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Research Rock Star

11/30/2012

Ask Chandler Dunn ’13 about how he spent his summer and he’ll talk fairly quietly about his experience, explaining the ins and outs of his daily travels to Boston for his math internship at the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Laboratory of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

He was working on research into schizophrenia, and at the end of his six weeks at the hospital, he made a presentation to the doctors and researchers with whom he worked.

And then, he got an e-mail.

“I was overwhelmed with joy,” said Chandler. “It was from Dr. Kikinis and she said he talked with the Prof. Martha Shenton, director of the lab, and they wanted to credit me as a co-author on their paper.”

It’s an impressive feat for a high-schooler to be named as an author on a medical paper, and Chandler says he appreciates what a big deal it is.

“It felt good to look back on all I had done and know that something came out of it more than just the experience,” Chandler said.

Chandler’s work focused on something called the anterior commissure — a small nerve fiber bundle between the two hemisphere of the brain, and its size in patients with schizophrenia versus control patients without the mental disorder.

“I used a 3D Slicer [a software for visualization and computation of medical images], to analyze certain parts of the brain using MRI images," Chandler explained, "and compared the sizes of the anterior commissure in both groups. In the end, we did find a difference in size. The bulk of my time was spent trying to figure out the best method for the experiment that would show that result.”




He was examining which areas of the brain to include, and which to exclude. Sound technical? It is, and Chandler is a pretty technical guy. He’s passionate about computer science, so the neuroimaging laboratory was a perfect fit for him.

“I think he was always confident, but I think even more so now,” said Doug Burbank, chair of the Math Department. “I think he got down there and was surrounded by like people that shared the same interests, and who are excited about this stuff, and it validated him.”

The Math Department internship grew out of the school’s Students on the Forefront of Science program. Founded in 2004, the SFS program provides challenging internships in science-based research and cutting-edge industries.

Dr. Zora Kikinis, instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said that she and Dr. Jenny Fitzsimmons, also an instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, were impressed with Chandler’s keen interest in learning.

“One of his strengths is that he’s very interested in programming and computer science,” said Kikinis, who assigned Chandler to analyze data using a Linux-based program. “I think it might have helped him to see what the programming does for us … that it can be applied to different types of topics of study.”

She said the paper will be entitled White Matter Abnormalities of the Anterior Commissural Fibers in First-Episode Psychosis.

At the end of his internship, Chandler was required to make a presentation to a group of doctors and medical researchers. It’s a presentation that Kikinis said was “very clear; Chandler really demonstrated that he had an understanding of the project, its background and the methods we used.”

Dunn comes by his interest in the science naturally — his father is Peter Dunn, Brooks class of 1982, and executive director of Perioperative Administration at Mass General Hospital.

And he knows from experience that being published is no small feat.

“It’s great to see the effort he put in and the results he’s received. When you look at publishing… we have to put down what each person’s contribution was on the paper, and it goes through an approval process of an editorial board,” Peter said. “To be there for eight weeks and make that significant of a contribution is great.”

Chandler is the first of the Brooks School interns at PNL to be named as a co-author on a medical paper based on his internship work. In addition to that claim-to-fame, he also got the chance to learn the ins and outs of professional life — including the multi-step commuter into the city on a daily basis.

He took the commuter rail from Lawrence , hopped on the T for about 10 stops, then walked about 10 minutes to get to his lab.

His commute home, however, was sometimes made easier — he’d pop over to MGH and hitch a ride home with his dad.

“We had a great time during the commute home to North Andover catching up on how the internship was going,” said Peter.

Although typically a bit quiet, it didn’t take Chandler long to fit in among his new-found peers at the lab.

“I really liked the people I was working with, mostly young adults right out of college, taking a year gap before they head off to medical school,” Chandler explained. “I made some pretty good friendships; at lunch we’d eat and then play board games or Bananagrams.”

Not only is he a co-author, but he’s also pretty good at beating future doctors and PhD candidates at the word game, it turns out.

Chandler said his internship solidified his interest in going into computer science as a career.

“They had computer scientists on the spot working, so I got to talk with them about it,” he said.

His father also noted that the experience opened Chandler’s eyes to future possibilities.

“What’s great about this internship and all the ones that Brooks offers is that it allows kids to see that the way they are taught here in terms of the scientific method is really setting them up for seeing exactly how they would use those skills in a real-life situation,” Peter said. “This opened the door to him that computer science has a lot more opportunities than he’s seen.

Doug Burbank, along with math teacher Don Cameron, interviewed Chandler for the internship, and felt he would be a good match for the work and atmosphere at PNL. Burbank took Chandler down for a lab tour and to meet with some of the researchers during the summer, and then stayed in touch with him during the eight weeks of internship.

Burbank said Chandler was always confident, but seems even more so now: “He’s a bright, quiet student and he got down there and was surrounded by people really excited about this shared interest.”

Chandler’s older brother Matt ’11 also did an internship, through Students on the Forefront of Science, at Pervasis Therapeutics.

Peter Dunn said the mentoring that Chandler received by Burbank and others in the Math Department is part of what makes the Brooks internship so unique — and it represents a tradition at Brooks.

“We didn’t have a formal internship program when I was a student, but that mentoring existed for with teachers like Nick Evangelos. I had a medical career on the forefront of my mind then, and Mr. Evangelos was the key mentor for me on that path,” said Peter.

Real World Experiences
All of the Brooks interns this summer found interesting experiences during their time in the professional world. Click here to read first-hand accounts from the Students on the Forefront of Science interns, and here to learn even more about the program.