What an exciting week here at BUA! Last Friday, the Jazz Band and Swamp Cats entertained students, faculty, staff, parents, and even grandparents for our Valentine’s Cabaret. The dance floor was quite a scene. Yesterday, both the boys and girls varsity basketball teams won their league championships in close games in front of a lively home crowd. In the girls game, senior Anais Kim reached a rare milestone – scoring 1,000 points – which is even more impressive given that she did so in just three years (COVID canceled her 9th-grade season). Tonight, we will celebrate the Lunar New Year in that same gym. Students from the East Asian Students Association, along with dozens of parents, have organized food, music, and games to share this important cultural moment with the whole BUA family. All are welcome, and we hope to see many of you there.
I’m struck by how many of our students are engaged across these activities and more. Students who played in the Cabaret last Friday were also playing in the games last night. Some who were on the court last night will be in the gym tonight organizing Lunar New Year. BUA is a small school. Our vibrancy depends on kids wearing many hats. Rejecting a broader societal push for specialization and balkanization, BUA’s culture rewards trying something new and getting involved. Our community certainly benefits, and I believe our students do too.
On Tuesday, Boston University’s interim President, Ken Freeman, spoke at our all-school meeting. President Freeman has a distinguished history of service to BU, including eight years as the Dean of BU’s Questrom School of Business. That service followed a nearly forty-year career in industry, including senior executive positions at Corning, Quest Diagnostics, and private-equity firm KKR. In 2013, Harvard Business Review named him one of the 100 best performing CEOs in the world. He knows some things about leadership – his topic that morning. He offered a lively overview of what we know about successful leadership, peppering his talk with anecdotes and grounding it in decades of scholarship about what works and what doesn’t. He invited students to think about their own preferred leadership styles and challenged them to begin developing their own leadership philosophies. He touted the centrality of EQ. Most notably, he assured our students that leadership is learned.
Before introducing President Freeman, I shared a brief story on this last theme. After years of teaching, I was thinking about becoming a head of school but was intimidated by the idea. I thought about my role models – my headmaster when I was a boy, heads of school I had worked for, and many others I had come to know and admire over the years. To my mind, they all “had it.” I assumed that their leadership ability was somehow innate – that they had emerged, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, fully grown, clad in armor, and ready for battle. Did I have it? What if I didn’t? I mentioned my hesitation to a mentor who very quickly set me straight. He assured me, like President Freeman did for our students, that leaders are grown. He offered me a reading list and a series of coaching conversations with him to process what I was reading. He gave me the confidence to try.
I heard from dozens of BUA students about how much they enjoyed President Freeman’s talk. My hope is that, at least for some of them, his words give them the confidence to try too. We will all be better for it.
Students from the Geography Club and from Student Council’s PR Committee posted a world map at the foot of the staircase by the main entrance earlier this week. Attached to the map is a basket of pushpins and a request for students to add a pin to any locations connected to their heritage. Just a few days later, the map has now come alive with hundreds of multicolored pins. Yesterday afternoon, I joined some students gathered around the map analyzing the data – noticing the significant coverage of Europe, East Asia, South Asia, and parts of North America; tight clusters in East Africa, Central America, and the Middle East; and scattered points throughout the map. The story it tells is a beautiful one of a local school composed of and enriched by cultures from around the world.
We are proud that BUA is a place where families and students across cultures feel at home. That is part of our strength and a great differentiator for us. So many of our families have recent immigration experiences in their histories. Our students talk and write about their cultural heritage and family traditions, weaving that into their academic work, art, and social lives. In a way that might seem counterintuitive, being at a place where there is such freedom to share and celebrate individual identities – rather than atomizing us – helps create a cohesive whole. It helps us recognize our common humanity and creates the space to reinforce those key beliefs we share: the centrality of kindness, joy in curiosity, and the transformative power of education.
