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By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Specialist, Society for Science & the Public
This March, 40 high school students transitioned from Intel STS finalists to Intel STS alumni. Other Science Talent Search alumni took part in the Intel STS 2011 finalists’ transformation by mentoring them, returning to the STS Public Day, attending the Awards Gala, and giving them advice.
The Science Talent Institute, a week in Washington, D.C. where the finalists meet each other and compete, has been part of the program since it started in 1942. For decades, finalists have also spent time that week sharing their projects and knowledge with the public in order to advance the role of science in society. At this years’ Public Day, alumni came to reminisce and recall the time they too shared their high school research with the community. For some, such as Nilesh Tripuraneni (Intel STS 2009) and Ryan Harrison (Intel STS 2005), it has been just a few years. For others, including Ernest Moy (STS 1979), and Harold T. Peterson, Jr. (STS 1959) quite a bit more time has passed. Alex Bick, a semifinalist in 2006 who is now earning his MD/PhD at Harvard, came to support his sister, 2011 finalist Allison Bick.
Eileen Jennings O’Brien (STS 1964, ISEF 1962, 1963, 1964) also visited and later told us more about her high school experiments with radiation and fruit flies. “I was very proud to be named as an STS finalist, and the experience is still a defining factor in my life,” she said. “After all these years, the distillate of my STS memories is not winning or losing or the details of any of the experiments. What I remember and what I felt with this year’s finalists is the energy of synchrony-the reverberation of the shared experience of getting ideas and doing something about it. All science fair participants share this experience of imagining something novel, testing that idea to see if it works, and communicating the results to others so that the idea might be useful.”
Other alumni helped this year’s finalists in that process by serving as mentors. In fact, the 2011 winner, Evan O’Dorney, had Brian D. Conrad (STS 1988) as his mentor. Cullen Blake (Intel STS 1999), attended the Gala to support his mentee, Benjamin Clark, who won seventh place for studying the frequency by which stars form binary systems. This was the first time Blake had mentored a high school student. “It was a very rewarding experience,” he says. “I feel lucky to have crossed paths with him.” Society Board Secretary Gayle Wilson (STS 1960), who also attended the Gala, also appreciates the bond that can be created between a mentor and a Science Talent Search finalist. She kept in touch with her mentor, Dave Childers, until he recently passed away.
The finalists also received advice and inspiration from University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman (STS 1961) during the annual Alumni Dinner. Coleman said she remembered very clearly what it was like to come home during high school in 1961 and find out that she was a finalist. In fact, she was the first ever finalist from the state of Iowa. She also shared what it was like to meet President John F. Kennedy and how the STS experience impacted her life.
“If you had told me then that I would become president of one of the world’s leading research universities, I would have laughed out loud,” Coleman said, recounting how she worked hard to become a professor of biochemistry and thought that a transition into university administration would be boring. She was proved wrong and now thoroughly enjoys leading an academic institution.
She went on to tell of other alumni who took their science backgrounds in different directions. For example, Julia Deiters (STS 1944) became a Catholic nun and tutored high school dropouts in science, Joe Buff (STS 1970) writes best-selling naval technology thrillers, and Natalie Portman, a semifinalist in 1998, recently won an Academy Award.
“None of you know where your interests will take you," Coleman said. "You will face opportunities that will seem foreign, and not what you envisioned for yourself. Don’t turn away from them. Always remain open to the idea of experimentation, whether in the lab, in your community, or in your relationships.”
Failure is a constant and should be expected in science. It may even be where you learn the most.