Science at the Abbey: Lectures, Awards and Grants

(Pictured l-r: Christopher Fisher, director of the Portsmouth Institute, Dr. James Nolan, professor of Sociology at Williams College, and Dr. Stephen Zins, head of the School Science Department at the Center for Science and Liberal Arts lecture delivered by Dr. Nolan.)

Lecture from the Center for Science and Liberal Arts 

The Center for Science and the Liberal Arts reflects an innovative partnership between the Department of Science and Portsmouth Abbey School and the Portsmouth Institute for Faith and Culture. The mission of the Center for Science and the Liberal Arts is to inspire both knowledge of and a sense of wonder towards God and the created order. The Science and Spirituality Initiative is a program of the Center for Science and the Liberal Arts dedicated to promoting an exploration of the intersection between science and spirituality. The Initiative includes a speaker series and an innovative grant-making program for students, faculty and monks, and is supported by an anonymous grant facilitated by John Forstmann ’60. 

The Center recently hosted a thought-provoking lecture on campus in early April. Dr. James Nolan, Jr., a professor of Sociology at Williams College, spoke about his discovery of the role that his grandfather played in the Manhattan Project – the research responsible for the development and detonation of the 1945 atomic bombs. Dr. Nolan is the recipient of several grants and awards including the National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships and a Fulbright scholarship. He has held visiting fellowships at Oxford University, Loughborough University and the University of Notre Dame.

In his lecture titled, “The Frankenstein Problem: Should Some Science Not Be Done? Lessons from the Manhattan Project and the Creation of the Atom Bomb,” Dr. Nolan noted several similarities between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the events leading up to the initial “Trinity Test,” as well as the fallout from the bombs deployed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nolan raises the age-old question of moral responsibility in the world of science and technological advancement.

Portsmouth Abbey students consider these types of questions every day as they explore the field of science. One such student posed the question at the end of the lecture, “How can we, both present and future generations of scientists, develop a robust framework for evaluating the ethical thresholds and potential long-term, societal implications of scientific research in emerging fields, such as quantum computing and new technology, while fostering innovation and ensuring that the potential benefits of these discoveries are not stifled by overly restrictive regulations?” Professor Nolan’s advice? The first step is asking that very question and to be aware of the potential outcomes of our work. 

Another student, Hannah Gallagher ’23, said, "Dr. Nolan's lecture was probably the best I've attended in my four years at the Abbey. I found it to be the perfect balance between the liberal arts and STEM fields, while also applying to the listeners personal experiences with social media. This was particularly impactful as it fostered self reflection without any shame or pressure. I found his perspective to be invaluable and it made me question not only the effects of the creation on the creator, but also how to cope with the effects of that creation as a bystander."

Dom Luke Childs Lecture

Established in honor of Dom Luke Childs, beloved monk and teacher at Portsmouth Abbey, the annual speaker series of the same name features three lectures per school year. 

Portsmouth Abbey School hosted Loyola University Chicago professors, Dr. Michael Burns and Dr. Joseph Vukov, to deliver the final Dom Luke Childs lecture of the 2022–23 school year on Friday, April 14. In their lecture, entitled, “Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality Meets Catholic Intelligence and Catholic Reality” Burns and Vukov outlined the development and framework of the latest craze, ChatGPT. They encouraged students to consider the benefits and consequences of AI and VR, its limitations, and their moral implications moving forward. A workshop hosted by the Center for Science and Liberal Arts was held the evening before during which faculty and students were guided through a series of experiments using ChatGPT and experienced VR.

Questions were raised at both the workshop and lecture regarding the nature of AI, improvements in future iterations and whether or not it could ever be considered a person. The speakers referenced the catechism of the Catholic Church, citing that a person is body, mind and soul, something even the most advanced robot does not possess.

Abbey students awarded “Best in Fair” and “First Grant” at R.I. Science and Engineering Fair

Xingchuan “Ryan” Ma ’25 and Seungbin “Monique” Hwang ’24 of Portsmouth Abbey School competed in the 2023 Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair Saturday, March 18 along with students from 27 other R.I. schools. Ma took home “Best in Fair” and Hwang received a “First Grant” medal, along with a special award for her project related to in vitro biology. This was the fourth consecutive year that an Abbey student has won the “Best in Fair” title. Pictured at right is Ma receiving his trophy from the director of the fair, Mark Fontaine.

Students in grades six through 12 can compete for first, second and third place awards, many special grants and scholarships. Representatives of the U.S. Navy, Herreshoff Marine Museum, Bristol County Waterways and The University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy, among others, were present at the March 22 Awards Ceremony to bestow their medals and trophies. 