For his senior thesis, BUA senior Finn McMillan ‘24 is working in partnership with Boston University’s Daniel Segrè Lab to investigate the optimization of plant growth for the sustainable and affordable production of consumer biofuels.
Finn was first introduced to the Segrè lab when he toured it as part of the STEM Seminar in his junior year. Intrigued by the team’s work, which focuses on bioinformatics and metabolic networks in living systems, Finn reached out to Professor Ilija Dukovski, a researcher in the Segrè lab, and arranged to spend his summer conducting research in the lab. Finn’s – and the Segrè Lab’s – work focuses on a small piece of a much larger, multi-institutional project called the Microbial Community Analysis & Functional Evaluation in Soils project, or m-CAFEs, “a collaborative, coordinated and integrated mission-driven proposal that interrogates the function of the soil and rhizosphere microbiome, which has immense implications for carbon cycling, carbon sequestration and plant productivity in natural and agricultural ecosystems.” In Finn’s words, “m-CAFEs seeks to identify the interactions that influence carbon flow in particular; combined with CRISPR-Cas and RNAi community editing, the goal of the research is to artificially optimize plant growth for the maximum yield of biomass.”
In order to optimize plant biomass, researchers need to understand which bacterial colonies promote plants’ growth, and which inhibit it. As Finn explains in his thesis, one method of plant microbiome analysis utilized in the m-CAFEs study is “performed through Computation Of Microbial Ecosystems in Time and Space (COMETS), a multi-scale modeling framework that computes group dynamics through metabolic stoichiometry, separated from any prior assumptions of how species interact. First becoming publicly available in 2014, COMETS was founded through a collaboration between researchers at Boston University, Yale University and the University of Minnesota. Rather than utilizing classical kinetic models in community analysis that require large-scale kinetic parameters and differential equations, COMETS employs both stoichiometric and environmental modeling in accurately predicting metabolic activity at the genome-scale and community level.”
As part of his research, Finn was tasked with the job of ensuring that the COMETS simulation matched the experimental data for plant microbiome analysis. In order to accomplish this, Finn developed a machine-learning algorithm using a technique known as simulated annealing, “which is beneficial in its ability to identify global minimums and maximums.” Using the code he wrote, Finn perfected a simulation of the bacterium Pseudomonas simiae (P. simiae), “by finding ideal Vmax and Km values for the simulation.” Finn then compared the simulated and experimental data of P. simiae in order to measure the kinetic parameters that dictate how this particular bacterium grows.
Finn’s research and the work of the larger mCAFEs project has the potential to revolutionize the biofuels industry by “enabling biofuels such as ethanol to become more sustainable and feasible for consumers.” Finn will present his findings as part of BUA’s Senior Thesis Symposium on May 13, 2024.
For BUA sophomore Owen Bergstein ‘26, crossword puzzles are a way of life. Always an avid puzzler – like many BUAers – Owen does the New York Times crossword every day and estimates that he’s solved close to 1,000 puzzles since starting at BUA. But about two years ago, Owen took the leap from solver to creator and began to teach himself how to design his own puzzles. Tapping into a network of online and in-person crossword constructors, Owen found mentorship and guidance, and began to refine his puzzle-building technique.
Reflecting on his process, Owen said: “ I started out constructing pencil-on-paper, but soon learned that there is helpful software that the pros use. Every crossword is either themed or themeless. For themed puzzles, you build a theme, generally based around what's called a ‘revealer,’ an answer in the grid that explains the gimmick going on in other answers. Then you put that theme into a grid, and build words around it, cohering to 180 degree rotational symmetry of the black squares.”
Once he felt confident in his crosswords, Owen started submitting his puzzles for publication to a wide array of outlets. By his estimate, he has “a whopping 20 rejections to date.” But Owen’s persistence paid off, and earlier this month, Owen published his first puzzle in The Modern, the crossword feature on the Puzzle Society website.
