Molds, Mealworms, and Missed Opportunities: How We Think About Young Scientists

It’s no exaggeration to say that the discovery of antibiotics revolutionized medicine. For the first time, doctors had a powerful, reliable tool for treating deadly infections. We usually credit the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, to Alexander Fleming in 1928. However, the ability of Penicillium molds to stop infections was actually discovered some 30 years earlier – by someone 24 years younger.

In 1896, a French medical student named Ernest Duchesne made a key stride toward the development of antibiotics as part of his thesis, yet it was all but forgotten until a few years after Fleming received the 1945 Nobel Prize. Though it is unlikely that the antibiotic that Duchesne observed was actually penicillin, as discussed here, his work should have received far more recognition than it did. Fleming was an excellent researcher, to be sure, but had Duchesne’s work been acknowledged instead of ignored by the Pasteur Institute, it’s hard to imagine that Fleming would have been credited with the key penicillin breakthrough.

An image of Ernest Duchesne.
Ernest Duchesne (1874-1912)

Sadly, Duchesne’s story is not unique in the scientific community. Though science has sought to value knowledge above all else, countless examples exist of findings being ignored due to biases about what makes a good scientist. In fact, even Duchesne’s work may have come from watching Arab stable boys treat saddle sores by allowing mold to grow on saddles, which raises further questions about attitudes toward non-Western knowledge – a contentious topic that I won’t delve into here. Instead, I want to consider how the scientific community views young scientists and how our assumptions hurt more than help the pursuit of knowledge. (Note: I use “our” here and throughout to acknowledge that grad students like me and other young academics can be victims of elitism while also perpetuating it against other young researchers.)

“But wait,” you might say, “surely we’ve gotten better at valuing young scientists in the past 100 years!” To some degree, you’re right – as a young researcher myself, I’ve felt generally supported and respected in academic circles. Yet, despite substantial progress, there is still a barrier between our young people and widely-accepted, legislation-informing science.

For instance, a recent discovery in the battle against plastic waste was the ability of mealworms to break down styrofoam. Once the worms eat the styrofoam, explains one of the two highly impactful 2015 articles, the bacteria in their guts can completely digest it. It was a fascinating finding, but it had already been made in 2009 by a 16-year-old. Tseng I-Ching, a Taiwanese high school student, won top prizes at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF; typically held in the U.S.) for her isolation of a styrofoam-degrading bacterium that lives in mealworms. Yet, there is no mention of her work in the 2015 papers. Even working with scholars from local universities and excelling at the ISEF – the world’s largest pre-college science fair – is not enough for a young researcher’s work to break into the bubble of academia. Prize money and prestige are certainly helpful for kickstarting an individual career, but allowing valuable research to go unnoticed holds science back for the entire community.

A man looks out of a window into a large room filled with science fair posters.
International science fairs like the ISEF can be great sources of fresh scientific ideas.

Now, any researcher can tell you: science isn’t easy. Producing data that you can be confident in and that accurately describes an unknown phenomenon is both knowledge- and labor-intensive. We therefore tend to assume, maybe not even consciously, that young people lack the skills and expertise needed to conduct good, rigorous science. Surely much of the work at high school science fairs, for example, has already been done before, and what hasn’t been done must be too full of mistakes and oversights for professionals to bother with, right? In fact, that’s not a fair assumption for large fairs like the ISEF, where attendees have already succeeded at multiple levels of local/regional fairs and are judged by doctoral-level researchers. Had established scientists paid attention to Tseng’s work, research on breaking down styrofoam could be years ahead of where it is now. Perhaps we should be considering how these students’ projects can feed the current body of knowledge, instead of just giving them a prize, fawning over their incredible potential, and sending them on their way.

A speaker at a workshop I recently attended about research careers left us with a memorable quote, to the effect of: “An academic’s greatest currency is their ideas.” When academia ignores young researchers, we’re essentially telling them that their ideas are not yet valuable. One group working to prove this wrong is the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS). Founded in 2016 and operating in the UK, IRIS works to get school-age students working on cutting-edge scientific projects. In working with the group, Professor Alan Barr (University of Oxford) noted that his project 

“…has morphed into something that’s been taken in so many different directions by so many different students. There’s no way that we ourselves could have even come up with all of the questions that these students are asking. So we’re getting so much more value out of this data from CERN, because of the independent and creative ways in which these students are thinking about it. It’s just fantastic.” 

