The Scientist 5[8]:20, Apr. 15, 1991

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Nurturing Science's Young Elite: Westinghouse Talent Search

By Scott Huler


First-place winner ($40,000 college scholarship): Ashley Reiter, 17, of Charlotte, N.C., a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham. For her project, she determined the dimensions of fractals generated by Pascal's Triangle and its higher-dimensional analogs.

Second-place winner ($30,000): Denis Lazarev, 17, of Fair Lawn, N.J.

Lazarev, who came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1989, attends Elmwood Park Memorial High School. He completed a project in molecular genetics in which he analyzed the effect of ASF, a recently discovered regulatory protein, on RNA splicing.

Third-place winner ($20,000): William Ching, 17, of New York City, who attends Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. Ching discovered the presence of a chemical receptor for GABA-B in the optic nerve, providing a possible explanation of why baclofen, a related chemical, can be useful in treating spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis.

As high schooler Ashley Reiter of Charlotte, N.C., was sitting down to dinner before receiving her science fair award, the lights in the banquet hall, instead of dimming, came up; the 1,000 or so tuxedo- and evening gown-clad guests rose to their feet. There was a commotion, stage left; a Marine Corps band struck up "Hail to the Chief"; and onto the stage walked the president of the United States.

Clearly, this was no ordinary science fair.

Not by a long shot. Reiter was about to take home the top prize in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (STS), arguably the highest scientific honor a high school student can win. The oldest (this was its 50th anniversary), richest ($205,000 in scholarships were distributed this year, of which Reiter claimed $40,000), and most difficult science competition in the U.S. (most students spend two years on their projects), the STS has earned the renown that caused President Bush, in his address, to call it "the Super Bowl of science." Yet not all observers believe the STS is flawless; over the years, some critics, noting that the majority of winners have had extremely strong science backgrounds, have called it elitist.

The clearest indication of the caliber of the contest is the careers of its alumni. According to Carol Luszcz, director of youth programs for Science Service, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit foundation that runs the STS, 99.9 percent of the finalists get at least a bachelor's degree in science; 70 percent go on to get Ph.D.'s or M.D.'s. That means that over the search's 50 years, its finalists have accounted for about 1,400 of the U.S.'s doctors and scientists.

And many of these researchers and physicians have, in turn, become the best in their fields. Five STS finalists have gone on to win the Nobel Prize: chemists Walter Gilbert and Roald Hoffmann and physicists Sheldon L. Glashow, Leon N. Cooper, and Ben R. Mottelson. Two others, Paul J. Cohen and David B. Mumford, have won the Fields Medal in mathematics. And the numbers go on: two have won Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Awards; two have won the National Medal of Science; 28 have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Even for alumni whose careers have been somewhat less luminous, participation in the STS seems to be a predictor of scientific excellence. From 1942 through 1947, for example, the STS acknowledged the fact that fewer women were going into science by having separate competitions for young men and women. But of those female award recipients, according to available Science Service data, 45 percent went on to receive a Ph.D. or M.D. Says Nina Tabachnik Schor, who in 1972 became the first female STS first-place winner and is now a neurobiologist in the division of child neurology at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, "The number of women [participating] was probably proportional to the number of women who would have gone into science, anyway."

These statistics were the subject of much bragging at the reunion that accompanied the awards banquet of the 50th annual STS, held March 4 in Washington, D.C. Members of every STS "class," from the first in 1942 to the 49th in 1990, came to attend the black-tie awards banquet, a cocktail party the night before, and a high-intensity panel discussion on the future of science featuring four STS alumni: one Nobel laureate (Cooper), two MacArthur Fellows (R. Stephen Berry and Frank Wilczek), and a top medical researcher (Schor).

The alumni, as they gathered for the gala, uniformly looked back on the STS as an excellent experience as well as a door opener. Alumnus Craig Bina from the class of 1980, now an assistant professor of geophysics at Northwestern University, recalls the final stage of questioning the finalists went through as the best part of the process. "The questions in my Ph.D. qualifying exam were not nearly as tough," he says, noting that the Westinghouse judges plumbed general, rather than specific, knowledge. "My dad worked at Xerox, so they asked me how a Xerox machine worked." While the galas and the panel entertained the alumni, for the 40 finalists, the events were the culmination of an arduous process.

In the 1991 STS, 1,573 high school seniors submitted papers describing the projects they had completed. Of these, 300 made the first cut and were named semifinalists. According to Luszcz's estimate, about 45 percent of the entrants are female (of the 40 finalists, 17 were women). As is the case elsewhere in the sciences, the number of children of new immigrants, especially

Asian immigrants, is disproportionately high in relation to their representation in the U.S. population.

From the 300 semifinalists, the judging panel, composed of seven academic scientists from a variety of disciplines, chose the 40 competitors who came to Washington for the finals. There the finalists were subjected to several days of broad questioning and interviewing by the judges; they were competing for a $40,000 first prize, $30,000 second prize, and $20,000 third prize. (The fourth through sixth finishers received $15,000 each, seventh through 10th $10,000 each, and the remaining 30 each received $1,000.)

Considerable effort is required to win prizes of this magnitude. Marion Reiss, a teacher and guidance counselor at New York City's La Guardia High School of Music and the Arts, explains that many of the projects are the product of "a two-year cycle" that starts in the students' sophomore year with outreach programs to interest students, continues with a course in methods followed by research and experimentation in the junior year, and ends at the December entry deadline in the students' senior year. "It's a very long process," Reiss says.

"The student has to be curious about something," Reiss says, to want to get involved in the first place. "We tell them what it's going to mean in terms of time. [The research] has to be real--even if it's limited to what a high school student can do, that student has to contribute something new to knowledge."

