The science world doesn’t host a cotillion, but the Intel Science Talent Search, the oldest of several prestigious, national high school science fairs, comes mighty close. In lieu of white dresses and deep curtsies, 40 of America’s top science students make a splashy entrance into the research arena each March with their studies of particle physics, abstract algebra, and ant communication, among other projects. Students schmooze with the public, try not to crumple under official interrogation, and at the end of the week, Intel gives away $1.25 million in college scholarships and computers, including a top prize of $100,000.
Last year’s first-place winner, 17-year-old Viviana Risca—who impressed the judges by embedding a secret message about the 1944 invasion of Normandy in the gene sequence of a DNA strand—was one of three finalists hailing from the science research program at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, New York. Schreiber students are contenders at Intel each year, and the public school’s science, math, and social science research programs are a major reason why. Science research, taught by Phyllis Serfaty, a veteran teacher and biology Ph.D., offers a small, handpicked group of students the chance to spend three years pursuing the answers to heavy-duty questions just this side of splitting the atom. The students find scientists in their fields to mentor them, raise money to purchase materials, spend long hours and at least one summer working in labs, and devote much of their junior and senior years to preparing papers for the Science Talent Search as well as other local and national science fairs.
As the January announcement of Intel’s 300 semi-finalists drew near, Managing Editor Samantha Stainburn talked with Serfaty about the challenges—and pizza consumption—involved in training America’s young Einsteins.
Q: How advanced are your students?
A: Many of these kids are working at the level of a Ph.D. candidate. It’s an amazing thing. They know a very small piece of science. They don’t really have the background in chemistry and physics and even biology that they need to go on and get a Ph.D. in science, but they are experts in their piece.
Q: Can you predict which of your students will do well at the Science Talent Search?
A: I can kind of guess. But you just don’t know what the judges are going to be looking for or who the competition is, so you can’t really know. All of my students are top-notch. They’re all highly motivated. They’re all extremely personable. And they’ve all got a good chance because they’re all going to end up doing good work.
Q: What do you teach them about competing?
A: I don’t dwell on the importance of winning. This school, as many high schools are, is a very competitive school. We compete in everything. I try to focus on the learning aspect of what they’re doing in my class. For example, when they had all finished their papers last year, the fact that they’d written a scientific paper of a quality that we could submit to Intel was, to me, a phenomenal thing. We had a pizza party, just to celebrate that each one had made that accomplishment. I tell them, and I mean this very sincerely, that it’s nice to win, but the main reason you’re at a competition is to discuss your work with scientists in the field. The judges that they meet at these competitions are scientists who take an interest in the work they’re doing; they talk to them about their work; they give them suggestions. I have one kid this year who is redoing her experiment from last year because she got so many good ideas at a science fair about how she could change it and make it better. The person Viviana Risca worked with for her [Intel] project met her at a science fair. So I think the exchange of ideas and what they learn in the competition is the greatest part of what they get. [But] they don’t believe me. They want to win!
Q: How does preparing students to compete in science competitions through research classes compare to traditional teaching?
A: This job is not an 8:05 to 3:05 job. I’m often here until 10:30 at night; if some kids are working on a project, they have to be supervised. I’ll go with them to a lab for a first interview during the summer. I’m in constant communication with them through e-mail, by telephone, all year long. It doesn’t end in the end of June. At the Intel Science Talent Search, only the students are allowed to be on the floor during judging. The teachers all wait outside with snacks [for the kids] because they only get a short break. So the teacher plays many, many roles. It’s almost like being a parent. They still know I’m the teacher, and there’s that line between us, but they know that if they have to call me on Sunday because there’s a burning question about what they’re going to do tomorrow, it’s OK. You have to be crazy to want to do it. Just like the kids who do science research, you have to love what you’re doing.
Q: Your background is in biology, but many of your students’ projects have them asking high-level physics and chemistry questions. How do you “teach” in this situation?
A: I’m not the master of the material. It’s hard for some people to give that up, but my role is to be a guide more than anything else. I have one kid who’s working now on something called a strange particle. I have no idea what she’s talking about. Even our physics people, because they don’t work in that specific area of particle physics, couldn’t give her the “yeah, that’s a great idea.” Not only that, she needed access to classified government data. It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time, but she was able to get someone from Brookhaven National Laboratory to correspond with her, and he told her that yes, her experiment is a valid project, and he’s going to get her the data that she needs.
So how do I deal with that? I tell them they’re going to become the expert and that I’m very glad when they know more about atomic energy than I do. But I know how research works. And I can ask questions to make their experiments more stringent and to make sure that they know exactly what equipment and materials they need to get for their experiments and what questions they have to have answered before they even begin. This year I have three kids who want to work on cell culture. I’ve done tissue culture, but I’ve never done cell culture per se. So, I’m going to go to one of the laboratories where I know people and spend the day with them while they do cell culture, and then I’m going to come back and show the kids.
Science is very frustrating. If you don’t have somebody who you can bounce ideas off of or who understands the frustration, you give up, especially if you’re a kid who has a thousand other things going on in your life. So I’m also a sounding board for them. I’m a person who can say, “Well, it didn’t work this way, but let’s look at it this way.”