On a warm fall afternoon inside a classroom in Waltham High School (WHS), six high school students talk about their own petri-dish experiments using sunscreen and yeast. These students are members of the school’s newly recognized after-school science club, which strives to bring a unique approach to high school science curriculums. 

Brandeis neuroscience student Vivekanand Pandey Vimal PhD ’16 founded the after-school club this November. Though Vimal is still in the process of working with the University’s science division to enlist more professors who might be interested in teaching the students, the program is off to a strong start.

Vimal has wanted to cultivate an after-school science program with Waltham High School for several years. “The idea has been growing ever since I have been in Brandeis,” Vimal explained in an interview with the Justice, “So it’s been growing for five years.” Yet Vimal struggled to find a research topic that was accessible to high school students and manageable in a high school classroom without access to extensive equipment and resources. 

 Before attending Brandeis as a post-doctorate student, Vimal taught at Waltham High School as a physics teacher for six years. 

“When I was a high school [teacher], you have a classroom filled with 25 students, maybe more. And because these classrooms, especially these days, are very focused on teaching the kids to perform well on a test … most of what the students experience is just learning a bunch of facts. But what’s unique about the after-school program is that we don’t give them a huge amount of knowledge. We tell them, ‘Here is a problem, using the knowledge that you have, and the tools that we just gave you, solve it.’ And so they have to sit down and figure out and design their own experiments. And this is what graduate students do, and this is what scientists do … Solve this problem, figure it out, and there is no right answer,” Vimal said.

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By Brianna Majsiak/theJustice

CLOSE UP: Students in the after school science program at WHS are using these petri dishes of yeast exposed to UV light to develop a new way to test sunscreen.

Vimal has worked in collaboration with Waltham High School since 2012, when he established a summer internship program for students interested in science and research. Since its launch, the program has paired more than 20 students with post-doctorate and graduate students to conduct real research projects. 

The continued success of the research program inspired Vimal to expand his work with high school students and led him to found the after-school program. To map out the details, Vimal first spoke with Marisa Maddox, a biology teacher at Waltham High. 

Maddox explained in an interview with the Justice that it’s hard to do this kind of research because there’s not enough time in the curriculum. “There are standards that we have to meet. So, this is a great opportunity for them to be able to work on their own and answer questions or problems on their own.”

Vimal then turned to Dr. Anique Olivier-Mason, the director of outreach at the University. To attract more students to the program, Olivier-Mason will hold supplementary monthly pizza talks in which he will invite scientists to share their life journeys and research projects. 

“You know sometimes it’s hard to see that … science is something more than just a textbook — that science is all about exploration and discovery. That’s what I want to bring to the students — that you guys can be creative; you can explore; you can discover, and that’s actually in reality what science is,” Vimal said.

Every three weeks, a new Brandeis scientist will guide the after school club and their project topics. The scientist will spend the first week going over background knowledge of the research topic. On the second and third weeks, students will determine their individual projects based off the research topic, and then the scientist will return to oversee their work. 

Dr. Ranjith Anand, a research specialist in the Haber Lab, is the current Brandeis scientist guiding the club and has designed a yeast related research project for the students to work on. The students are being asked to use this research topic to form their own ways of testing sunscreen that doesn’t involve burning the skin of test subjects. According to Anand, yeast reacts very similarly to human skin when exposed to UV light.

Anand joined the program so that he could share information that he’s learning as a research specialist with high school students. “It is extremely satisfying not to just do the research but to spread what you have learnt to others,” Anand said in an interview with the Justice. 

This aligns with Vimal’s core goal in founding this program. Vimal looks forward to seeing participants not only gain lab and practical skills but also gain a curiosity through involvement. “[I want to see that] they can look at a problem and not take it for granted, and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to conquer this problem by generating ideas, by problem solving, using these techniques — this curiosity that I developed from the project,” Vimal said. 

The club differs from traditional tutoring programs that focus on re-teaching information, because Vimal hopes to teach new information. “We will get together with undergraduates and say, ‘Okay, here are different tools and techniques we have, that why don’t you help us figure out a very interesting project that has never been done before. ... On top of that, they [undergraduates] will gain experiences of teaching. We are not just teaching facts; we are teaching methods, we are teaching skills; we are teaching how to think, which is something that’s difficult to do,” Vimal said.

Vimal strongly believes Brandeis’s theme of social justice is mirrored in the after-school science club. “Social justice or injustice, for example, are focused around the fact that here are passionate students and they don’t have opportunities,” Vimal said. “This is what’s so beautiful about Brandeis — that it allows us to create this program and bring the two communities together and give opportunities to students so that they can ... learn as much as they possibly want.”

For Vimal, the after-school science club is more than just a way for students to learn new concepts and practical skills. “I feel even for any human to be happy, they need to always be curious and examining ... So that’s for the larger philosophy that I hope the kids will get,” he said.