When asked about how he approached the creation of his first published puzzle, Owen shared (CROSSWORD SPOILERS AHEAD!):
“Themeless puzzles, like the one published in The Modern, begin with some number of ‘seed entries,’ words that seem particularly fun or interesting and have never appeared in a crossword before. For my Modern puzzle, there were three: SLAY QUEEN, HEARTSTOPPER, and DENIM ON DENIM (I refer to entries in all caps, cohering to crossword customs). I generally try to put queer representation into my puzzles, since it's often lacking in crosswords, hence HEARTSTOPPER and SLAY QUEEN. I built this particular puzzle over two days in August. It was rejected at two other venues, including the New York Times, before finding its home at the Modern— just one example of the many instances by which crosswording has taught me resilience. The published puzzle is almost entirely my own creation. The grid is fully my work, other than an asymmetrical black square at the bottom of the grid that my editor Kelsey Dixon asked me to put in. The clues are mostly my own, but some were tweaked by Kelsey and the proofreader.”
Think your skills are up to the task of solving Owen’s crossword? Subscribers to Puzzle Society can try their hand at this link.
I’m just back from a trip to San Francisco visiting BUA alums with Mr. Stone. Over two days, we caught up with several dozen BUA graduates ranging from the class of 1997 to 2018. The trip confirmed a few things for me, aside from the fact that I am perhaps getting too old to function well after a red-eye flight. One is that our alums are doing remarkable and purposeful things with their careers, with a focus on technology given the location: launching a medical-technology company as part of the current Y Combinator startup accelerator cohort; pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence in education; investing in next-generation cancer therapeutics; developing LiDAR systems for use in self-driving cars. They spoke not just of their passion, but also of the ways in which their work will impact society for the better. It gave me a lot of hope for the future.
Another is that many of them credit their time at BUA for their success. I heard about the independence and project-management skills they picked up as part of the senior thesis – especially in finding an advisor or lab, switching gears when they hit a bump, and carrying through on a long-term project. I heard about the confidence and entrepreneurial spirit they built when starting a new club in high school with the support and guidance of their teachers. I heard about how BUA’s strong humanities program – with its emphasis on close reading, analytical thinking, clear writing, and deep engagement around the table – has been a major differentiating factor and reason for their quick rise in STEM fields, where those skills are not as common.
Finally, over and over again alums expressed their desire to pay it forward. They want to be helpful to this next generation of BUA students. So many already help as alumni interviewers, volunteers on the Alumni Council, class representatives, coaches and club mentors, career and college panelists, all-school meeting speakers, and so on. There is a real desire to do even more. In the coming months and years, we are exploring ways to connect BUA graduates – as well as current and past parents – to today’s BUA students for a range of things: informational interviews about career paths, shadow days at work, and more. I imagine that some of those preliminary connections will turn into longer-term mentoring relationships. It is exciting to think about how leveraging our alums’ remarkable energy, generosity, and experience can inspire and accelerate our students’ journeys.
On Tuesday, January 23, members of the BUA Transit Club were accompanied by chaperones Mr. Seth and Ms. Kelly on an exciting visit to the State House to enjoy a tour of the Senate and House chambers, as well as take part in an engaging and helpful discussion with State Senator and Assistant Majority Leader Sal DiDomenico about local public transportation concerns. Senator DiDomenico, representing the cities of Cambridge, Charlestown, Chelsea, and Everett, overheard numerous concerns and suggestions regarding the MBTA’s budget, reliability, and future plans. The senator was extremely impressed about how knowledgeable Transit Club members were, and encouraged all students to reach out to local representatives engaged in pushing transit infrastructure legislation; he hopes to include some of BUA students’ suggestions in his upcoming transit legislation.