IRIS often encourages its students to publish in professional scientific journals, but even if a young researcher’s work is not quite worthy of publication, acting like they have nothing to contribute is foolish and elitist. In the Information Age, it’s easier than ever for curious, passionate people to gather enough knowledge to propose and pursue valid research questions. We might be surprised at the intellectual innovation spurred by browsing projects in IRIS or the ISEF and reaching out to students that share our research interests. Perhaps our reluctance to do so stems more from our egos than from fact.

Ultimately, promoting a diverse and inclusive scientific community will improve the quality of science done and help ease the strained relationship between scientists and the public. Doing so means we have to recognize and challenge our biases about who could be part of the team. These are widespread biases that can be difficult for individuals to act against; a well-intentioned researcher may struggle to convince funding agencies to back a project inspired by a high-schooler’s work. Therefore, I’m not pointing fingers, but calling on every member of the community to help change scientific culture. 

Perhaps students like Duchesne and Tseng are more the exception than the norm. Yet, when given an attentive ear, their fresh ideas are bound to be well worth any naiveté. The biggest barriers they face in contributing to science may not be their flaws, but their elders.

Peer edited by Gabrielle Dardis and Brittany Shepherd.

Girls Talk Math – Engaging Girls through Math Media

Girls Talk Math is a non-traditional math camp in that students not only learn challenging Mathematics usually not encountered until college, but also research the life of female mathematicians who have worked on related topics. Campers share what they learned during the two-week day camp by writing a blog post about their Math topic and writing and recording a podcast about the mathematician they researched. Media created by the campers can be found on our website at www.girlstalkmath.web.unc.edu.

Girls Talk Math was founded in 2016 by Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan, then Ph.D. candidates in Mathematics at UNC Chapel Hill. It was born of a desire to create a space for high-school students identifying as female or from an underrepresented gender who are interested in Mathematics. This summer, a sister camp at the University of Maryland at College Park had its first run thanks to Sarah Burnett and Cara Peters, Ph.D. candidates in Mathematics at UMD (www.gtm.math.umd.edu).

During two weeks of July 2018, 39 high schoolers came to the UNC Mathematics Department to participate in the 3rd year of Girls Talk Math. They were divided into groups of 4-5 campers, and each group completed a problem set focused on a different Math topic:

-Number Systems
-Network Science
-RSA Encryption Cryptography
-Elliptic Curve Cryptography
-Mathematical Epidemiology
-Quantum Mechanics
-Knot Theory
-Classification of Surfaces

Each group then wrote a blog post to share what they learned about their topic. Below are excerpts from each post written by the campers, and you can read the full blog posts here. 

 

Number Systems
Miranda Copenhaver, Nancy Hindman, Efiotu Jagun, and Gloria Su

The Number Systems problem set focuses on learning about number bases (in particular, base 2 and 16) to understand how data is stored in computers and how to translate information into a language readable by machines. This problem set included coding in Python.

“[…]  We count in the decimal – or base 10 – system. This means that we count using 10 basic numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. In base 10, each place value represents a power of 10.”

“[…]  The two most important bases in coding are binary (base two) and hexadecimal (base sixteen). Binary is quite simple to think about because it only has two numbers that you could possibly use: 1 and 0.”

“[…]  If we had the number 1101010, we would start by labeling each place value with what power of two it represents. Next, we would multiply each digit by its power of two and simplify:                           

                       1101010 = 1*26 + 1*25 + 0*24 + 1*23 + 0*22 + 1*21 + 0*20

                                       = 26 + 25 + 23 + 21

                                       = 64 + 32 + 8 + 2

                                       = 106

We see that the binary number 1101010 is the decimal number 106.”

 

Network Science
Myla James, Shania Johnson, Maya Mukerjee, and Savitha Saminathan

The Network Science problem set focuses on graph theory and how it is utilized for large data sets. Students learned about data storage in networks and how to analyze and study different data sets. This problem set included coding in Python.

“[…]  We were given a map of the city of Königsberg, Prussia that helped us learn about paths and circuits. Euler Paths and Circuits were named after Leonhard Euler, who asked the question: “Is there some route in this city wherein one would cross each of the seven bridges once and only once?”

“An Euler path must include two or less odd degree vertices. […]  In simplest form, an Euler path is a set of edges that is connected, and an Euler circuit is a set of edges that is connected and begins and ends at the same node. An analogy would be an electrical circuit. Electricity can flow in a closed circuit, but not an open path.”

