Monday, October 25, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Scott Boisvert

Aren't these profiles fun? Today we welcome Scott Boisvert to Gifted Exchange. Boisvert, 17, hails from Chandler, Arizona. His project connected amphibian aquatic environment conditions with a pathogen that has contributed to the loss of 32 percent of amphibian species worldwide. You can read more about him and his project here.

Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your topic?

Boisvert: In 2007 I was Jr. High Grand Finalist at the AZ Science and Engineering Fair, and attended Intel ISEF as an observer. Being at ISEF really inspired me to do a great research project so I could go back the following year, this time to compete. I searched the Arizona State University website looking for professors doing research in the biological sciences. I sent out a lot of emails, but because I was only 14 I got mostly thank you for your interests but no thanks. I finally met Dr. Elizabeth Davidson after an email introduction from my biology teacher, and she agreed to give me a chance. I met with her at ASU, toured her lab, and she described the work being done for amphibians because of global population decline, and some of the history with B. dendrobatidis. I was interested as I hadn’t heard about this problem. I searched online, read a few articles, and watched a PBS documentary about threats to amphibians. I remembered growing up in Michigan, spending many afternoons sitting along a creek near my home watching and trying to catch frogs. This early science exploration held my attention for hours. When I thought about amphibians facing a real threat of mass extinction, I couldn’t accept the idea that one day my children or grandchildren may not be able to enjoy those same experiences. I was inspired to find something that could help, and that moment confirmed my interest in this research.

GE: As you were doing your project, were there any skills or things you'd learned earlier that turned out to be important?

Boisvert: A natural interest in science and math was my preparation. In terms of conducting the actual research, there were no skills that I had previously learned that benefited me. All of the research skills were learned during the course of my research project as I found the need to utilize a different technique or approach. Despite this, I drew upon valuable lessons that I learned growing up in order to successfully complete my project. Skills such as time management, attention to detail, good reading and writing, and an overall strong work ethic were crucial. Without my upbringing both at home and at school I would never have been able to have the dedication necessary to complete such a lengthy study.

GE: What was the most fun part of your project?

Boisvert: The field work had to have been the most fun aspect of my project. Growing up, my family used to take long road trips from Michigan to Rhode Island in order to visit family, and did a lot of outdoor exploration trips too. I came to love driving, which is a good thing considering all of the driving necessary to collect water samples for my projects. I really like being outdoors, and I got to see a lot of new places in Arizona. Traipsing down embankments and through prickly underbrush to collect my samples was an adventure in itself, especially finding the water as we do live in a desert.

GE: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Boisvert: In 20 years I see myself having completed an MD/PhD degree, toward my goal of becoming a physician scientist. By this time I should have finished my residency, or at least be close, depending on the specialty I select. After this step, I see myself working in a research hospital, or at another clinical institution, while having an affiliate group at an independent or academic-based research lab. These options will allow me to participate in clinical research endeavors while maintaining my primary goal of becoming a physician. Aside from my career, I hope to be starting on a family of my own at this point too.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Johnny Li

Today I'm happy to run the third installment in our series on the 2010 Davidson Fellows. Jonathan (Johnny) Li, 17, lives in California. His project involved developing a mathematical model and computer simulation to analyze tumor growth, and was specifically notable because it looked at motility and contact inhibition, which is a mechanism that limits cell growth through pressure from neighboring cells. You can read more about Li here.

Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your topic?

Li: I sought out mentorship with Prof. John Lowengrub at UC Irvine after taking Partial Differential Equations and became fascinated about how math can be applied in many meaningful ways. I chose the tumor growth topic because both of my maternal grandparents had cancer and I witnessed the suffering and devastation of my family. My grandpa who had stomach cancer was not given chemotherapy due to his old age of 88, while my grandma who had breast cancer went through chemo but it was very painful. So, I wanted to learn more about cancer cells and am hoping to make some contribution in the field.

Gifted Exchange: As you were doing your project, were there any skills or things you'd learned earlier that turned out to be important?

Li: My project is an interdisciplinary research [project] that requires programming skills and knowledge in math such as partial differential equations, physics, and biology. Also, critical reading, writing, and problem solving skills were important for the project.

Gifted Exchange: What was the most fun part of your project?

