Leah Olson and Ali Weinstein ’17

Fostering Inquiry, Embracing Creativity

Ali Weinstein ’17 had already cultivated a unique approach to conference work by the time she began her “Biology of Living and Dying” course. In addition to completing a traditional research project for each course, she would also write a feature-length screenplay that enabled her to explore course material in a fresh context while building a portfolio to support her pursuit of a screenwriting career.

Biology faculty member Leah Olson had worked with performing arts students before and was herself pursuing a new line of inquiry, teaching a course about metabolic processes instead of her usual neurobiology. When Ali shared her unorthodox conference project idea, Leah happily supported it.

Meeting at the Intersection of Science and Art

Leah recalls, “Half of the course dealt primarily with regulation of feeding behavior and eating, and the other with aging. Students generally pick a conference project related to one or the other. Ali was a bit unusual; she was interested in emerging pharmacological treatments to slow down the aging process.

“Ali wanted to dramatize the idea of being able to postpone or slow aging. In her screenplay she wrote about a world in which, at age 18, everyone has to make a decision about whether they will take anti-aging treatments or not, resulting in two populations: those who essentially live forever and those who chose to live a regular lifespan. She followed two close friends who made different decisions. I thought it was really brilliant.”

“My goal is to develop writing that I can then refine and put out into the real world,” Ali explains. “And since the hardest thing for me is to actually get a screenplay finished, by doing it as part of a project with a finite timeline, I ensure I’ll get it done.”

In conferences, Leah offered guidance, while Ali’s drive to create led the process. “She had so much energy and determination,” Leah remembers. “We talked about her ideas, and I helped her with the literature about aging and pharmacological treatments. Otherwise, I gave her a free hand to pursue what she wanted to do. She wasn’t the kind of student who needed prodding!”

At the end of the semester, Ali produced both a 17-page research paper and a 110-page screenplay.

The Thrill of the "Eureka!" Moment

For Ali, Sarah Lawrence provides an environment where students’ intellectual curiosity fuels new avenues of exploration and interconnectedness across disciplines. “My brain is connecting these fictional characters I care about to real science. It’s happened for me in all of my classes, where I get this ‘Eureka!’ moment of understanding how everything connects, and it’s such a great feeling.”

To Leah, Ali represents what the arts can bring to the study of science, and vice versa. “Over the years, I’ve had many students from the performing arts who have shown an interest in sciences. They’re used to paying attention to detail. The kind of discipline and curiosity that you need to do science well is also what you need to do the arts well, and it’s relatively easy to move between the two disciplines.”

“I’m so thankful I’ve been given the space to explore my passions,” says Ali of her Sarah Lawrence experience, “and to apply them to something I can use in the real world.”