Why sponsor a Science Talent Search participant?

by Paul D. Roepe, Georgetown University

First a little history, I met my first precocious Westinghouse National Science Talent Search candidate back in 1990. His name is Erwin, and after his research in our laboratory, he went off to an impressive start at Tufts University and a career in medicine. Intel took over sponsorship of the national competition in 1998, and there have been six more STS scholars invited into our laboratory since Erwin. The most recent, Ms. Alexa “Lexy” Danzler, was perhaps the most precocious of the bunch and took home the Glenn T. Seaborg Medal at the finalists’ banquet in Washington, D.C., this past March. The annual competition, once called “the Super Bowl of Science” by President George H.W. Bush, has been organized and administered by Society for Science and the Public since 1942. In the 23 years that I have been privileged to be involved as a mentor and a volunteer, four of our laboratory’s seven scholars have finished as national finalists, with the other three finishing as semifinalists. In all that time, believe it or not, the laboratory has received at least as much benefit from the experience as have the scholars.

Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows are the backbone of our laboratory as they are in so many settings. A big part of my job is to help them stay enthused and as motivated as possible while they are learning what they need to know for their careers. When an STS scholar joins us, they work day-to-day with a senior Ph.D. student, but rather quickly the entire laboratory becomes involved in one way or another. All of our STS scholars have been excellent students overflowing with infectious enthusiasm. The highlight of many a day has been someone in the group experiencing the gleam in their young eyes and a shrieking, “Hey, that’s really neat!” at the end of a successful experiment. The enthusiastic joy of discovery from someone so young, someone that is working so very hard for their goals, rejuvenates the Ph.D. students, postdoctoral fellows, undergraduate honors students and even me. It makes us chuckle as we start another difficult set of experiences. It teaches us to be better teachers. It reminds us why we do what it is we do. I am not sure how to calculate precisely the value of these experiences. Perhaps from time to time my dean might wonder why we are sponsoring a high school STS student instead of another undergrad honors student. Yet I know that everyone takes away a great deal from these experiences; everyone benefits enormously.

The passion, optimism and results that scientists communicate in papers, lectures, books and grant applications are the most significant aspect of our job. These days, this activity requires more hours and dedication than most of us thought possible way back when. Is doing more even possible? On the one hand, no scientist in these difficult times can engage in pro bono work to the point that it sacrifices too much time and thus perhaps even the success of their laboratory. That defeats the original purpose of becoming a scientist. On the other hand, some experiences that appear to be extra work actually synergize in rather interesting and unexpected ways. Sponsoring an STS scholar is one of these. For us scientists pressured in so many ways, meaningful public outreach is the kind that makes a young person’s eyes sparkle, that makes you chuckle with a smile on your face on the way back to the bench and that uses what little free time we might have to maximal advantage. Try sponsoring an STS scholar. Whether they wind up a finalist or not, you’ll be glad you did. And so will the scholar, so will everyone in your laboratory, and so will the larger community that they will enter someday.