Li: The most fun part was when first ran my simulation and saw the modeled tumor grow as I had programed it to.

Gifted Exchange: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Li: I see myself becoming an MD/PHD or a medical researcher.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Kyle Loh

This week we're continuing with profiles of some of the 2010 Davidson Fellows!

Today we welcome Kyle Loh to Gifted Exchange. He is 17 years old, and is in graduate school at Stanford (he graduated from Rutgers University at age 16). His project involved looking at reprogramming human and mouse skin cells into stem cells -- a feat which would make them more useful while avoiding other ethical issues. You can read more about him here.

Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your project?

Loh: At age 13 as I was entering Rutgers University, I read the landmark Cell paper by Shinya Yamanaka that reported that skin cells could be converted into stem cells that are identical to embryonic stem cells. I thought that this was a fantastic feat! (Cells are notoriously difficult to change lineages; you obviously wouldn't want your blood cells turning into bone cells! Furthermore, you could get therapeutically useful stem cells from skin -- I thought it was amazing). This paper permanently changed my research direction and informed all my subsequent research projects. I was so excited about this that I couldn't think of working on anything else.

I wrote a research proposal on a similar avenue of inquiry and looked for stem cell labs across New Jersey who would take me in. Many professors were deterred due to my age, and I only finally found one mentor -- Dr. Dale Woodbury of the UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School -- who would take me in and host my research project on this stem cell conversion work. After one year of working with Dr. Woodbury's laboratory and benefiting from his extraordinary mentorship, I was accepted into the Harvard Stem Cell Institute's Summer Internship Program. Again, none of the Harvard professors would take me because of my age (14 years old), but finally, I was accepted by Dr. Doug Melton; Director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. When I heard that a nearby Harvard lab (Dr. Kevin Eggan's) was working on this stem cell conversion work, but was succeeding in doing these conversions with chemicals, I decided to take an entire year off from my undergraduate education to work in Dr. Eggan's laboratory on this project of converting skin cells into stem cells with chemicals. This work was the basis of my Fellows' project.

Thus, my research direction was informed through a mixture of serendipity and also some lucky insights I happened to have (when I was carrying out the technical work for my project). I find in research that there is much luck involved. However, being careful and aware, trying to think of things from an unconventional angle, and having good mentors and a detailed knowledge of the literature can really help things out.

Gifted Exchange: As you were doing your project, were their skills or things you learned earlier that turned out to be important?

Loh: I was amazed and humbled to hear that some of the other Fellows literally did their research projects in their bedrooms. I had to rely on the resources and hardware of two laboratories at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (Dr. Kevin Eggan's and Dr. Lee Rubin's) in order to prosecute my project. To be candid, given the nature of stem cell research, there wasn't a chance to learn any technical "skills" beforehand in academic studies that I could use in my project. I had to learn everything myself from the ground up, such as the technique of high-throughput chemical screening whereby 10,000 or more drugs are tested for their ability to perform a certain function. Where my lab colleagues relied on other people to do this chemical screening for them, I got my hands dirty and did it myself.

In my present research project at the Genome Institute of Singapore, I've learned that for at least for stem cell research, a detailed knowledge of the literature can make a tremendous difference. Anyone technically proficient can do the same amount of work as anyone else; rather what differentiates projects is the research direction and the long-term strategic aims, which can be heavily informed by detailed understanding of the literature. Probably the most "important" aspects of my project were dictated by assiduous and broad reading of the literature. Another "important" aspect is seeking out collaborations. As a team leader of several graduate students, I had the opportunity to independently seek out a collaboration with another laboratory that has accelerated my project by half a year. Thus, I feel that the "skills" that are important in research must either by learned on-the-spot (for techniques) or else they're rooted in reading the literature and seeking out friendships/opportunities/collaborations.

Gifted Exchange: What was the most fun part of your project?

Loh: When you make a novel finding, for a few moments, you're the only person on Earth that knows something! Imagine that! Such experiences have been at the root of my forays into stem cell research. Research otherwise is extremely competitive: at centers such as Harvard, lab politics are cutthroat and the demand for publications is enormous. Nevertheless, I am a firm believer that one's own pursuit of their chosen research topic should be "fun" and that what should be driving them forward. There is no use doing something like research if it isn't "fun", especially given how time-intensive it is! Good science cannot be done by people who aren't excited!

