The Academic Research Project: High-Level, Immersive Growth

Liggett graduates say they enter university head and shoulders above their peers because of the academic rigor and challenges they faced as students at Liggett. They are already experienced in critical reading, research assessment, and exploratory questioning – even more so if they completed an Academic Research Project, or ARP, while at Liggett.

The ARP is like no other high school assignment. For two years between 11th and 12th grade, Upper School students live and breathe a topic that springs from their own individual interests and passions. They dig deep, ask big questions, and consult trusted resources. Then, under the guidance of a Liggett teacher-mentor, they create a research proposal before diving in to immersive, research-intensive work.

“We teach the kids to start big, and then narrow it down,” explains Shernaz Minwalla, Assistant Head of Upper School, Dean of Student Life, and ARP director at Liggett.

Liggett students aren’t just Googling or wandering the library stacks — they are assessing existing research, validating resources and querying subject experts. “All 12th-graders make some form of contact with an expert in their field of study,” Minwalla says. “Some even do their own authentic research. One student worked at Henry Ford Research Institute under the guidance of a researcher. Another worked collaboratively with an orthopedic surgeon.”

The ARP subjects are a diverse as the students’ interests. Some are medically focused, while others embrace specifics of engineering. Some parse geopolitical movements, scrutinize the impact of historical eras, or dissect the implications of art forms on a specific population. Some students produce products or find solutions to challenging global problems. One student even obtained a U.S. patent on his design.

When a student can make a meaningful connection through the ARP, all students benefit. “We welcomed the National Theatre of the Deaf for a workshop for a dozen students after school,” says Minwalla. “What a great partnership. It’s fabulous.”

Collaboration allows current Liggett scholars to connect with grads who walked in their footsteps just a few years earlier. Last year, a student in his final few semesters of a physics degree from the University of Michigan supported a Liggett junior to help him create his final iteration of his research proposal. It was a beautiful connection between a mentor who has completed university-level research and a student embarking on a full year of hard work, strong-footed on a focused path toward discovery.

At the end of each academic year, graduating seniors participate in the Celebration of Research to showcase their projects and cap off the ARP. It’s an event that is well attended by Liggett graduates, and offers teacher-mentors the chance to mine experiences to better the ARP program.

“Those who have just graduated from college, in particular, are able to share what got them to where they are now,” Minwalla says, adding that teachers are able to continually evaluate the Academic Research Project program based on feedback from these Liggett alumni — the very first who have completed the ARP in 2013. What was then a voluntary opportunity for interested students, the ARP became a part of the Liggett curriculum in 2017.

“They value the program, and during the Celebration of Research, they will come back and see how the program has evolved,” Minwalla says. “It’s a meaningful event for both our students and our alumni.”

What’s Your ARP? We asked senior Abigail Hung

Your ARP is about orthopedic reconstruction of the equine distal limb, which refers to a break in one or more of the bones from a horse’s knee joint to its hoof. You describe this type of fracture as one of the most devastating injuries in horses. How do you see your ARP making an impact on horses and other equine animals in the future?
Repair procedures must allow for the horse to stand almost immediately following surgery, and the current standard is locked plate fixation. It’s fairly straightforward. Plates are placed underneath the skin, and screws or wires are fastened in place to stabilize the area. While successful, the use of metal heightens the risk for infection and rejection. I’m working to come up with a repair alternative, another procedure, or a product that makes it easier for the horse to heal. The injury I’m researching is so devastating to horses, in part because their skeletal structure is built so that horses can’t redistribute weight over the other three legs without causing damage. I’d like to decrease recovery time and fatality rates following this injury.

How do you expect to present your ARP at the end of the year?
I’d like to use the standard poster board method to share my results, but I would like to have a physical product as well. My goal for my ARP is to design and produce a product which would work with the body’s natural healing process, allowing for faster recovery time and, hopefully, fewer complications. I’m in the development stage right now since it’s the beginning of the year, and I’m mapping out my research plan now. There’s a long road ahead!

How did you connect with your expert mentors?
My mom is from Alabama and she went to Auburn University, and my dad taught there for a while. My godparents have two friends who are professors at Auburn in clinical studies and I took the chance to talk with them. Dr. R. Reid Hanson corresponded with me, even though he was in Germany at the time. Dr. John Schumacher also gave me some good information. We discussed some high-profile cases, in particular Barbaro, a horse that won the Kentucky Derby, but shattered his leg in Preakness. We talked about why the surgery wasn’t successful and he recommended a book called Equine Surgery, which was very helpful. A wonderful thing about Liggett, though, is that our teachers have experienced so much. Ms. Dann knows so many people who can help me, and those in my class. They really can connect us to a multitude of resources.

