Amy Cornell wears many hats, both on and off campus. Although her official Country School title is science and STEAM teacher, this former NASA scientist is also a robotics coach and one of the masterminds behind the new PreSchool-8th Grade Health and Wellness curriculum. After helping the school win a transformative biotechnology grant, Dr. Cornell brought biotech concepts and practices into the classroom and then enabled Country School students to share their biotech learning as mentors for children in underserved communities. Last year, during the height of the pandemic, Dr. Cornell chose to put her science research hat back on, taking a sabbatical from her teaching duties so she could assist in the development of Detect, an accurate, accessible, at-home test for COVID 19 and other illnesses. Now, as we head toward the start of the 2021-22 school year, Dr. Cornell finds herself with yet another potential title on her plate — she’s a finalist for the Connecticut Technology Council’s Women of Innovation Award.
A statewide association of technology-oriented companies and institutions, the Connecticut Technology Council’s mission is to spark innovation, cultivate tech talent, foster business growth, advocate for industry-beneficial law and policy, expand the scope of industry networking and professional development, and celebrate industry achievements in the state. Dr. Cornell is one of two finalists in the Secondary Academic Innovation and Leadership division. She follows her colleague, longtime science/STEAM colleague Stephanie Johnson, as a Woman of Innovation finalist.
Dr. Cornell, who received her PhD in molecular biology from Cambridge University and worked previously at Stanford and Yale universities as well as as a researcher for NASA, joined The Country School, where her children were enrolled, six years ago. After teaching at the collegiate level she found she wanted to share her knowledge with a younger audience. Dr. Cornell says she particularly loves being able to share her fascination with science — and fostering the ability to communicate about science — with young learners.
She certainly meets the criteria for an award that honors academic leadership and innovation.
At The Country School, Dr. Cornell has introduced an array of innovative programming and new student opportunities, such as the biotech program, funded by the $10,000 grant she helped secure from Avantor Sciences Foundation. The biotech program has students learning about technologies used to study molecular systems such as DNA and then applying that knowledge to independent research projects. They have opportunities to speak with real scientists working in academia or the corporate world and, before COVID, even visited their workplaces. A particularly popular aspect of the biotech program had Dr. Cornell and 7th Grade volunteers mentoring younger students at an after-school program in New London once a week. Guided by Dr. Cornell, the 7th Graders would lead their younger peers through hands-on experiments and activities designed to teach them about cellular and molecular biology, experiences they wouldn’t get otherwise. Dr. Cornell looks forward to resuming the mentoring project, working with other nonprofit partners to bring biotech to their communities when COVID conditions allow.
Another area where Dr. Cornell has shown innovation and leadership is in her work to engage more girls in science and technology. When she discovered that girls in the Country School robotics club tended to embrace the story-telling aspect of the program, she launched an all-girls 4th and 5th Grade robotics club, with all robots designed, built, and programmed for the purpose of narrative. The result was greater motivation and engagement on the participants’ part, and their interest has remained strong. The hope is that efforts like this one will translate to more women in science, technology, and computer science down the road.
Dr. Cornell’s work on the new Health and Wellness curriculum was similarly innovative and, with the advent of a global pandemic, both relevant and profoundly important. Collaborating with behavioral scientists, she helped generate a PreSchool-8th Grade scope-and-sequence that fosters biological, psychological, and social knowledge while empowering students through scientifically accurate, culturally and age-appropriate information.The curriculum builds on current programming about health and disease prevention (all of which has changed, and appears to be ever-changing, since coronavirus arrived on the scene) and is designed to foster the development of communication strategies and decision-making skills. This past year, while working on the new Detect at-home test, Dr. Cornell was able to Zoom with students from her office at Detect’s Guilford headquarters to talk about health and wellness in general, about COVID in particular, and about her work in lateral flow technology for the Detect test, giving students a real-time, real world look into the life and impact of a research scientist.
Detect was founded by Dr. Jonathan Rothberg, a fellow Country School parent and renowned scientist who is best known for inventing and commercializing high-throughput next-gen genome sequencing, a feat which earned him a National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama, the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement. Dr. Cornell’s innovations in lateral flow technology (the paper strip technology fundamental to products like pregnancy tests) “are at the core of our accurate and scalable test platform,” Dr. Rothberg said. “Her scientific prowess, collaborative spirit, and work ethic make her an outstanding team member at Detect."
Also an outstanding team member at The Country School, Dr. Cornell is making everyone happy for the coming year, as she plans to divide her time with both entities, returning part-time to the Country School classroom while continuing her work with her fellow scientists at Detect. We are grateful to Dr. Cornell for her efforts to help the broader community respond to the greatest health challenge of our time and for sharing her expertise, leadership, and innovations with our school community. How lucky we are to have Dr. Cornell on our team and how proud (but not surprised) we are that she is a Woman of Innovation finalist.