I’ve seen the future of science…it’s barely old enough to drive

By Anthony Oliveri

A few weeks ago, I went over to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) to have lunch with a group of some of the most talented and promising high-schoolers I have ever had the pleasure to meet. NCSSM is a school that accepts current sophomore high school students across the state to complete their junior and senior years at NCSSM, living at their Durham campus and emphasizing the study of the eponymous fields. It’s essentially college-before-college. Alternatively, students still enrolled in their home high schools can participate in extracurricular online classes via NCSSM. Either way, NCSSM students are a bright, motivated bunch.

Thus, it’s no surprise that a number of the students (from both programs) decided to spend the summer living on the campus and participating in various summer research programs (http://www.ncssm.edu/news/summer-programs-underway-at-ncssm/ for descriptions). The students I had lunch with were all from the Residential Science Research Program. These students have been granted research positions at various labs at Duke, UNC, and NC State, or in the labs of various RTP-located companies. For most of the dozen or so students I talked to, this was to be their first experience conducting research outside of classroom-based lab sessions, and the ostensible point of me and several other Duke and UNC grad students and postdocs being at their kick-off lunch was to help assuage their fears and help them learn what to expect. I say “ostensible” because most of the students didn’t seem anxious in the least, and their questions skewed towards the type of long-reaching, career-focused questions that most of us are asking each other and ourselves right now (e.g., “How do you make sure you pick the right lab to join? Is it better to have a career in academia or industry?”). They talked about learning to program in R and spending the summer running analyses for epidemiology labs, or taking the materials science ideas they had been learning in their chemical engineering classes and applying them to renewable energy problems being tackled by engineers throughout the Triangle. I told any of them that if they were having any difficulty training their fish, to contact me. I would take lessons in R as payment.

As I and the other grad students left the lunch, it was pretty clear we were all floored by the students we  had spent the hour with. The summer research program coordinator explained that she thought the lunch went over superbly and that she would be reaching out for volunteers for future events, such as with the symposium at the end of the summer, where they would be presenting their research. I highly recommend helping out with these students, or any other high school students interested in the sciences, because the promise they show deserves to be cultured and supported (and hearing about the stuff they’re learning compared to what we learned in high school – kids these days, I tell ya).