Reprinted from the Harker Quarterly March 2010 issue
On Jan. 14, the tables turned at the upper school campus. The students, typically collecting awards at Intel and Siemens Science competitions and presenting their own research at the annual and upcoming Harker Research Symposium (see December Harker Quarterly), became the subjects for a cutting-edge research study conducted by Stanford University.
The collaboration began in the fall of 2008, when biologist and principal researcher Dr. Marcel Salathé contacted Katherine Schafer, biology and research teacher at Harker. After meeting with Schafer, Salathé knew that Harker would be a great place to run the study and that Schafer would be a great partner in the project.
“It’s … very important that everyone is excited about the research and the project,” Salathé said, “and after talking to a few teachers and students it became clear that Harker would be a very good place to do this.”
“There is no data of such detail about human contact networks at this scale, especially at schools,” Salathé said, “so the data will be the first of its kind, which is always a very exciting prospect in science.”
The data will be used to create a detailed contact network and Salathé and his team will run epidemic simulations on this established network to help advance understanding of how diseases spread through human interactions and, potentially, use the conclusions to improve epidemic control within schools.
Setting up the research took a year’s worth of preparation and two trial runs to work out kinks, but the experiment will offer new insight into the spread of viruses. For a day, students, faculty and staff wore wireless devices, called motes, around their necks, and stationary motes were mounted on the walls of most classrooms. These low-powered sensory devices logged interactions with each other through weak radio signal detection
To properly set up the research, Harker forwarded a letter from the researchers to parents explaining the project. Then, Salathé and colleagues Philip Levis, assistant professor of computer science, and James Holland Jones, assistant professor of anthropology, provided details at a schoolwide assembly the day before the data collection to stress the importance of student involvement in the research.
The study is a marriage between Stanford’s biology, anthropology and computer science departments and highlights the interdisciplinary nature of major research to Harker students. Harker is the only school participating in the study and the participation reflects the scientific spirit fostered on campus.
“One of the ideas [for the assembly] was to try and give a little bit of a feel for the different disciplinary perspectives and how it comes together in a single coherent project,” Jones said. Schafer also stressed the importance of reminding students to pursue multiple interests.
“One of the goals of this assembly, in addition to learning about the study, was to get the kids thinking about the fact that having lots of different talents is going to help them a lot down the line,” Schafer said. “Having knowledge of computer science and biology and all of these other things could potentially be a huge benefit for them in their careers and in their lives in general.”
Students were given the opportunity to expand their research interests by providing feedback and working closely with the researchers to determine the best possible way to extract data. Salathé’s team initially thought self-logged data would be sufficient and tested this possibility with Schafer’s research club.
The students in the club were given journals to record their interactions throughout a school day to test the method, but returns were short of the mark. “We then switched to the advanced version of motes, and quite a few students helped us test that idea,” Salathé said.
Andrea Lincoln, Gr. 12, participated in the study and coincidentally did research at Boston University last summer using wireless sensor networks (WSN) similar to the motes used in Stanford’s study. Lincoln thought the experiment served as a worthy introduction to the vast world of research.
“Given the huge percentage of Harker students who are considering research as a possible career, I believe it is valuable for us to have an introduction,” Lincoln said. “Perhaps seeing the WSN research will convince some students to look into research internships.”
Almost 800 motes were distributed across campus and roughly 6.5 million pieces of raw data were collected. Both Schafer and Salathé said the day went incredibly smoothly.
“This is in large part because we were so well prepared,” Salathé said.
The entire process was also Schafer’s chance to get involved in research again. After studying the population ecology of stomatopod crustaceans and pygmy octopuses on coral reefs in Belize for her doctoral dissertation, Schafer said the Stanford research project contrasted significantly from the type of research she did as a field biologist.
Salathé is pleased with the whole data gathering process and results should be available in April. “I think we would do it pretty much exactly the same way if we were to do it again,” he noted, giving full credit for the successful effort to Schafer.
“She was excited from the beginning and is the main reason why this Harker-Stanford collaboration has worked out so well,” he said. “It couldn’t have been done without her.”