Not a big surprise, but a notable event nonetheless – the top Siemens Mathematics, Science and Technology annual prizes were all taken by girls this year. From the New York Times*:

Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff, both 17 and seniors at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School on Long Island, split the first prize — a $100,000 scholarship — in the team category for creating a molecule that helps block the reproduction of drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria.

Isha Himani Jain, 16, a senior at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa., placed first in the individual category for her studies of bone growth in zebra fish, whose tail fins grow in spurts, similar to the way children’s bones do. She will get a $100,000 scholarship.

Congratulations to them – and all the winners and finalists, male or female – for their achievements!!

On another note, I was reading the project descriptions of the rather well-resourced projects that made the finals and wondering just how many other students from a range of backgrounds would be able to excel at science if they had access to such resources too. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with those who were finalists making it to where they did. Instead I’m just wondering (as usual) about how we can get more young people involved, and how we can cast the net wider. (A vital resource in all of this would be more and better-trained and better-paid science teachers, of course.) There are so many missed opportunities and so much wasted talent out there. While thinking about that, I stumbled on a related thought expressed by one of Sheril’s commenters, Emily. She’d noticed the following observation in the New York Times article:

Three-quarters of the finalists have a parent who is a scientist. The parents of Alicia Darnell, who won second place, are medical researchers at Rockefeller University, and her maternal grandparents were scientists, too. Isha Himani Jain, who took home the top individual prize, published her first research paper with her father, a professor at Lehigh University, when she was 10 or 11; her mother is a doctor.

and Emily said (among other things):

This fact is slightly worrying to me. What about students who don’t have the benefit of a parent is a scientist? Who will draw these students – who are likely equally talented in science as their peers in the Siemens competition – into high-octane science, math, and engineering opportunities early on?

Yes, three-quarters seems worryingly high indeed, but I’d like to understand it better. Looking at it in isolation might not tell anything close to the whole story. For example, I wonder whether this percentage has gone up or down over time. Does anyone know?


(*via the Intersection)

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21 Responses to Swept

  1. Jude says:

    As a parent, I can say that my daughter had an advantage in science competitions because of my experience judging science fairs and my understanding of the scientific method. There’s also something to be said for the fact that I didn’t let her quit once she started a project. The statistics are interesting, but not overly surprising. To perform at that level, you need a mentor–a parent, a teacher, or a community member. In general, only a committed parent will stick with you, answering your questions or helping you find answers. The more the parent knows, the better the student will do. I frequently think about a student I tutored when he was in 4th grade. He didn’t know any of his addition or subtraction facts. I translated at his parent-teacher conference, and his mom yelled at him this way (in Spanish): “Pafean, you don’t know these (pointing to basic addition facts) or *these* (pointing to basic subtraction facts)?!? Even *I* know those.” She was illiterate, but she could add and subtract. I worked with him for the rest of the year and he learned a lot, although he wasn’t proficient. It’s not always that those parents don’t care, but that they don’t know it themselves. Where could an “average” kid find a mentor to take them to that high level of achivement? They couldn’t.

  2. Yvette says:

    Jude says things well- an “average” kid really can’t compete in these competitions without access to a mentor or a laboratory. I have countless stories from my high school scientific career on this very issue, and it was always slightly disheartening when you’d work really hard but have your science fair category won by the kid whose dad has access to an electron microscope!

    Btw, The New York Times ran a great article on this very topic a few years ago, available here- http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/09/education/09education.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

  3. Pyracantha says:

    I have been observing scientists for many years now and I have come to suspect (my opinion only of course) that the scientific field is a “caste” in which scientists (especially women scientists) marry their counterparts in their field and raise more scientists. You most likely have to be born into it, rather than choose to be in it. On rare occasions someone can find their way in, either through mentoring or marriage. I find this disappointing, but maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be: science as family and tribal destiny. It works for other fields too, including music, art, and theater. This is just my skewed and personally biased opinion, it is not meant to be any kind of proven conclusion.

  4. Clifford says:

    > but maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be

    Why? Would you have said the same thing about women not having the vote, not so long ago? I don’t think that we should simply sit back and accept unequal access in our society. That’s what this is, to some extent. There’s nothing wrong with handing on a family’s traditional career choice – and this very natural…. but to have that as largely the only way someone can succeed in a field is not a good thing for society or for the field in question.



  5. Metalman says:

    This seems just a manifestation of the fact that parents are really important, in what a child achieves early on in life (and also later as an adult).
    Parents who create an environment where the child is encouraged to learn, push their kids to become better at things, make high achieving adults. Any intrinsic ability (e.g IQ) plays a very minor role, compared with the role played by parents and by extension the school, mentors etc.
    However you don’t need to have a parent as a scientist to become a scientist. To want to become a scientist all you need is an inspiration. To actually become one, you need lots of hard work (and yes a supporting environment, at least until you are out of your teens). Now the initial inspiration can come from a lot of places. In some cases the parents, sometimes teachers, but sometimes from books from libraries, or even an apple…

  6. Chris says:

    I think it’s more general than “parents” though. I’ll try to be careful how I generalize this as I proceed.