What skills have you gained as a result of your ARP?
Organization and research. I’ve learned how to research something, where to look, and how to reach out to professionals in a professional manner. That will help me in college and certainly if I decide to become a researcher some day.

What have you learned about horses that surprised you?
Thoroughbreds are genetically predisposed to develop the horse version of osteoporosis, and much of this is with breeding. They have a lighter, thinner frame, like a greyhound, which is more aerodynamic, but more likely to break a bone. With thinner bones or higher porosity, the horse is lighter, but more fragile.

What’s Your ARP? Five questions with Liggett senior Craig Buhler

Share with us the short version of your ARP.
I’ve always been interested in sports, and especially sports medicine. I learned that one surgical procedure in particular, Tommy John Surgery, is used widely on major league pitchers to repair ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears. I wanted to investigate that, and learn if there is an alternative to this procedure.

What experts have you talked with so far?
I have talked with Dr. James Andrews in Atlanta, who is a well-known orthopedic surgeon, and has been around since the 1970s. He has performed numerous surgeries, and he explained his thoughts on the increase in Tommy John Surgery. He believes that there are many younger players who specialize just in baseball, which leads to more stress, resulting in tears that require surgery. Dr. Andrews also shared his knowledge of possible alternatives, like stem cell therapy. He said that more research needs to be done on PRP, or platelet-rich therapy, and primary repair therapy, which is a little different from Tommy John Surgery. Now I’m working to contact another doctor for more perspectives and digging in to see if there are any studies about stem cell therapy or other alternatives. I’ve had help from Mr. Bronk, our headmaster, on reading the medical research. He’s a really smart guy.

You also spent time with pitcher Alex Wilson in the Detroit Tigers dugout. He had Tommy John Surgery. What did he share with you?
Alex Wilson told me about his experience, and offered his advice to younger baseball players and college athletes. He shared with me that he knew something was wrong because he was having sharp pains, and then felt the ligament tear. Recovery from surgery takes about 15 months, but his recovery took only 10 months, which I found interesting. The advice he gave to athletes is to treat pitching like it’s a job. Don’t over throw, and definitely play multiple sports.

What skills have you developed through your ARP and how do you think you’ll use them in the future?
I’ve learned a lot about the value of collecting data from different perspectives, and about using primary and secondary sources. I know how to get the main point of what is being said, and how important it is to do thorough research, and to figure out which resources are credible and which are not. Taking into consideration different perspectives is important. I’ll be using all these skills in college, especially when doing research.

What do you like to do when you’re not working on your ARP?
I play golf, and tennis in the fall. I have recently picked up squash, and I play rec league basketball in the winter. I also love food and like visiting Detroit restaurants. Vertical has a great burger, and Parc in Campus Martius is tremendous.

Their Choice is Liggett: Liggett drives academic success for Macomb County siblings

Senior Sabrina Malkoun and her brother Giorgio, who is a freshman, had choices for their high school education. Their older brother Antonio, currently a senior at the University of Michigan, set the standard for a University Liggett Upper School education in the Malkoun family, and even through Sabrina and Giorgio each considered following the public school track in their Macomb County hometown of Shelby Township, the siblings, who both received the prestigious Liggett Merit Scholarship, made the conscious choice to attend Liggett instead.

The highly selective Liggett Merit Scholarship attracts students of exceptional academic strength and promise, with a diversity of extracurricular interests, and those who will take part in – and contribute to – the life of the school. Liggett Merit Scholars are active citizens; they set the bar high, take pride in their work, and thrive in Liggett’s challenging and innovative curriculum.

Individually, their decisions separated them from their middle school friends, and were made at an age when social life and academics can be a careful balance. But their choice to attend Liggett was absolutely worth it, they say.

They’ve even learned to appreciate the long daily drive — 45 minutes in off-peak traffic, each way. “Now that I drive my brother and me, we leave at 6:45 in the morning, and since we have extra curriculars until 5:30 p.m., we stay at school and study until about 7 p.m., and we avoid traffic,” Sabrina says.

She relishes the quiet library for its lack of distractions, which allows her to get her work done so she can enjoy dinner with her family before getting some restful sleep. The early start is less attractive to Giorgio, but he says being a Liggett student makes up for the inconvenience.

“The teachers at Liggett, and the small classes, means they can focus on you, and they want to help you,” Giorgio says, recalling his public middle school classrooms, some as large as 40 students. “Liggett is definitely the better experience, and I have a lot of friends here now.”

Sharing a learning environment means Sabrina and Giorgio can support each other. “I love having him here. He’s my best friend,” Sabrina says. “He’s someone I can talk to about anything, all the time. I help him with homework, and he helps me with the creative parts, and with coming up with ideas.”