 

RSA Encryption Cryptography
Camille Clark, Layke Jones, Isabella Lane, Aza McFadden, and Lizbeth Otero

The RSA Cryptography problem set introduces the field of Number Theory through modular arithmetic, prime numbers, and prime factorization. RSA cryptography is one of the most widespread methods to transmit codified information and has several applications in everyday technology.

“[…]  A common divisor is an integer that all the numbers in a given set can be divided into without a remainder. To calculate the of 2 numbers, you need to write out the prime factorization. (Camp directors’ note: the greatest common divisor (gcd) of two or more integers, not all zero, is the largest positive integer that divides each of the integers without a remainder.)

For example, let’s consider 8 and 12. The prime factorization of 8 is 23, while the prime factorization of 12 is 3*(22). Then, take the largest factor that overlaps in the two factorizations. Here, 22 is the largest factor in common between the prime factorizations of 8 and 12; then, 4 = gcd(8,12).

We say that two integers a and b are if gcd(a,b) = 1, where a and b don’t need to be prime themselves. For example, if a = 35 and b = 8, then gcd(a,b) = 1, but neither is a prime.”

 

Elliptic Curve Cryptography
Mukta Dharmapurikar, Anagha Jandhyala, Savanna Jones, and Ciara Renaud

In the Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) problem set students learn how to apply this fascinating method of encoding, transmitting, and deciphering information. Elliptic Curve Cryptography is an interesting application of very theoretical concepts from Algebraic Geometry and Abstract Algebra.

“[…]  While the road to understanding Elliptic Curve cryptography was interesting and exciting, there were many twists and turns along the way. Our greatest challenge was that ECC is extremely hard to conceptualize as most of the math differed from our previous understandings and was often very theoretical or abstract.

However, we thoroughly enjoyed learning about topics in math, typically not discussed in school. For example, on the first day, we were learning about modular arithmetic. It was a difficult concept to grasp because it was fundamentally different than what we had learned before. Over time, just by working through the problem set, we became more and more comfortable with the topic, even going as far as being able to explain how it works to other people.

This goes to show, that even when faced with a very difficult problem set, if you keep persevering, eventually you will understand the math. Girls Talk Math has really taught us to never give up, and increased our confidence in learning higher level math.”

 

Mathematical Epidemiology
Camilla Fratta, Ananya Jain, Sydney Mason, Gabby Matejowsky, and Nevaeh Pinkney

The Mathematical Epidemiology problem set introduces the concept of modeling as a whole and in particular focuses on modeling disease spreading in populations. In this problem set campers have used an applet in Python.

“[…]  A mathematical model is an equation used to predict or model the most likely results to occur in a real-world situation. We used these types of equations to model the spread of a disease in a population, tracking the flow of populations from susceptible to infected to recovered. In real life scenarios, there are too many variables to fully account for, so we only were able to place a few in our equations. This made the models less accurate, but at the same time very useful to us in our problem set. They gave us a good idea of how things worked in an actual epidemic and helped us to understand what mathematical modeling really is.”

 

Quantum Mechanics
Izzy Cox, Divya Iyer, Wgoud Mansour, Ashleigh Sico, and Elizabeth Whetzel

The Quantum Mechanics problem set starts by explaining why classical mechanics does not describe properly the behavior of subatomic particles. It then introduces the main concepts of quantum mechanics, in particular focusing on the wave-particle duality, i.e. the fact that mass can be described as both a particle and a wave. As part of their problem set, campers ran a physical experiment to measure Planck’s Constant.

“[…] Quantum Mechanics is the physics of molecular and microscopic particles. However, it has applications in everyday life as well. If someone asked you if a human was a particle or a wave, what would you think? What about a ball? What about light? Not so easy now, is it? It turns out that all of those things, and in fact, everything around us, can be expressed in physics as both a particle and a wave.”

“[…] The realm of physics gets much stranger when it gets smaller! […]  [Quantum mechanics] is arguably one of the most complicated fields of physics, where all traditional rules are wrong. There is much still being added, and so much more to be discovered.”

 

Knot Theory
Jillian Byrnes, Monique Dacanay, Kaycee DeArmey, Alana Drumgold, Ariyana Smith, and Wisdom Talley

The Knot Theory problem set discusses the fascinating field of Abstract Geometry that deals with knots. Maybe surprisingly, there is a Mathematical theory behind tying and untying knots which can be described formally with algebraic symbols. This problem set is a Mathematical approach to knots and how to study and classify them.