And because the competition is so difficult, says Reiss, whether the students are chosen as one of the 300 semifinalists or the 40 finalists is considered secondary at her school. "The whole idea is the process," she says. "After the students complete their applications, we have a party. That's the accomplishment." Of course, the STS didn't spring out of its creators' heads and immediately begin sponsoring homemade genetic splicing projects. The competition got its start in 1939, as the brainchild of Westinghouse Electric Corp. public relations staffer G. Edward Pendray, an ex-science editor. In 1938, Pendray had helped sponsor a Westinghouse national science competition for high school seniors in which the 10 contestants received scholarships to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (in Pittsburgh, Westinghouse's home). Pendray encouraged Westinghouse to sponsor a World's Fair exhibit of work from the institute's science fair.

At the World's Fair, Pendray met Watson Davis, a science journalist who had become director of Science Service, which works toward furthering public understanding of science. The two conceived a program whereby Science Service would sponsor a national science fair; Westinghouse would underwrite it.

The winners of the first Westinghouse Science Talent Search were announced in 1942, and the competition has continued with little change in administration: Science Service still runs the competition as part of its mission to support science, and Westinghouse still bankrolls it.

The scope and format of the competition have changed, however. In 1942, participating students did nothing more than take a test and write an essay on the topic of "How Science Can Help Win the War." The top scholarship awarded was $2,400. As the years have passed, with its large prizes, its trip to Washington for the banquet, and the growth in media coverage, the STS has become increasingly glamorous.

Whether this glamour is important depends on who you are. Students who attend Bronx High School of Science in New York City, for example, probably feel really good about it. New York state, reflecting the New York City origin of the competition, has produced about one-third of the finalists: 636 of the 2,000 total. (Illinois, the second most prolific supplier of entrants, has produced only 139 finalists.) Of those 636, the Bronx High School of Science has produced 118--and 949 of the 15,000 semifinalists over the years. Stuyvesant High School, also in New York City, has contributed the second highest number of finalists. In fact, nine of the top 10 high schools in the competition's history are from the New York City area.

Schools like Bronx or Stuyvesant are able to send a higher number of students to the competition because they have the resources to focus on the STS. Some see this inequity in resources as unfair. Bill Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association of Washington, D.C., views the STS with some skepticism. "The individual kids who succeed in this program have undoubtedly worked very hard," Aldridge allows. "But the thing that bothers me is that it's not truly a competition." He likens the STS to a race in which some competitors start far ahead of the others. Asks Aldridge, "What about the student who has to go out and get a job," and therefore doesn't have much time to spend on a project?

His point is borne out by the case of Ashley Reiter. The winner of

this year's STS, whose project involved fractals, attends the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, where she took what she believes is "the only high school course in fractals in the nation." And she credits a four-week summer internship at the San Diego Supercomputer Center for helping her do much of the work on her project.

Reiter herself has considered this. "I feel very fortunate, and I wish every other student had the same opportunities," she says. But, she notes, "I think a lot of it has to do with hard work--all students need to take advantage of the opportunities where they are."

And, in the words of Carol Luszcz, "Our purpose isn't teaching students to do science--it's a competition for students who can compete at this level." Science Service president E.G. Sherburne, Jr., adds the notion that by competing for inequitably distributed resources, the students are learning a valuable lesson in scientific reality. "The students exhibit entrepreneurship," he says, "the high school equivalent of grantsmanship," as they find mentors who can help them.

This hasn't always been the case. "The biggest change now is the increased number of students doing their work in a scientist's lab," Sherburne says. "When I came [25 years ago], it was all done at home or in the high school lab."

While Sherburne applauds this development, noting that "being in a lab, the students learn things they don't learn in class," not everyone agrees. Schor worries "that more of the students are doing their work in hospitals or university labs--I worry that students may be [merely] the hands" for mentor scientists' ideas. She recalls with delight the simplicity of her own biology project--"I had five test tubes," she says with a laugh--and adds that the excitement came from "the fact that I was potentially asking a question that no one had ever asked."

But as many questions as there are about the equity of the contest, nobody questions the talent or achievements of the students who participate.

For example, Judson Berkey, a 1991 finalist, whose project addressed the optimum launch angle from which a baseball should leave a bat for maximum distance, says he "began to study the physics of baseball after reading the book The Physics of Baseball [by Robert Adair, New York, Harper & Row, 1990]." He did a literature search and found in one article that the authors had made "simplifying assumptions" regarding the ball's spin in flight.

Berkey, a ballplayer himself, says, "I knew from playing the game that this wasn't so--when a ball comes down it's spinning, but it's not spinning madly through the air" the way it does when it's first hit. He applied more accurate equations and came up with results that "pretty much agree with just general observations of the game." Thus, Berkey not only added to the topic's literature, but also thought broadly enough to keep physics and baseball connected.

In short, the Westinghouse STS represents everything that both its supporters and its detractors claim it does: It's an accurate reflection of scientific reality. A competition in which students with more resources have unquestioned advantages, it still offers opportunity to all comers; intended as a measure of purely scientific inquiry, it rewards students who show creativity in resource management as well. And in its quest to reward students' energy and ingenuity, it may sometimes reward the merely industrious, students who pursue ideas suggested by others.

But as Carol Luszcz says in describing the successful STSers, despite their varied backgrounds in terms of resources, geography, and ethnicity, they share one constant: "There's always someone who encourages them."

Scott Huler is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.


The Scientist 5[8]:20, Apr. 15, 1991

© Copyright 1991, The Scientist, Inc. All rights reserved.
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