Science Feature | The Pride | Fall 2015

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Discovering New Horizons: St. Mark’s connection to the year’s most historic discoveries

Fall 2015 Volume 20, Issue 2 St. Mark’s School of Texas Alumni Magazine

From the farthest reaches of our solar system to the Cradle of Humankind, this summer brought two groundbreaking scientific explorations. Between these two discoveries lay a single link — a boys’ school in the heart of Dallas, where students and teachers dare to imagine the possibilities in the future of science education.


(opposite) During the flyby, New Horizons came within 7,750 miles of Pluto’s surface.

Three scientists: one who cultivated his passion for astronomy at St. Marks, one who fosters wonder and curiosity in the minds of current Marksmen, and one who is just beginning to make his mark. These scientists connect the dots between historic, current, and future investments in campus infrastructure that give Marksmen an entrée into the ever-evolving world of science and technology.

From St. Mark’s to Pluto On July 14, 2015, the entire world looked to the sky as an historic event transpired 3 billion miles away. At the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Dr. Alan Stern ’75 and his team crowded around a computer and waited for a transmission from across the solar system. Just before 9 o’clock in the evening, a cheer rang out as confirmation arrived that the New Horizons spacecraft had successfully completed mankind’s first flyby of Pluto, coming within 7,800 miles of the dwarf planet’s surface. “Following in the footsteps of planetary exploration missions such as Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager, New Horizons has triumphed at Pluto,” Alan said. “The New Horizons flyby completes the first era of planetary reconnaissance, a half century-long endeavor that will forever be a legacy of our time.” Close-up images of Pluto and its moons soon appeared in newspapers and on screens around the globe. The probe will spend more than a year transmitting all of the data it collected, but the information NASA has already received has rocked the scientific community. “This summer, we ran the anchor leg to humanity’s 50-year exploration of the planets,” Alan said.

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(above) Alan Stern ’75 and members of the New Horizons team display an image of the 1991 Pluto stamp (right) Alan shows off his New Horizons bumper sticker

After the flyby, Alan and his team held up a giant print of a 1991 postage stamp showing Pluto and the words “Not Yet Explored.” The stamp had served as a motivational image for Alan and his team, and one was lovingly placed on the side of the spacecraft itself. At the press conference announcing the flyby’s success, Alan’s team had crossed out the words “Not Yet.” New Horizons shows no signs of slowing down (in fact, thanks to physics, it can’t) and now the team is setting its sights on the next frontier of exploration: the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons has become the first spacecraft to explore the expanse beyond the planets of our solar system, and course corrections have already been made to point the craft toward its next target. In early 2019, pending NASA approval, New Horizons will


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“Going to the Kuiper Belt is like an archaeological dig into the history of the solar system.” —Alan Stern ’75 During the first full faculty/staff meeting in August, Eugene McDermott Headmaster David W. Dini reflected on the Marksman scientist who had made history. Then, to everyone’s surprise, David placed a Skype call to Dr. Stern, who appeared on screen from his home in Colorado. After greeting the teachers, Alan shared behindthe-scenes details of the Pluto mission and his own surprise at the public’s reaction. intercept 2014 MU69, a 28-mile wide object that may hold valuable clues to the earliest days of our solar system. “Exploring Kuiper Belt Objects is going to help us connect the dots of accretion [or how planets form],” Alan said. “Going to the Kuiper Belt is like an archaeological dig into the history of the solar system.” More groundbreaking discoveries are expected in the coming months and years as New Horizons slowly beams back the gigabytes of photos and data it collected from Pluto. There will certainly be more than enough to keep Alan and his team busy for years to come. But even with a packed schedule, Alan found time to wish a happy new year to the educators at his alma mater.

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“The day after we flew past Pluto, we were on the front page of over 450 newspapers. NASA had its biggest media sensation in a generation.” From the beginning, the New Horizons mission was fraught with political and budgetary hurdles, but thanks in part to Alan’s strong leadership, the mission was accomplished. Like a true Marksman, Alan was quick to divert praise away from himself, lauding the collaboration, cooperation, and creativity of the many other scientists, engineers, and colleagues. “I give all the credit to the team. Over 2,500 Americans worked tirelessly for four years to build New Horizons. Nights and weekends were the norm, but my team stood up to the challenge.”

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“I give a lot of credit to St. Mark’s for enabling my career and making me the man I am today.” —Alan Stern ’75


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(opposite) Alan gives a mission update at a NASA press conference

Before signing off, Alan also took time to thank the faculty and staff for continuing the tradition of instilling a passion for excellence in their students.