“[…]  The Reidemeister moves are the three possible manipulations of knots that are used to find out if two diagrams represent equivalent knots. None of them physically change the knot, because they don’t make any cuts or make the knot intersect itself, so if the two diagrams are equivalent, they are related through a sequence of these three moves:”

Three examples of Reidemeister moves: I, II, III

 

Classification of Surfaces
Ayanna Blake, Lisa Oommen, Myla Marve, Tamarr Moore, Caylah Vickers, and Lily Zeng

The Classification of Surfaces problem set deals with questions of shape, size, and the properties of space. Starting from a Mathematical definition of surfaces, students learn about aspects of a number of shapes, some of which they are already familiar with and some that do not exist in 3-dimensional space, with the aim of classifying them.

“[…]  Before we start off with explaining the basics, we give the definition of a surface, which is an example of a two-dimensional object. When talking about dimensions, basically it’s a way of classifying how many directions of travel an object has.

For example, a line on a piece of paper would be one dimensional because you can only go up or down on that line. A sheet of paper would be two dimensional because you can draw up or down and side to side. A room would be three dimensional because if you imagine throwing a ball in the air, it can move up or down, side to side, and forwards or backwards.”

 

* Girls Talk Math has been funded through the Mathematical Association of America Tensor Women and Mathematics grant which has supported the camp for the past three years. *

 

Peer edited by Rachel Cherney.

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What’s Your I.D.?

Some of my favorite TV shows as a kid didn’t involve cartoons or slapstick comedy.  They were educational shows – science and math shows to be more precise.  I watched Mr. Wizard set off volcanoes on Nickelodeon.  Bill Nye the Science Guy showed me how to make my own magnets.  I sang along with the cast of Square One about palindromes and negative numbers.  I sat amazed as The Bloodhound Gang solved mystery after mystery on 3-2-1 Contact.  I couldn’t wait to see another episode.  To have another opportunity to learn a shortcut to multiplying by 9.  Another chance to work up the courage to ask my mom if I could add vinegar to baking soda and just to see what happens.  To have one more moment to be in my element.  From the moment I saw these shows, I knew I wanted to participate.  I didn’t want to just watch someone else do cool experiments.  I wanted to do them too.

I took pride in putting together my science fair project on osmosis (i.e., put a celery stalk in a container of blue water, wait a few days, and see the blue liquid move up the stalk) all by myself.  I treasured my Fisher Price microscope set.  I was in heaven when I got the chance to test out an experimental touch screen in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (where my mom worked as an administrative assistant) during “Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work” Day.  Looking back, my identity as a scientist was shaped at an early age, mostly outside of the classroom.  I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be or what question I wanted to solve.  I just knew that I liked science and math and I wanted to keep going.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/wocintechchat/25900945412

Women of Color in Tech

 

As I got older, science enrichment programs reinforced my interests, placing me in a cohort of like-minded students – mostly people of color.  In high school, I spent my summers on the campuses of Syracuse University and Union College, conducting experiments on mice and learning proper pipetting technique.  Importantly, I made friends with peers from my hometown of Syracuse, NY and across the state who had similar interests and similar backgrounds.  We could go from talking about hypotheses to talking about Biggie Smalls.  We could talk about our favorite episode of “Martin” and then help each other balance chemical equations.  It was the perfect environment for an impressionable African American teenager to strengthen her scientific identity.  Much as television shows sparked my interest in elementary school, summer programs helped me realize that my dream could very much become an attainable reality.

I now recognize that all of these activities built upon my identity as a scientist.  The ways one perceives one’s self in science is considered a science identity.  It can be as weak as a vague interest in science or as strong as actively pursuing a scientific career.  The combination of informal experiences from television and formal educational opportunities via summer programs were  important, because it’s hard to become something you can’t see.  A recent study showed that science identity is a major factor in selecting a scientific occupation for minority students.  While this may seem obvious, we must continue to ask ourselves why there is such a lack of diversity and inclusion in STEM.  Perhaps early science identity development is a clue to improving STEM diversity.

Today, I have a strong identity as a scientist, actively pursuing a scientific career as a biomechanist and osteoarthritis researcher.  A number of factors may encourage or discourage individuals from moving towards science as a career; however, the value of early exposure and positive reinforcement should not be underestimated.  I am keenly aware that I am one of very few women of color in this position, and wonder how many more women like me might have pursued science if they thought they could do it.

Peer edited by Karen Setty.

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