Time management is a skill Giorgio learned from Sabrina. “My sister has helped a lot. If I had a question, or needed to print something at school, she came in and helped me,” he says, adding that friends from the football team were always available, a support that he says he’d like to pay forward through a future career in pharmacy or education. At least that’s his plan right now.

“I’m sure I’ll change my mind, but I like thinking ahead,” Giorgio says.

Sabrina is closer to that type of decision, and she’s looking forward next fall to attending Michigan State University, where she will begin studying veterinary medicine. “I’m planning to do my pre-reqs and apply to vet school right away,” she says. But first, she’ll complete her Liggett Academic Research Project, which she expects to use to raise awareness about elephant extinction rates and elephant support organizations.

Academically and socially, Sabrina and Giorgio thrive at Liggett. They have developed close relationships with their teachers, and know they can depend on them for support. “I think of my teachers as friends. I can always send them emails and ask for help outside of class,” Sabrina says. “I’m never scared to raise my hand to ask questions, especially in a class of ten kids.”

Recognizing that she’ll likely sit in classrooms with 10 times the number of students in a typical Liggett class, Sabrina is prepared to be more than a number at Michigan State. “Next year, I’ll introduce myself to my instructors and tell them to expect me during office hours,” she says with confidence.

Until then, Sabrina made sure to enjoy everything Liggett has to offer, including football — Sabrina as team manager and Giorgio as a right offensive tackle. She also enjoys being in the musical this year, it is the 1960s production She Loves Me, a suitable follow up to Sabrina’s lead role last year as pants-in-the-family Ethel Coots, from Hello! My Baby.

“It was so fun, and also cool because the character was a strong female personality, and that’s who I am as a person,” Sabrina says.

Both Malkouns agree that Liggett school life is something they’d never give up for another school choice.

“The atmosphere does change a person,” Giorgio says. “It’s changing me, and giving me a different outlook on what I want to be when I’m older. People want to be there. They want to have a future. That’s what I like.”

The Bigger Picture of Liggett

Not long after his graduation in 1982 Kayvan Ariani began giving back to University Liggett School. To him, financial support is a very small way to give back the school community that offered him an authentic, holistic educational experience for the nine years he attended the school.

“I can only speak from my experience, but Liggett influenced me in many ways,” says Kayvan. Even from Middle School, the academic bar was suitably high to build strengths that served him well in the Upper School, and then onward through his undergraduate work at Stanford University. “It set a standard for me moving forward. When I went to college, I felt like I was well prepared academically.”

Liggett’s unique sense of community, richly steeped in tradition, also offered a level of socialization not found at every school. “It wasn’t just the school, but the students and their families. There was a history to the place and you feel part of that,” says Kayvan. “That was important to me because it gave me a sense of place, a belonging. I wanted to live up to the tradition there.”

Academics, combined with sports and arts, gave Kayvan many memories – he especially enjoyed soccer, baseball, the school newspaper and band. But it was the knowledge that the teachers and staff genuinely cared for its students that made Liggett feel like home for Kayvan. “It was a small school, so there was an intimacy…a certain kind of focus on each individual student,” he says. “I think on a number of levels, it really was a complete type of school, a complete place.”

Learning to sit comfortably in the face of challenge — and the time management needed to juggle many demands — are skills that helped Kayvan pursue several opportunities when he reached Stanford, including playing guitar with his band on the weekends, digging into research as early as sophomore year, and serving as a teaching assistant in a core biology class as a senior.

“It was all about multitasking, which I learned well from my preparation at Liggett. I remember getting out of class to hop on the bus for an away baseball game, but remembering to bring a book to study on the way. It was all about learning how to spend my time wisely.”

As he pursued his medical degree at Stanford, Kayvan worked alongside fellow Liggett alum Roger Wu ’82 in a medical school class of only about 80 students. He also recalls Hilary Feeser Bhatt ‘82, another Liggett alum, was a graduate student working in a laboratory at the Stanford Medical School at that time. “It was nice to see familiar faces from my Liggett graduating class at Stanford during that part of my life,” Kayvan says.

In a critical way, people completely unconnected to Liggett benefit from the personalized care Kayvan received as a Liggett student. He recalls many times teachers sat down to explain a concept or provide a larger context to the work he had before him. This support is something Kayvan harvested, and has given to others in his own life. It’s certainly something he shares with his patients at his Orlando-based private anesthesiology pain practice, where he treats individuals with spine and other pain disorders.

“I try to give individualized, attentive and supportive care to people,” he says. “My whole life, I have been lucky enough to have great educational experiences…and that kind of care people gave me, I have tried to transfer back to my patients.”