(above) The sun sets on Pluto as seen by New Horizons fifteen minutes after its closest approach

As a boy, Alan was caught up in the Space Race of the 1960s. One day, while driving down Preston Road with his parents, Alan noticed a private school with an observatory and

(left) Alan speaks at the first annual St. Mark’s STEM Conference

planetarium, and his interest was piqued. That observatory and planetarium were part of the newly dedicated, state-of-the-art

to campus multiple times. He was chosen as the

McDermott-Green Science Quadrangle.

Commencement Speaker for the Class of 2008, received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2009,

“When my parents got me into St. Mark’s, it was

was a panelist in the inaugural STEM Conference

probably the best thing that ever happened to me,”

in 2013, and celebrated his 40th Reunion this past

Alan said. “The School helped me toughen up

April, just three months before the Pluto flyby.

and become a much better student than I ever knew I could be. I give a lot of credit to St. Mark’s

“St. Mark’s is very much about making a man

for enabling my career and making me the man I

out of a boy,” Alan said. “And I felt that even in

am today.”

high school, I could feel I was on an escalator going somewhere.”

While Alan’s career has taken him across space, he has always remained dedicated to 10600 Preston

Forty years after donning his white dinner jacket at

Road, where his journey started. Since New

Commencement, Alan Stern is continuing to ride

Horizons launched in 2006, Alan has returned

that escalator into the farthest reaches of space.

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Dr. Lee Berger presents his findings at St. Mark’s

As the new school year got underway, students and faculty were still buzzing about St. Mark’s connection to the historic Pluto mission. Less than two months after New Horizons flew past Pluto, another discovery would rock the scientific community and, yet again, St. Mark’s was connected to the story.

A Discovery Right Here on Earth In September, the world looked underground, into a cave in an area of South Africa known as the Cradle of Humankind. In front of the worldwide press, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger and his team pulled the curtain back on a case containing the remains of Homo naledi, a newly discovered species of hominin. The remains are part of an anthropological treasure trove found in 2013 in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. After their initial discovery, Dr. Berger began excavating the site with funding from the National Geographic Society. Berger had already garnered international fame for his discovery of a 2 million-yearold set of Australopithecus sediba skeletons in 2008. With these discoveries under his belt, some referred to Lee as a real-life Indiana Jones. He was just the sort of explorer who fascinated John Mead, Eugene McDermott Master Teaching Chair in Science. A few years ago, John was following Lee’s exploits and sent him a Facebook friend request. On a whim, John asked if Lee would be interested in fielding a few questions from his Middle School science class. Lee was able to do one better and spoke in person at St. Mark’s. Since then, Lee has kept John’s classes up to date on their progress through Skype and Twitter conversations. Lee also returned to campus last year, taking students on an in-depth tour of his excavation site at the Rising Star Cave and teasing a major upcoming announcement. Last summer, with assistance from professional development funds, John traveled to Africa to visit the dig site in person. On the way, he stopped by nThambo Tree Camp for a week of safaris. He tracked and photographed wild lions, hyenas, elephants, and other animals that he vividly discusses in his sixth-grade life science classes.


“It’s a very exciting time for us because this is a creature that no one thought we would ever discover.” —Dr. Lee Berger (opposite) Lee signs a book for a student during his campus visit

“Our vehicle was easily within 20 feet of lions, and occasionally they were feeding on a kill,” John recalls. “That’s something that makes you really feel a part of the food web because you realize how wimpy we as humans are just in our natural selves.” After spending a week in the wild, John traveled south to the Rising Star Cave, located about an hour outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. There, Lee gave John a personal tour of what was then a top-secret discovery. Through a seven-inch-wide passageway, two cavers had discovered the final resting place of at least 15 individuals from a previously unknown human species. To date, Lee and his team have excavated 1,550 specimens from the cave, representing one of the most diverse discoveries of prehistoric human bones. During his time at the Rising Star Cave site, John was able to personally study and even hold some of these fossils. “I got to work with the researchers scanning over 200 teeth that were recovered,” John said. “We used a Micro CT-scanner with a resolution of 30 microns, and we could get the internal and the external structure to compare to other species.” During his time at Rising Star, John also filmed interviews about Homo naledi with Lee and key members of the research team, which he was


