A fair chance for finding future scientists

Future Tense for Mar. 03, 2008

By Steve Welker

Shivani Sud, a 17-year-old student at Jordan High School in Durham, will be among 40 high school students who present their science projects this weekend at the Intel Science Talent Search finals in Washington, D.C.

Formerly known as the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math Science and Technology, it's the largest and most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors. One million dollars in prizes will be awarded. All finalists will receive laptop computers and scholarships for a minimum of $5,000. One grand-prize winner will receive a $100,000 scholarship.

If you're ever wondering where the United States will find its future scientists, the Intel Science Talent Search is a good place to start looking.

Miss Sud's project is "A Genomic Strategy to Refine Prognosis and Treatment of Early Stage Colon Cancer." She focused on identifying Stage II colon cancer patients at high risk for recurrence and the best therapeutic agents for treating their cancers. Shivani's 50-gene prediction model uses gene expression techniques to link multiple genetic effects that characterize various tumor types. She created the model using two public data sets containing 125 patient samples and coupled it with clinical data to plot statistically significant survival curves. She then used her model to identify drugs that may be effective in treating Stage II colon cancer.

Not surprisingly, she plans to become a doctor, specializing in research.

Shivani is first in her class, but her interests aren't confined to science. She represents Jordan High's student body at school board meetings. She is a Teen Court student attorney and a Durham Rescue Mission volunteer. She performs classical and modern Indian dance.

She's the only North Carolina student in the finals, but three other Tarheels earned semifinalist status. The others all attend the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics. They are Eric Li, Deepak Ravindranathan and Ray Wang.

Chen, 17, of Hope Mills investigated ways to improve the anticiagulant activity of a heparin drug using a specialized sulfotransferase.

Ravindranathan, 17, of Calabash student "The Effect of Nanocomposite Fire Retardants on Flammability of Wood and Carbon Dioxide Emissions."

Wang, 16, from Greenville submitted a project titled, "Prediction of HPLC Retention Using Gibbs Free Energy Values."

I had to look up HPLC. I think it refers to high-performance liquid chromatography, a method for analzying chemical components. For a simple example, dip the tip of a strip of damp paper towel into a bottle of ink. The component dyes will rise to different vertical levels on the strip. HPLC analyzers produce results in a series of curves.

I don’t know about you in your teens, but when I was 16 the curves that got my attention belonged to girl named Penny Ulrich. As for physics in my junior year, I remember struggling to eke out a “C” from a teacher so old he probably studied calculus with Dirichlet in the 1830s.

Despite my experience with physics, I enjoyed science fairs as a youngster and, when I moved to North Carolina, was happy to see that schools here still have them. Back in Iowa, until relatively recently, school science fairs had become an endangered species and only one of my children ever competed in one. I wish all three had had the experience.

It has been nearly 45 years since then, but I still remember my sixth- seventh- and eighth-grade science-fair projects: collecting and categorizing microscopic animals from a local pond, comparing different papers’ usefulness for chromatography and the properties of borosilicate glass when formulated with various oxides.

Although I did not make any breakthrough discoveries, I learned a lot about scientific methods of observation, experimentation, researching prior work, formulating questions and deducing answers, reasoning and logic, testing and retesting results, making precise measurements, documenting my findings, etc.

My investigations all became family projects, with my dad advising me on the actual science and my mom helping design the exhibits and copy-editing my papers. I’m sure that my parents’ active participation and support helped develop what has become my life-long interest in science.

The science-fair projects also were fun both in themselves — personally, I liked collecting stuff and loved concocting chemicals that blew up, made stinks or filled the house with smoke — and in competition with other children.

For those reasons and more, I’m pleased that North Carolina still has school science fairs and — I hope you will forgive this plug for our newspaper — I’m glad to see that the Surry County schools’ and regional science fairs are Page 1 news in The Mount Airy News.

Americans should encourage and celebrate young people’s interests in science — and, in fact, we must.

For some time now, the United States has not produced enough scientists and engineers for its needs in research and development. This nation still leads the world in science and technology, but one of the major factors sustaining our leadership has been America’s appeal as a scientific Mecca for some of the brightest, most-talented people from other countries. To cite just one recent example, Theodor Hänsch, who shared a recent Nobel Prize for Physics, spent 11 years working at Stanford University in California before returning to his native Germany.

But Hänsch’s career track also illustrates an increasingly common pattern; that is, emigrés who study and work in the United States, but then go back to their own countries where their knowledge and skills are in demand — and increasingly well-compensated.

If the United States expects to retain its international pre-eminence in science and technology, this country will need to produce many more native-born scientists and engineers. I believe we can.

Obviously, most youngsters will not grow up to be scientists, just as most will not become professional athletes or farmers or artists or plumbers. Different occupations require different aptitudes, attitudes and talents. My concern is that too many young people with potential to be scientists are not being encouraged to pursue those careers.

How do we convince more of today’s youngsters to invest the time, money and skull-sweat needed to master mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and ecology, computer science, geology, astronomy, medicine and/or economics? Some people talk about national initiatives that subsidize science education, raise scientists’ salaries and give them more respect and prestige in society — all good ideas.

I think it also is important to show students how science equates to excitement, fun and personal rewards. You don’t need a math degree to see how science fairs fit in that equation.

And that’s why I hope to see many more science fair winners in the nation’s headlines ... in the future.


Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com His e-mail address is steve@stevewelker.net.

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