Dr. Alison Sweeney, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, visited Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s biology and physics classes for three days through the Kleckner Scientist in Residence program, giving students an intimate look into the scientist’s current work and passions.
During Dr. Sweeney’s visit, students, who are currently studying the intersection of physics and biology in looking at the optics of life, observed and dissected specimens to discover how animals use transparency, bioluminescence and reflectance to attract mates, capture food and avoid predators.
They looked at the images focused by a mirror in scallop eyes compared to images focused by the lens in a human eye. Students were able to view cilia beating as they moved food particles along the multitasking gill cells.
Dr. Sweeney was brought to SCH through the Kleckner Scientist in Residence program, which brings a talented scientist to the school each year to work with students over a three-day period. This program is unique in that students get to actually work with scientists, exploring topics connected to that researcher’s area of expertise. The students work with the scientist to collect and analyze data using new, state-of-the-art equipment supported by the program, and communicate with the scientist when doing follow-up labs.
Dr. Sweeney recently received a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering as one of the 18 innovative early-career scientists and engineers who received a five-year grant to pursue their research. The fellowship is designed with minimal constraints on how the funding is used, giving researchers the freedom to think big and look at complex issues with a fresh perspective.
Her research involves studying sea creatures that exhibit living photonic structures, or cells that can manipulate light for a variety of purposes. Dr. Sweeney’s research into the self-assembly of photonic structures has also earned her a Sloan Fellowship, a Kaufman Foundation Award and a National Science Foundation INSPIRE grant. The INSPIRE program supports “bold, exceptional” research that does not conform to the mold of projects that more easily secure funding.