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finally able to share with his class and the St. Mark’s community after the worldwide announcement. “It’s a very exciting time for us because this is a creature that no one thought we would ever discover,” Lee told John during the interview. “It’s a creature that looks very different than any other member of the genus homo in many surprising ways.” One of the biggest questions Lee and his team faced was how so many individual skeletons ended up in an isolated cave. None of the remains showed teeth marks or signs of injury, and they had not all died together. Eventually, the team reached a

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conclusion—one that might change the way we

(left) Lee and John at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site

view early hominins. “We have reached the hypothesis that this is a ritualized disposal of the dead by a non-human animal,” Lee said. “None of the scientists who we have consulted with around the world can come to another conclusion other than that we were wrong that this behavior was unique to humans.” As with many major scientific discoveries, Homo naledi poses more questions than it answers. The excavation and examination of the Rising Star Cave are just beginning, and scientists expect many more exciting revelations to emerge in the coming years. St. Mark’s School of Texas

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“Who are these creatures?” Lee asks with boyish enthusiasm. “They’re not humans. What did they live like? That’s the exciting mystery that’s out there. It’s a completely unexpected encounter with another species with a complexity that we thought was special to us.” Just two weeks after the big reveal, Dr. Berger returned to St. Mark’s to share his discovery with the students. This time, he was joined by three of the “cave astronauts,” researchers who had crawled through narrow, dangerous tunnels to reach the cave chamber containing Homo naledi. Students were entranced watching footage of the explorers shimmying through passageways and

“It makes a big difference when students see their teachers directly involved with what they’re learning about.” —John Mead

navigating over deep chasms. In appreciation of his long-standing relationship with St. Mark’s,

“I remember walking into school that day and

Dr. Berger presented the School with the first casts

seeing Mr. Mead wearing his Rising Star hat,

of Homo naledi for students to study up close. After

and almost skipping down the path to the

the assembly, the boys crowded the stage to get

Commons,” said Bret Honaker ’22, one of John’s

autographs from the explorers.

Life Science students. “I might even become a paleoanthropologist myself.”

(opposite) Lee and John hold the skull of Homo naledi (below left) John brings knowledge from his trip to Africa back to the classroom

For both Lee and John, any discussion of Homo naledi brings out an infectious excitement for the

Just as St. Mark’s students are encouraged to go

sciences. This excitement was evident on the faces

beyond classroom learning, so too are faculty

of John’s Middle School science students the day he

encouraged to go beyond classroom teaching.

was finally allowed to share his personal encounter

Professional development has always been a

with the fossils and even wear the Rising Star hat

top priority for the School and is also part of

that Lee had given him.

what makes it so attractive to the nation’s finest educators. Last year, more than $200,000 in professional development grants were distributed, allowing teachers like John to travel the world, diving headfirst into their passions and bringing those experiences back to the classroom. “My trip to Africa ties directly back into my class and allows me to share the story with my students firsthand,” John said. “We’re not just reading things out of a book. It makes me a part of the science in a way that most teachers never get to realize. It makes a big difference when students see their teachers directly involved with what they’re learning about.”

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It’s no coincidence that a St. Mark’s alumnus and a St. Mark’s faculty member were connected to the two most important scientific stories of the year. For more than a century, the School has instilled a passion for the sciences into generations of explorers and innovators. The same passion that inspired Alan Stern ’75 during the Space Race is now capturing the imaginations of young Marksmen who dream of changing the world through STEM careers.

Breaking Ground for a New Generation For Joshua Choe ’16, that dream is quickly becoming a reality. Armed with an insatiable curiosity, as well as a firm foundation in biological study, Joshua has volunteered the past two years performing graduate-level cancer research at the University of Texas at Dallas. “I was very interested in researching so I wrote a research proposal on bacteria and the tumor microenvironment in relation to the progression of colorectal cancer,” Joshua said. “I went online, found a professor doing similar research, and met with him at UTD.” Joshua spent the summer after his sophomore year learning the basics of research techniques and how the lab ran. The next summer, he moved up to work with a part of the core team on an interdisciplinary research project. Joshua personally handled a majority of the in vitro experiments, treated lung cancer cells with experimental drugs, and analyzed samples with advanced tools and microscopes. With only a few years of Upper School science education under his belt, Joshua was able to stay in step with professional researchers.


