Making Scientific Research Contagious
Seven years ago I gave a research talk at City Honors High School, a magnet school for bright students in the city of Buffalo, New York. In the audience was a young man who spoke to me about getting involved in my work. I am a 70 year old scientist who after a very successful career in working on the atomic level structures of hormones related to cancer, had embarked on a totally new area of science which involved making use of the enormous public databases on the web containing the genetic code for many species, but especially some of the earliest forms of life, bacteria. I soon learned that this young freshman was a genius at computing. So we formed a partnership, I asked the questions and he programmed the best way to get the information from the databases. He now runs a successful software development company that employs half a dozen people and continues to expand despite a difficult economic climate.
This turned out to be the beginning of a broader program, starting with a young woman freshman student from City Honors who spent every Friday and summers for the next three years working on this project, and is now a student at Yale University. Other high school students heard about the program, were eager to work in a research laboratory, and requested the opportunity to join us.
Soon half a dozen students were working in the lab every week. I have been guiding them in a computer-based effort to follow three billion years of the evolution of life on earth, to trace the origin of the genetic code, and to create an evolutionary tree of bacteria. In 2009 I started a summer school to accommodate the many students who applied for the program. In 2011, 35 students from 20 area schools worked together for a month, six hours a day, five days a week. I have been amazed at how hard the students work and how productive they are. Working in teams – which is the way science is done today – brings out the best in them, including natural leadership qualities. I have learned to communicate science better from their example. Together we have learned to look at problems in new ways. On Fridays we have pizza and wings (its Buffalo after all)) while they present their work to the group. They have made presentations at local science fairs, gone on to win awards at regional and national fairs, have presented at college level conferences and professional meetings. In the past five years, I have connected with over 60 students from 25 area high schools. Several of the students are drafting manuscripts based on their research for submission to scientific journals. Somehow, my passion for the pursuit of this problem has infected them so that they enjoy doing scientific research as much as I do. They energize me. In 50 years of research I have never had a more rewarding experience.