all the people who gave so freely of their time and made me feel so welcome.

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