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Joshua Choe ’16 begins an experiment at a St. Mark’s iGEM Team meeting


(above) Joshua Choe ’16 performs cancer research at UTD

“Of all the students who have been involved in

with microscopes and incubators, under the

summer programs, I can’t think of many who

careful eye of world-class teachers.

have made the types of discoveries that Joshua has,” said Steve Balog, Cecil H. and Ida Green

“St. Mark’s prepared me very well in all aspects

Master Teaching Chair, one of Joshua’s mentors

from background knowledge and critical

at St. Mark’s. “In the next ten years, I see Joshua

thinking to scientific writing and exposure to

as a lead researcher in a cancer lab at one of the

the field,” Joshua said. “The way of scientific

top universities.”

thinking encouraged by my teachers helped me immediately begin interpreting results and

For Joshua, and other students like him, St.

planning experiments.”

Mark’s science education programs are providing


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a bedrock of knowledge, rivaling university

Joshua’s supervising professors were so impressed

programs. Outside of the classroom, students

with his contributions, he has been granted

continue their education through nationally

co-first authorship on a paper that will be

ranked clubs and activities, encompassing

submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

everything from robotics to genetic research. As

Joshua will even contribute a section with

part of the iGEM team, Joshua spends hours each

figures, summaries of his experiments, and

week after school getting hands-on experience

his own conclusions.

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The team hopes to submit their paper before the end of the year. Joshua hopes to pursue his passion in medical school, eventually treating patients and researching cancer. “He has the potential to work through and earn his Ph.D. in just a few years,” Dr. Balog said. “I believe he could become the Alan Stern of biology.” Last year, in announcing the Winn Family Foundation’s $10 million anchor gift toward a new science center, Steve Winn ’64 said that “the next generation of great scientists and leaders will come from St. Mark’s.” Today, that next generation is evident in Joshua and the hundreds of Marksmen students who foster a passion for science. The Winn Family Science Center is still in the early phases of development. Much work lies ahead; additional funds must be raised and plans must be approved. Over the next few years, hundreds of individuals will dedicate countless hours to the Winn Family Science Center. But, in the end, it will be the dedicated educators who will bring the Center’s purpose to life. Because of this, from the

“The next generation of great scientists and leaders will come from St. Mark’s.” —Steve Winn ’64

very beginning, the Board of Trustees’ Architecture and Construction Committee has included the science faculty in each step of the process.

Fletcher Carron, Stephen M. Seay ’68 Science Department Chair, and Doug Rummel, science teacher and robotics coach, serve on the A&C Committee, which oversees the project and makes key decisions. In spring 2014, Fletch and Doug joined John Mead, Trustees, and administrators on a tour of top-rated science facilities at peer

(above) Dan Northcut ’81 shows curious Middle Schoolers a spider (left) Marksmen study together in the McDermott-Green Math-Science Quadrangle

schools in New England. To better advise the A&C Committee, the science faculty has also formed intradepartmental committees to research and report on specific topics from technology and classroom layout to public spaces and LEED certification. “This was a great way to do our homework and establish consensus before meetings began with the architects and lab planners,” Fletch said.

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“The McDermotts and Greens shared a lifelong

“The Science Department is preparing for a flexible and aspirational space worthy of the Winn Family’s commitment.” —Doug Rummel

passion and generosity aimed at improving the quality of life for humankind around the world. Within a year of the McDermott-Green MathScience Quadrangle’s opening, President Kennedy delivered his famous speech at Rice University challenging us to conquer the hazards of space and land on the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. I feel like that speech captures the energy and the challenge that the Winn Family

(above) Upper School students perform a biology experiment (opposite) Sixth graders use a microscope and iPad to observe single-celled species

In the Winn Family Science Center, the science

has now provided St. Mark’s in the form of our own

faculty see a facility that combines Lower, Middle,

second moonshot.”

and Upper School science education, improves the overall campus experience, and provides

The topography of science and technology has

enhanced learning environments and affinity

changed dramatically in the past 50 years. A

spaces that allow students to explore their passions.

decade from now, the students of today will find themselves in careers that probably don’t exist yet.

In May 2015, Doug Rummel was invited to present some of these ideas at the annual Trustee Dinner.

“In response,” Doug said, “the Science Department

He began by paying tribute to two of the founders

is preparing for a flexible and aspirational space,

of Texas Instruments who made a transformative

worthy of the Winn Family’s commitment.”

investment in St. Mark’s.


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10600 Preston Road Dallas, Texas 75230-4047 214.346.8000 •

Pluto, as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015, just before its historic flyby overseen by Alan Stern ’75.

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