As I was walking the halls recently, I passed a classroom during a free period where about a dozen students were looking up at a crossword puzzle projected on the screen. I popped in – I love crosswords too much to just walk by – and quickly discovered that I was in a new world. The students were working on a cryptic crossword puzzle, where each of the clues is a puzzle to solve – puzzles within puzzles. The whole room erupted when somebody got an answer; I didn’t contribute much, but it was fun to try it with them. After school that same day, I came across four kids playing chess on two boards side by side, with another handful of students and a teacher watching from the periphery. They explained that they were playing something called Bughouse Chess, a two-on-two version of the game where pieces taken by your partner on one board can then be placed on their partner’s board, making the game less predictable and according to the students, even more exciting.
When I was young, people used to ask me, “What do you do for fun?” I remember feeling some pressure not to talk about the books I was reading, poetry I was writing, crossword puzzles I was designing, role playing games I was into, and instead stay on the safer ground of watching movies and playing sports. I love that this is a school where working together on mind-bending wordplay or multi-dimensional chess is just part of the fun. For so many of our students, the “work” they do in the classroom – the books they read, the math problems they work on – is part of the fun too. Let the games continue!
Ninth-grader Dora Mou '27's essay, "My Two Primal Urges," was selected as one of 15 winners of the New York Times' 2nd annual Teen Tiny Memoirs contest. Teen Tiny Memoirs are 100-word narratives by teenagers about meaningful moments in their lives. Read Dora's winning essay here.
Congratulations, Dora, on your fantastic essay and this incredible accomplishment!
BUA senior Robbie Mulroy's thesis project has the potential to impact the future of cancer research.
For his senior thesis, Robbie '24 is investigating the role of the CREB binding protein (CBP) in cancer under the guidance of BU Biology Professor Dr. Trevor Siggers as well as BUA Biology Teacher Dr. Colleen Krivacek, who by remarkable coincidence happens to have expertise in this area. CBP is a cofactor that binds to transcription factors, which in turn bind to DNA to regulate when genes are expressed. The CREB binding protein regulates around 10,000 different genes; Robbie has been studying where and when CBP’s five binding regions bind to various transcription factors.
Inspired by his BU biology courses, Robbie was motivated to better understand the inner workings of the human body on a genetic level, and to investigate CBP’s effect on the immune system and the relationship between CBP and tumor development.
In the spring of 2023, Robbie reached out to Dr. Siggers to introduce himself and to ask if Dr. Siggers might be willing to supervise his senior thesis research. Dr. Siggers happily accepted, and Robbie spent the summer in the Siggers Lab here on campus, which is dedicated to systems biology and gene regulation in the immune system. Conducting experiments alongside undergraduate and graduate students, Robbie’s research entailed taking each of five binding domains and inserting them into lentivirus plasmid, infecting cells with that virus, and then extracting the nuclei of those cells. He then used a protein binding microarray to test binding domains with different transcription factors to see which ones bound and which did not. The experimentation process was not without challenges, and taught Robbie some important lessons about scientific methods and problem solving. Through trial and error, Robbie and his fellow researchers fine tuned their experiments, adjusting transformation timings and solution concentrations until they felt they were achieving valid, measurable results.
Robbie is now working on translating his findings into a research paper that will constitute his thesis project. Reflecting on potential broader impacts of his very technical research, Robbie explains:
“Errors in CBP regulation are linked to many types of cancer, including lung cancer, head and neck cancer, acute leukemia, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. Through interactions with other proteins and its primary histone acetylation function, CBP regulates several phases of the cell cycle. This means that overexpression of the gene that encodes CBP or mutations within the gene can cause cells to grow unpredictably. On the flip side, the underexpression of CBP has been shown to lead to apoptosis (cell death). Some cancer treatments in development are trying to downregulate CBP expression in cancer cells to kill them.”
Future cancer researchers may build on Robbie’s and Dr. Siggers’s team’s findings to further tease out the relationship between the CREB binding protein and tumor development. Robbie will present his complete research project alongside fellow seniors at BUA’s Senior Thesis Symposium in Metcalf Hall on May 13, 2024.