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Opportunity to Explore



Reprinted from The Hilltopper Magazine, Spring 2023



When finding a bridge between education, interest, and career aspiration, there is a necessary period of time where a person must have the opportunity to explore different paths and visions. For years, Marshall School has had the reputation and aim of being a college preparatory school. Beginning in ninth grade, students progressively move through a four-year process of identifying strengths and goals, researching career paths and areas of study, applying to colleges, and preparing to transition seamlessly into their post-high school endeavors. 

During this season of their educational journey, our learners are beginning to ask these questions: What am I good at? What do I enjoy? What am I passionate about? What do I want to be when I grow up? To assist in this exploration, Marshall offers several experiences that can guide that discovery.

In the Upper School division, students may seek and formulate an independent study project that is overseen by a faculty advisor. This year, Upper School Science Teacher Dr. Greg Rhode has been supervising senior Aidan Graham ’23 as he works on two fascinating independent research studies. Dr. Rhode has witnessed firsthand how important these opportunities are for students to find direction: 

“Young people need to try out different careers to know if they are good at them, and to see if they like what they accomplish. How do you know if you’re good at something if you haven’t tried it? How will you contribute to society if you don’t know what you’re good at?”

Dr. Greg Rhode, Teacher


Last year, Dr. Rhode connected Aidan with Chemistry Professor Ryan Hadt at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to participate in a research partnership that would use Aidan’s self-taught knowledge in quantum mechanics. In quantum computing, cubits are the most powerful computing device, but they only work at extremely cold temperatures and cannot store information outside of that controlled environment. The project aimed to find a molecule that could be used as a cubit to store data at normal temperatures. 

Aidan’s role in the research was to remotely run calculations on the molecule in a super-computing system to find the amount of time that it would store data, the correlation between components such as G-tensor values and vibrational modes, and to point toward properties necessary for a molecule to be used as a cubit.

This semester, Aidan connected with Marshall alum Dr. Audrey Sederberg ’02 to use his programming skills to write a computer program that will simulate the behavior of brain neurons. In her research at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Audrey has been working to find a general model of explanation for neuron behavior. She believes there is a guiding rule that can predict the overall actions of neurons despite their seemingly random functions. Aidan’s computer program aims to “cause problems” in the data, and then will use that information to reverse-engineer and test the results that other researchers have found. 

This project was suggested to Aidan because there is a belief that neurons behave similarly to cubits in a lattice-like quantum system of molecules. “It doesn’t help to explain it, it’s super hard to understand,” he shrugs.

These independent study projects are geared very specifically toward who Aidan is as a student, what his interests are, where his skill-set is best utilized, and what he hopes to study and accomplish in the future.

Picture of student Aidan Graham.

While Aidan is one of Marshall’s brightest math students, his great humility and passion shines through when he talks about these interests. His path to this point also illustrates the zigzag adventure many people take towards finding their passions. “I disliked math a significant amount when I was younger. I was slightly above average at it, but I hated it because it was boring and repetitive. Even if you did the right process, you didn’t necessarily get the right answer—you’re doing head computations and if you messed up somewhere along the way, you lost all of the points even though you knew how to do it.” 

At some point during eighth grade, he realized that everything in math made organized sense and that there was a correct answer—he could find the path to get there while understanding the how and why behind it, and he was getting really good at it. “Because you know people like what they’re good at,” he laughs. 

He also loves math because even though he has hit walls and struggles in his learning and development with the subject, he recognizes that it is a topic and interest where he can continue to challenge himself, learn new things, and improve. “The way I measure whether I actually like something or not is that I choose to do math in my free time, either for practice or because I’ve found an interesting problem online that I’ll work on for a week that is both difficult and fun.”

Aidan began an accelerated math program through the University of Minnesota, Duluth in sixth grade, and had completed Calculus 3 at the college level by tenth grade. He is now taking two graduate-level math courses at UMD each semester. His goal is to major in math or computer science in college, continue to graduate school, and eventually become a math professor, as he loves teaching this knowledge to others. He is captain of Marshall’s State-winning Math League team, and tutors other students in math and science. 

For the senior project that will close out his education at Marshall, Aidan is writing a paper to prove probability in a three-dimensional graphing problem, and intends to submit it for publication in a scholarly journal.

Picture of student Claire Ehlers-Nelson

Not all students, or even adults for that matter, have this clear understanding of their gifts and life direction. Last year, Marshall launched a framework for Upper School internships with local businesses in an attempt to positively benefit the Twin Ports community while also allowing students to explore careers that they may be interested in pursuing. A group of students piloted the program by partnering with Alakef Coffee Roasters and sister company City Girl Coffee Co., two businesses owned and run by Marshall alum Alyza Bohbot ’04.

Claire Ehlers-Nelson ’24 and Pearl Swanson ’24 are in their second semester of this internship in the coffee industry, and have had an opportunity to see behind the scenes in research, marketing, event planning, and communications in a woman-owned business. 

In their first semester, they tracked down everything they could find about the brands and then had to present their research to someone who wasn’t familiar with the company. This gave them in-depth knowledge of the message, purpose, and mission behind the work.

They were then connected with women from the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), and interviewed them to learn about what it means to be a female navigating executive business positions in a male-dominated industry. “She gave me advice about how to navigate a world that’s ‘not always meant for you,’ and she’s 50 now and just got to where she wanted to be as a CEO,” shared Pearl. “This interview was the most influential part of the internship so far because she had so many different jobs, and told me it’s okay to not know what you want to do, to go into something, and then completely switch it up. Life can take time to figure out; she made it to her goals, and she insisted that I should always believe that I can make it too.”

Claire also gained meaningful wisdom from her assignment. “I interviewed a woman from Texas who started a coffee business that she built from the ground up. She gave me strategies for navigating the world, and she passed on the advice she learned from her grandmother, ‘Always have your own purse, never rely on other people for finances.’ She talked with me a lot about financial security.”

“I learned things from that interview that I would have never thought about or learned in a regular school environment.” 

Claire Ehlers-Nelson '24, Student


This semester, the girls were able to dive deeper into the experience through focused projects that more closely aligned with their personal interests. “I have some interest in business and marketing… I might want to study marketing, management, or event planning,” said Claire. Her current project has involved developing a marketing plan for a new product launch. “I came up with two ideas that I’m going to execute throughout the semester.” While she doesn’t have a long-term interest in the coffee industry, Claire recognizes that this opportunity is building her abilities. “I’m learning something from all of it and those skills will translate everywhere else.”

Picture of student Pearl Swanson.

Pearl is interested in a career path that accentuates her passion for helping others. “My project is looking at the brand from a sustainability perspective, economically and environmentally, and how to make the company better for the earth. I want to help people, not as a doctor, but through social justice, political science, or maybe studying law. I want to go to a four-year college and get a degree; my parents did not get degrees, so I know I really want to do that.” She explained that Alakef is focused on giving back to the local Duluth community, while City Girl purchases their coffee beans from women-owned farms around the world, is sold internationally, and then gives back to organizations that support the success of the women who live and work in those countries.

Here within our own school walls, junior Lydia Roth ’24 is currently participating in a graphic design and marketing internship with me, Kelly Schamberger, Marshall School’s Marketing and Communications Manager. She approached me to ask about the possibility, filled out an application, participated in an interview, and has been working on a number of relevant projects over the course of the semester. She created the illustration on the cover of this issue of the Hilltopper magazine.

Through these unique course alternatives of independent study projects and business-partnered internships, Marshall students have the opportunity to explore their interests, develop their passions in meaningful ways, and step forward from graduation with a clearer outlook toward their future.

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