    Most of the physicists I work with at my institution don’t have scientific parental influences. I think what you’re seeing is that at such a young age the *only* influence can be parents (or maybe other kids at school, but they know little beyond how to conduct the experiment of if something is in there nose). I think what’s important is that somebody takes you under their wing at some point (eg. teacher, advisor, etc.). In my experiences, people are first limited by having access to what’s required to learn, followed by being limited by not wanting to learn, and lastly being limited by being unable to learn (this is rare!)

    To change the topic, in reply to another comment, I think the comment on academia (at least in physics) being a caste is absurd, but that’s a long chat nobody cares about.

    (P.S. It’s probably a random fluctuation, but all of the Oxbridge people I’ve worked with have had parents with math/physics doctorates, so is it easier to succeed in the states? How efficient at rejecting talent are A-levels?)

  7. candace says:

    I also find it interesting that the winners did more life science-type projects than physical science.

  8. Just Another Grad Student says:

    This absolutely amazes me. When I was sixteen, I was still trying to figure out which way to comb my hair that would make girls like me.

    Whether or not the kids parents are scientists, I think this is still pretty impressive.

  9. Clifford says:

    Just Another Grad Student –

    I agree! It is pretty impressive what they do in science competitions. I’ve noticed this in science fair judging too. This is why – first and foremost – congratulations were right up front! (Whether they have scientist parents is certainly not to be held against them – the issue was how we can get more people involved in science, and succeeding, irrespective of parentage. Better teachers, resources, and so forth.)

    And on another note: Did the hair thing work out for you then?


  10. student says:

    I was in an average public high school not that long ago.

    The only student entering science fair competitions during the years I was there was the daughter of a chemistry professor. She had access to labs. No one else did, and in fact when I approached several professors at the time to ask how a high school student or an undergraduate would go about learning how to do research, I was turned away by every single one.

    Likewise, the only students consistently doing well in math, entering competitions, and going on to math/physics-related majors in college were the sons of a math professor. Just about everyone else did relatively poorly on SAT math and ended up in remedial math classes in college.

    I did not know that science fair competitions even existed on this high level until I myself left home for college and met some students who had competed. (All of them had parents in the sciences.)

    I think we’d be worse off without these types of competitions to stimulate interest and encourage participation, and I admire the participants, who are all hard-working and bright.

    But it is and probably will always be a joke to think that children with ordinary backgrounds will have access to this level of science/math education until, and if, they choose to do science and math in college, and often not even then if they attend an ordinary public university.

    I don’t see too many children from ordinary backgrounds becoming top-ranking English-style equestrians, either. (Most) scientists need access to laboratories or computers and colleagues; equestrians need access to horses, stables, and courses; normal children don’t have access to either.

    That’s just how it is.

  11. Clifford says:

    But it is and probably will always be a joke to think …

    Well, while I agree it is harder, and should not be quite so much harder, it is certainly not impossible. There are several examples of people “making it” without such privileged backgrounds.

    (Most) scientists need access to laboratories or computers and colleagues; equestrians need access to horses, stables, and courses; normal children don’t have access to either.

    Again, I’d not state it so strongly myself. As a kid I had a great time learning science on my own by taking apart people’s thrown-off electronics (etc), fixing things, and building new things from junk, and teaching myself things from old magazines and books that nobody wanted. I could not afford anything new. I was interested in science and I just made do with what I found around me and never sat around waiting for new stuff.

    Part of the problem is that we seem to be increasingly focusing value on playthings that are new and shiny and fancy. There’s a laboratory to be found in the world around us that we see every day and it is free to do experiments with it. The science you can learn from experiments with the stuff in your house is more advanced than anything you do in the first year of freshman college level.

    I think that you are underestimating the value of a good teacher to help make the best of the resources that even “normal” children have access to.

    What I do agree with is that not having the fancy stuff will mean that the judges will be more likely to overlook you in the science fairs…. but that’s a different matter – there’s far more to a career in science than doing well in a science fair.



  12. Anonymous says:

    I once met someone while in high school whose school had produced several semifinalists and perhaps a few finalists if not a winner for the Intel science fair. The key? They had connections in place with the local universities to get people placed in labs where they could do real research, thus they could consistently push out students with winning projects. I never tried to compete with them because I knew it would be a pretty fruitless effort without the backing of a college lab/professors. One only has to look at some of the projects these people have to know that the biggest determination in success in these projects is who you know.

  13. efp says:

    Chris (#6): I’m sure you will find correlations in any profession; I bet people with parents in the military are more likely to enter the military themselves. I would guess that the proportion of children that follow their parents is probably higher when the parents have a prestigious profession of any sort. This hardly deserved to be called a caste system.