For his winning project, Ma developed an interactive visualization platform using scRNA-seq (single-cell RNA sequencing) data to reveal key marker genes and mechanisms of non-small cell lung cancer. All these analysis processes are incorporated into his online 2-D plotting website

Asked why he chose his project, Ma said, “Many researchers have already conducted lots of wet-lab-based [cancer] experiments that are almost coming to a limit, and I believe the answer to breaking this limit lies under interdisciplinary research.”

“Investigating cancer isn't like developing a model like ChatGPT,” Ma said, “where researchers are only trying to find the most sophisticated model with low error costs, but rather conducting any in vivo research can take months and cost a lot of funds.”

Ma’s hope is that his bioinformatics project might be able to provide new insight into the mechanism of cancer while also providing a user-friendly interface to find the marker genes, which are critical to the understanding of the mechanisms of cancer. “This saves time and money for researchers to quickly get started and start with relative accuracy doing in vivo research,” he said. 

Similarly, Hwang investigated the effect of vascular endothelial growth factor—which is responsible for growing blood vessels—on the AGS gastric cancer cell. After creating three VEGF concentrations (10 ng/ml, 50 ng/ml and 100 ng/ml), Hwang observed the changes in the cancer cells that occurred 48 hours after treatment. As a result of using western blot—a technique used to separate proteins—it was found that AGS cells with the highest VEGF concentration grew the most. “Since I have confirmed that VEGF and cancer cells are actually deeply related, I would like to make another experiment in the future under similar conditions using VEGF suppresser next time. If the suppresser is effective, we can slow the growth of cancer cells in the area we need by using target therapy and sending the suppresser,” she said.

Commenting on the field, Hwang continued and said, “Modern society has faced remarkable scientific development along with economic abundance. However, as a result, various diseases that have not been encountered in the past, have also been developed. One of them is cancer. Cancer is a disease with a high mortality rate, and there are various treatments. However, they have limitations (the main obstacle is drug resistance and toxicity) and cause pain to patients. Therefore, I wondered if there was a way for the patient to get better treatment and in order to do so, I thought it was important to first find out and use the characteristics of cancer. And this experiment became the basis.”

In addition to receiving a “First Grant” title for her project, Hwang was given a certificate for Outstanding Achievement for Ability and Creativity in In Vitro Biology from The Society for In Vitro Biology. Pictured above is (l-r) Ma and Hwang proudly displaying their awards.

The top two students in the fair’s senior division—Ma being number one—will represent the State at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas this May. According to their website, Regeneron ISEF is the world’s largest pre-college STEM competition. Several Grand Awards will be given in 21 categories, the highest award being $5,000. Top Awards will be selected from among the first award winners, with the potential for a student to win a $75,000 scholarship, among others.

Dr. Stephen Zins, head of the Science Department at the School, lauded the students’ success and said, “I've always been so impressed with the initiative and ingenuity of our students, and Ryan and Monique are ideal exemplars of those qualities. Monique has always shown the courage to test her ideas and take advantage of new and exciting opportunities. Ryan has already proven at a very young age that he is a force to be reckoned with at the Abbey and beyond in the sciences. I'm very proud of both of them and can't wait to see what they do in the future. I consider myself lucky to have them both in class this year!”

School Department of Science to Award $5,000 in Grants

The Department of Science at Portsmouth Abbey School established a grant program in 2019 that funds up to ten projects for a maximum cost of 500 dollars each. Students must submit a two-page research proposal based on the NSF pre-doctoral fellowship application describing the background, research plan, hypothesis and broader impacts of their idea. In addition to the research proposal, a project timeline and budget and identification of a suitable faculty mentor are also required. Students must be able to take their idea from the abstract to the concrete with careful attention to detail and a full accounting of the time and resources necessary to complete the project.

Dr. Zins says before any scientific endeavor takes place, scientists need to figure out how to pay for it. The National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) are the two leading public sources of funding for scientific and health-related research with annual budgets totaling 41.7 and 8.3 billion dollars respectively. To win one of these awards, scientists must clearly communicate why their research is worth funding. This exercise prepares Portsmouth Abbey School students for that process.

“I'm so impressed with the ambition of our students. It's one thing to have an idea, but it's quite another to have the willpower and courage to execute it, in the face of countless opportunities for failure. Grant winners will have a tremendous leg up on their peers in college in terms of conducting research and understanding the scientific process,” notes Dr. Zins.

All successful applicants are required to present their research at the annual Art and Science Expo in late April in the form of an oral presentation or a physical modeling of their project. Past proposed research has been in fields such as computer modeling, eco-footprints, hydroponic gardening, robotics, microplastics and bacterial engineering.