Team Detail

The Senior Capstone Presentations 2024

Senior independent research projects are a long-standing tradition at Vermont Academy and have taken different forms over the years, but some elements have remained essential in each project: an area of passion and interest to explore; the support of mentors in the field; an integration of acquired knowledge plus real-world application, analytical, logical, and creative thinking used to solve problems; and a final exhibition of length and substance.
The Capstone Project, designed and initiated in the spring of 2018, uses these elements and adds structure and high standards to formulate a rigorous academic experience. VA students have the option to pursue the project as their fifth full-year course. This year, students Sofia Bianconi ’24 and Yilai “Tony” Gao ’24 have elected to participate.

In the summer before their senior year, participating students begin to brainstorm a topic and form an essential question that will serve as a thesis throughout their year-long projects. 
From there, they draft a proposal and assemble a support team, which consists of their advisor, an on-campus mentor, a writing coach, and an off-campus mentor. The proposals contain a logical hypothesis/statement of purpose, background information with clear connections to previous literature and broader issues, and their main goal in selecting the project with clear relevance beyond the project outlined.

Students work with the Capstone Committee throughout the year, which is spearheaded by Science Faculty Member Jim Frey ‘66 and World Language Chair Laura Frey, and includes Academic Dean and Dean of Faculty Lorna Schilling, Humanities Department Chair Dr. Greg Martin, Art Department Chair Lisa McNealus ‘79, as well as ad-hoc members Director of Learning Skills, Math Faculty Member, and 9th Grade Class Dean Peter Ahlfeld and Math Department Chair Russell Mayhew.

Sofia’s project, titled, “What Can Blood Cancer Patients Do When They Have Exhausted All Options? Manipulating the Immune System to Treat Relapsed/Refractory Hematologic Malignancies,” explored three common types of blood cancers: multiple myeloma, acute myeloid leukemia, and diffuse large b-cell lymphoma, simultaneously discussing three common treatments for each. The decision to delve into the topic stemmed from two places. The first is that she has always been interested in medicine, and plans to study it in her near future. The second is a more personal one. Her own mother underwent cellular immunotherapy for liquid malignancy lymphoma and had success with CAR T cell immunotherapy, one of the treatments Sofia presented in her project.

Sofia’s support team for her project included her on-campus mentor Mr. Miller, writing advisor Dr. Zaccara, advisor Dr. Martin, and off-campus mentor, Director of Allogeneic Bone Marrow Transplant Program at Dartmouth Hitchcock, Dr. John M. Hill, MD, who was also the hematologist through her mother’s treatment.

With a strong focus on survivorship and what that looks like for cancer patients, Sofia interviewed five people who have or have had cancer, and surveyed ~20; discussing their definitions of survivorship and what it might mean to them.
Through her interviews, Sofia was able to glean what life is like for patients with and after cancer. With the knowledge that transitions such as this can be extremely difficult, she presented a list of the long-term effects, along with options that help with the transition, such as support groups, healthcare providers, caretakers, spirituality, and support from family and friends.

When asked by a member of the audience how unique it has been to be around patients who have these difficult experiences, Sofia responded, “It has been so helpful to have this experience. It has given me more insight than I could have ever gotten online or through straightforward research.”

In her conclusion, Sofia stated that long-lasting remission is achievable, there is work to be done in improving remission rates in the first six months post-treatment, cellular immunotherapies have helped oncology, new treatments are developing, and survivorship is crucial.

As the Senior Capstone timeline goes, Tony Gao chose his topic in the summer, deciding to center his thesis on social science and political policy, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the conflict began to swell in October, Tony had to adapt to the said surge, altering the topic he originally intended to use and applying an additional layer of sensitivity to the subject he went with. Throughout his presentation, he emphasized that his work was devoid of any biases, and his public-facing findings were presented in a neutral fashion.

Dr. Martin served as Tony’s on-campus mentor and general advisor, Dr. Zaccara as his writing advisor, and the Executive Director at Cambridge Institute for Brazilian Studies, Biorn Maybury-Lewis, served as his off-campus mentor. Mr. Maybury-Lewis has an extensive background in political science, sociology, anthropology, history, and languages. 

Highlighting his Chinese background, Tony noted the relevance of social science issues in his life, such as Taiwan’s political status, and the border dispute of southern Tibet. In Tony’s words, “behind this conflict are historical, religious, cultural, and ethnic, [and external factors,] such as the intervention of major world powers, which have influenced and intensified each other, making the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unique. At the center of the complexity is the claim of the Israelis and of the Palestinians to sovereignty over the same piece of land.”

Imparting his critical thinking skills, Tony conducted a historical exploration of the subject throughout his project, titled “Paradigm Shifts in the Middle East: How do Historical Contexts and Contemporary Ideas Shape the Dynamics of the Current Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?” 

Tony noted that a challenging facet of his project is that there are decades worth of information to sift through. His solution was to synthesize this information into chronological order, starting with the emergence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and filtering the information from that point on into a timeline. Tony used four original illustrations to explain the origin of the conflict, dating back to the beginning of The Ottoman Empire. 

Other early parts of his timeline explored the Zionist Movement and British Cooperation, referencing several historical documents such as the Balfour Declaration of 1917. He also covered Nakba and the Idea of Statehood, and the 20th Century British Alliance.
Tony relied heavily on factual information on both sides of the conflict in order to present his research as clearly as possible. 

In future research, Tony seeks to use an interdisciplinary approach to explore how global superpowers have historically influenced policies in the Middle East and how they have changed with the global power structure. Additionally, he intends to examine the social structure of Israel and Palestine, including social class, political divisions, public opinion, and diplomatic history, and how these factors affect the peace process.

Tony plans to continue work like this through studying public affairs in college. “I was born and raised in China, and it can be hard for others to understand what is happening there,” he shared in the Q&A portion of his presentation. “We need policy makers there to effect change.”

It is inspiring to see young minds at VA exploring such vital topics in today’s world. They bring hope to our world’s future, awakening the minds of those who came before them and inspiring those whom they pave the way for. Congratulations to Sofia and Tony for successfully completing their capstones.
Vermont Academy is a coed college preparatory boarding and day school in southern Vermont, serving grades 9-12 plus a postgraduate year.