    But as #10 pointed out, these science competitions are definitely stacked in favor of those few who are groomed from a young age, and/or have connections. I bet the same could be said for chess or musical or athletic contests. Kids being involved in any sort of high-stakes competition usually creeps me out.

  14. TheGraduate says:

    The answer to the question of why more kids don’t have access is because we live in a capitalist system; and in a capitalist system resources are allocated according to purchasing power and demand. That is to say, most will get some and some will get most. These kids seem to come from social strata that provide the right mix of both ‘purchasing’ power and demand for science.

    The basic capitalist drive is to leverage what you have into more. Perhaps, in our society, for kids whose parents are scientists, a gamble on a $100,000 dollar science fair prize seems feasible. Others might consider playing basketball or baseball or football or being a DJ or a singer might be the more feasible gamble for them based on the sort of mentorship closest at hand. The economics would predict specializations, the way it doesn’t make sense to try to grown certain crops in certain places.

    Of course, massive government intervention can always create new equilibriums.

  15. Just Another Grad Student says:

    >And on another note: Did the hair thing work out for you then?

    Well, when I got to college I realized that confidence is more important than any hair cut. And, there is actually a subset of women who find guys doing math sexy. (Don’t ask me—I don’t understand women at ALL.)

  16. The Graduate says:

    Hi Clifford,

    I thought you might want to read this.


    “the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment shows average attainment staying largely flat … compares the reading, mathematical and scientific progress of 400,000 15-year-olds in the 30 OECD countries and 27 others, covering 87% of the world economy… United States… was poor by world standards … Britain is way down the league…

    And what can be done to ensure that budding scientists blossom? Give them teachers with excellent qualifications in science, spend plenty of time on the subject and engage their enthusiasm with after-school clubs, events and competitions, says the report.”


  17. Clifford says:

    Hi! Thanks! I’m pleased to see that the focus is still on teachers, time, and developing enthusiasm for the subject.



  18. Yvette says:

    To add another comment… your notes in #11 got me thinking Clifford. See, what you said about how you can learn science without all the fancy gizmos is absolutely true, and plenty of bright kids across the country still subscribe to that method of learning about science. However, college in recent years has gotten a LOT more competitive than it used to be- you can no longer be an anonymous genius from a random little town in the country to get into, say, MIT.

    Mind I personally think this doesn’t matter much because you can get a good college education pretty much no matter where you end up in this country (assuming the student loans don’t kill you first- another rant for another day). But by the same hand there will always be some out there who won’t think of it that way and who will slip through the cracks because they couldn’t invest to get the top-notch science fair award, and they probably will suffer a little for it.

  19. Luke Lea says:

    In light of the recent Larry Summers episode at Harvard, it is interesting that the girls swept the finals this year. Based on the percentage of female winners and runners-up in the past few years, what are the odds of that happening? Just wondering — not that there is anything wrong with that, is there?

  20. Clifford says:

    Oh! Excellent points you’re suggesting there about positive outcomes from the Summers episode:- As a result of people speaking out against that nonsense, more maybe girls are pursuing science further, and maybe more science fair judges are putting aside their pre-conceptions and letting girls compete equally with the boys. And this is the therefore-not-so-unlikely result. Brilliant!

    Thanks so much.


  21. Linnam32 says:


    My congratulations to all the winners, participants in the competition and also to everyone in general who wish to learn and contribute to this world.

    I’m in my last year of high school and the career arrows are now pointed towards me:). As much as I would love to continue learning other subjects, I have always had an inclination towards sciences, due to its “constant search for something better”, as I so terrifically put it. If I was dared to, I would describe myself as somewhat curious and averagely academic (particularly in relation to standardised tests). I’m afraid that even if I work really hard, I’ll always hit a mental barrier and this keeps me from trying too many times. Plus I’ve no experience whatsoever in lab work (apart from high school level). Sometimes I wonder if as a kid I could’ve done more, had I been aware of these opportunities(this is no excuse however, to slack off:)). Let’s just say I’m unsure if I have the academic ability to fulfil my dream of being a researcher, one who can at the very least, hypothesise. I read about graduate science students and about how most of them don’t receive the funding and the others just take up other science related careers, which they didn’t want to start with. I agree with Clifford in that the whole world is a lab and that people still make it without the privileges of having a scientifically established family background. Pure passion is true science. However the fact still remains that research would be my only source of livelihood and seeing as I wish to carry out independent research; it would be a little foolish of me to assume that I would become successful, as I am no Einstein or Turing.

    So my question is: How does one become a successful scientist? What can you do in uni? I have had the opportunity to lead a fairly nomadic life,and so am unaware of science fairs. Can I do anything beforehand to gain more scientific exposure? Or is it just another glamorous field better left untouched for the most talented?

    I hope I didn’t come across as being overly pessimistic. I had been pondering over these questions for a long time and would be thoroughly grateful for any advice and guidance. Also many thanks to all for the engaging conversation.