When Blair’s research fellows set out to examine the importance of sleep in adolescents at the start of the 2019-2020 school year, they never imagined that their work would be interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, fast forward to spring 2020 and all eight students who were accepted to the research fellowship program established by Head of School Chris Fortunato and led by English teacher John Redos ’09 were looking at sleep from a whole new perspective—one associated with quarantine and distance learning.
As students prepared to leave Blairstown for spring break in early March, they were juggling three projects that had them collaborating with experts at Cornell Medical School, Rutgers University and Harvard’s School of Public Health as they considered sleep quality, the possibility of conducting sleep research in real time at Blair and testing the viability of a sleep curriculum for all new Blair students.
“The biggest lesson our fellows learned, hands down, is to not be afraid of a cold email,” said Mr. Redos, who joined Blair’s faculty in 2018 and now oversees the School’s external partnerships. “All three of our opportunities arose from ‘shot in the dark’ messages and, while I had a connection to an old labmate currently at Harvard, the other two relationships were forged because of the kindness of individuals willing to give their time to enrich our students’ education. Sometimes, having the courage to ask for help is all it takes to create a really wonderful network.”
Specifically, the research fellows were working with a professor from Cornell to adapt an already-existing survey on sleep quality with plans to administer it to faculty and staff on Blair’s campus. Before spring break, they had submitted their revised survey to Cornell and were awaiting approval from the school’s institutional review board (IRB). The group had plans in place to visit Rutgers’ sleep lab for an orientation with the goal of surveying some portion of the Blair community about sleep habits and quality and possibly using sleep monitors to gather data. And, working with a research assistant at Harvard, the fellows had hoped to host an in-person roundtable for Blair students, teachers and Trustees on the importance of sleep for high school students.
“I was amazed when we received multiple positive responses from the sleep experts to whom we reached out,” said Christina Tan ’21. “I had always been curious about how sleep can affect our daily routines, and I am glad that I learned more about how the lunar cycle influences sleep cycles. This fellowship provided a rare chance for us, as high school students, to dive into extensive resources with the full support of the School and our teachers.”
The pandemic forced them to press pause on all of these efforts, but the group’s work leading up to the pandemic impressed upon them how important sleep is to well-being. “Coronavirus meant that many of our plans couldn't come to fruition this year, but we saw how much potential there is for what we were doing to matter,” said Dylan Zhu ’21. “One of our goals was to present to the administration a narrative about what it’s currently like to be a student at Blair and to suggest ways to encourage healthier practices among the student body.”
Calling the ideation process “fun” and noting that the fellowship experience gave him the opportunity to hone his “scientific research chops,” Dylan hopes next year’s program continues to focus on sleep. “It’s really important for students and the administration to understand the issue and adjust things to address it,” he said.”I was surprised by how many factors go into sleep and how the brain works, and I am especially curious to learn more about brain entrainment and sleep debt so I can better assess my own sleep quality.”
For Grace Higgins ’21, the best part of the fellowship was partnering with a friend to create a real research proposal to share with Blair’s Head of School and professional scientists to solicit feedback. “I didn’t know much about sleep, but I knew it was important. This was a great opportunity to learn the science behind it and how it affects students and faculty at Blair,” she said. “The most surprising thing I learned was that it takes about four days to recover from one hour of lost sleep! Needless to say, I think we all have a lot of catching up to do.”
The fellows enjoyed collaborating with Mr. Redos and researchers as their work evolved over the course of the year. “Oftentimes, we forget the importance of sleep in the midst of our busy lives at Blair, so when the opportunity to participate in this program came up, I was excited to be a part of it,” said Miki Wang ’21. “I never realized how detailed and meticulous a research project can be, and working with Mr. Redos was definitely one of the highlights of the experience. His constant willingness to meet with us and provide guidance has definitely driven me to become a better research student.”
Dylan appreciated Mr. Redos’ organization and flexibility, as well as his emphasis on project feasibility. “Mr. Redos set clear deadlines but allowed us a great deal of space for interpretation within them so that we could assert our own voices in our work,” he explained.
Being able to branch out and brainstorm in this way gave the fellows a lot of freedom, added Christina. “When sharing ideas in the group, it was absolutely fascinating to see how diverse everyone’s interests and approaches are and partnering with others made the process easier,” she said. “It has been such a pleasure to work with Mr. Redos; he sincerely cares about our thought processes. While encouraging our research, he also made sure that our plans were achievable.”
Meaningfully Contributing to Research Realities
Looking to next year, Mr. Redos plans to pick up where the fellows left off in their empirical approach to better understanding adolescence and sleep. “Our work this year was exciting, but also showed how intimidating collaborating with external partners can be,” he said. “It’s not always easy talking to professors who are accomplished in a field in which we are not experts. However, it is invaluable for students to learn that we are all trying to accomplish similar goals, albeit from different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences.”
Miki, Dylan and Grace encourage their peers to look into participating in the research fellowship next year. “If you are interested in learning something new and gaining research experience, it is a great opportunity,” Miki said.
“You get a lot out of it if you have the time and motivation to contribute,” Dylan added. “It is worth the time commitment because many opportunities you would’ve never considered will pop up if you look for them. Working as a group, you can push your knowledge to a depth that is hard to achieve on your own.”
Grace put it simply: Just go for it. “Whether you have no experience and just want to learn more, or you want to get your foot in the door to create connections with professionals, this is a great, low-stress opportunity,” she concluded.
Reflecting on the fellowship he created in 2018, Mr. Fortunato is pleased to see that students are getting a firsthand look at the realities involved in the research process, including limitations and efficacy.
“I want our students to understand the breadth, complexity and depth of what meaningful research looks like,” he said. “Research often isn’t quick; it is a long game that can take years or even lifetimes to produce results. Our fellows experienced for themselves that they might not immediately see the fruits of their labor but took pride in being citizen researchers who contributed to meaningful work in some way. Understanding that process and their place in it has never been more important, especially amidst this pandemic.”