Gifted Exchange: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Loh; Not sure! I've got a long way to go until then. Hopefully, by that time, I'll be a faculty member somewhere and continuing my "obsession" with stem cell research, which excited me since age 13 and my beginnings at New Jersey. Nevertheless, I hope that there are two things I can be engaged in besides research activities. Firstly is the provision of opportunities to younger students. My entire research career is due a single mentor, Dr. Woodbury, who took me in at age 13 and fostered me until I became who I am today. I hope to provide such opportunities to other students. If so, it'd be very worthwhile! I am presently mentoring several students (undergraduates, high school students) as part of my research team alongside graduate students.

A second priority is to become involved with the "higher" echelons of research -- the decisions at the level of policy, law, and ethics that subsequently translate into the policies that govern research as a whole. As scientists we cannot be self-absorbed with our own work to the extent that we overlook that we need to clearly represent science to policymakers and the public such that future policies do not needlessly restrict us due to public misconceptions. To this end, I have written a white paper to Singapore policy-makers about the bioethics of human-mouse hybrids and am in the midst of a series of correspondences in a Singaporean newspaper that are challenging such hybrids.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Kevin Hu

I hope to run a few profiles of the 2010 Davidson Fellows over the next few weeks. These young people have won $10,000 - $50,000 scholarships for prodigious works, and are quite an inspiring crew.

We're starting today with Kevin Hu, 16, of Naperville, IL. Hu won his fellowship for a violin portfolio called "Sociomusicology: Exploring and Sharing the Worlds of Music," which presents music from around the world. He has also done extensive volunteer work sharing his musical talents with different audiences. You can read more about him here.

Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your project?
Hu: In a way, my relationship with music therapy at Edward Hospital has been strangely similar to an intimate relationship with a person. It started out as no big deal. I noticed it, and decided to get to know music therapy better. Well, I started spending more and more time with it, and before I knew it, I had fallen in love.

Metaphor aside, I did not truly “come up” with my project idea. I was given the opportunity to serve my community, and I accepted the challenge. My motivation to develop the music therapy program at the hospital came from inspiration. Music inspires me, and it inspires others, so why not spread the music, and spread the inspiration?

GE: As you were doing your project, were there skills or things you learned earlier that turned out to be important?
Hu: While working with acoustics, the high school music therapy volunteer project that I founded and currently lead, I learned that it is absolutely vital to be able to communicate well. It’s not enough to have great ideas – you have to sell them as well. Even if there is no associated risk or cost, as in the case of a volunteer program, people are often hesitant to accept new ways of thinking.

GE: What was the most fun part of your project?
Hu: The most fun part of my project has been playing for little kids. They often walk by a parent’s side until they realize, “Whoa, there’s a real person playing a real musical instrument!” Almost always, they stop in their tracks and watch intently. Sometimes the parents will walk quite a distance before realizing their kids have stopped following. What’s most powerful to me is that these kids do not show any sign of distress when their parents accidentally leave them behind. Even for children who can’t speak or understand a spoken language, music is able to create another world to live in and to revel in.

GE: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Hu: I have no clue where I will be in twenty years. A few years ago, I wanted to be a doctor. Five years ago, I wanted to be a violinist. Ten years ago, I wanted to be a teacher. Twelve years ago, I wanted to be a farmer. Fifteen years ago, I wanted to be a fire truck. I’ll see where the next few years take me.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Jasper's flash cards

(cross posted at My168Hours)

My 3-year-old, Jasper, attends a full-day preschool program. From my observations, preschool seems to have experienced an academic upgrade since my days of hanging out in my church in Raleigh, NC eating graham crackers. When I started kindergarten, our first set of reading words included "cat," "dog," and "fish." I thought of "fish" as a rather difficult word to foist on the 5-year-old set, given that it had 4 letters. My son, on the other hand, learned all his letters and numbers by age 3. Not because I was teaching them. Because his daycare was teaching them. Now that he is officially in the preschool class, they are tracing letters (a rather humorous thing to watch a 3-year-old boy attempt, by the way). Part of me thinks this is a bit much for people who have just learned to go to the potty by themselves. But the interesting thing to me is that my son loves it. Indeed, the other day, he was very excited to show me his "words." This was a sheet of paper with eight short words ("up" "to" "I" et al) in boxes that we could cut up to make flash cards.

Yes, flash cards.

Now, flash cards are a flash point, if you will, in the whole education/parenting debate that consumes a lot of modern mindshare. They've become a symbol of the excesses of our culture of standardized tests, pushy parenting, etc. Indeed, a book came out a few years ago called Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. I don't know if he did or didn't, but here's the charge: Flash cards present one fact or thing, divorced from any context, and usually involve drilling -- pushing a concept into the brain's temporary memory, to be regurgitated when required, then forgotten. This is not a great way to learn.

But my 3-year-old doesn't come to learning with any of this baggage. To him, words are an exciting thing. Grown-ups can read them, and he wants to see what the grown-ups can see. Plus, we got to use scissors to cut the flash cards out, and that was exciting in its own right. So I tried to respond to the flash cards in the same spirit. We had fun making them. Then after he read me all the words on the cards, we made some other flash cards with different words so we could make real sentences. "School," and "playground" and "the" got added to the mix. We tried moving them around on our coffee table so we could read phrases Jasper might say like "I go to school" or "we go to the playground." He squealed when he realized that the words he'd read formed an actual thought. And then when we tired of this, as one does quickly at age 3, we had fun piling the flash cards into another toy and carting them around the house.

I have been realizing, as I think about how I spend my time with my kids, that there is a lesson here. The best contribution I can make to their education is not to make sure their homework is all done right, or to introduce new and advanced topics, or to work with them to get them to read early, or what have you. It is to make sure that they continue to find learning enjoyable. It is exciting to work hard to understand something new about the world. I want them to want to learn for its own sake. For now we seem to be doing OK with this. The other day, when I couldn't identify a certain dinosaur species, Jasper thought about this problem for a minute, then went and found his dinosaur encyclopedia so we could look it up. We never did find the right dinosaur name, but we learned all sorts of other interesting things in the process, so that was good too. We shall see how this pans out as the years go by and he can't just explore what piques his interest, but I figure it's worth a shot.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Congrats to the 2010 Davidson Fellows! Plus a note on the humanities

I was in Washington DC on Wednesday night for the 10th annual Davidson Fellows award ceremony. Held this year at the National Museum of the American Indian, this event always brings together an incredible group of people interested in gifted education. As well as, of course, the Davidson Fellows themselves. You can read the bios of this year's winners here.

One interesting trend this year was that a very high percentage of the fellowships were in science. There is no particular limit on the number of fellowships awarded each year; it's more a matter of recognizing eminent work. I suspect that what is going on is that at least a handful of highly effective schools are starting to recognize the massive amounts of scholarship money available for students who do scientific research. I've written about school research programs in the past (see "Real Kids, Real Research" in USA Today). Indeed, when I was writing about the Westinghouse/Intel Science Talent Searches for Scientific American, I definitely saw the same schools appear again and again. Between Siemens and Intel, a top young scientist can wind up with six-figures of scholarships.

But the Davidsons are pretty much the only game in town with literature and the humanities. You don't see many "humanities fairs" like science fairs. And plus, in our zeal to promote STEM as the wave of the future, we forget that the humanities are actually, ahem, hard too. When done right. Of course, they usually aren't. In general, math and science have not been watered down as much as the humanities, so we find it easier to recognize excellence. We accelerate kids in math, but not in the humanities.

The net result of all this is that schools are just not as focused on nurturing, say, writing talent. We don't build up programs for accelerating the brightest young writers. The Indiana Academy is one of the few specialized public secondary schools for gifted kids that actually mentions humanities in the name. While science research programs are more rare than they should be, at least more of them exist than, say, programs that pair up a young writer with the masters of the field. Or young philosophers, poets, and so forth.

Many of the Davidson Fellows simply come out of the woodwork -- dreaming up an amazing idea and making it happen. But others have definitely been helped by having the architecture of a supportive school around them, one that recognizes scientific research as both important and doable, even for high school students. Can talent exist in a vacuum? Probably. But it has a much harder time, and you lose people on the margins. I do hope that we can start to see more structural support for gifted children with core competencies in the humanities in the future. One scholarship contest is a great incentive. Ten would be even better.