Why aren't young scientists cool?

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Roy Ghosh

How do we become famous? And can gifted students, or math and science whiz kids ever attain fame? What do Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes, and Emma Watson have that young, gifted students do not? Their work is appreciated, or more so, adored by their community. Their fans motivate them to do more, to make more music, to star in more movies. It is hard to imagine budding scientists experiencing anywhere near the same level of acceptance, awareness, or inspiration from their peers. I obviously believe that they should—why shouldn’t they? They could save millions of lives, cure diseases, and solve the world’s most significant problems.

Yet, most people would laugh at this next statement: Young science nerds need to be as famous as athletes, singers, and YouTubers.

Why is this absurd? Because people get more excited watching sports games, having their hearts beat until the last second of the match. They become engrossed watching crazy people doing hilarious things. Yet reading a long research paper with scientific jargon, even if it discusses the cure to cancer, is quite boring for most.

The problem is not that scientists should be getting millions of Twitter followers or appearing on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The problem is that these young researchers are not getting recognized, appreciated, or even motivated by their local high schools. The problem is that we as a society are typecasting these students at a young age. We force them into a pathway and if they veer from it, we give up on them…and they quit. The problem is that they are not respected by the scientific society, the community that is supposed to help these rising stars. Young scientists do not have even an inch of spotlight in their own communities.

Personally, I have experienced this lack of recognition and respect. During the first few years when I decided to pursue a career in the sciences, I obviously knew that it would be an impossible dream to reach the order of magnitude of fame that celebrities enjoy. But I still wanted to be the Selena Gomez of science.

Believe it or not, I somehow thought it was going to happen easily. I honestly did not see why tiny breakthroughs in the creases of the scientific world for an audience of gray-haired standard bearers in peer-reviewed publications didn’t earn me my own fan club.

Yet I couldn’t even have guessed the lack of available opportunities and resources. It was astounding and personally disappointing. There was no outlet to pursue my passions in the public middle or high school, so I met with the administrators to convey the importance of encouraging students in the sciences. But, I was immediately met with hesitation. They provided sympathy, but were unwilling to take action. To most, what I asked was absurd. They essentially believed I wanted to topple the stereotypical high school social hierarchy, where athletics preceded academics for access to resources.

Seeing that I would not be able to pursue my passions in school, I tried building a compact lab in my basement to perform independent experiments and learn by doing. I also began reaching out to people beyond the school. I contacted companies, research institutions, and other areas where I could continue to foster my growing curiosity in science.

However, even in the broader scientific realm, there was not much of an effort to support aspiring student scientists, and my inbox was swarmed with automatic reply messages and comforting rejections.

Despite these setbacks, I did not give up easily on the idea. In seventh grade, I created a science organization in my district for middle schoolers; I called it the Springhouse Science Team. We ultimately decided to compete in the Science Olympiad, and fortunately, we became a national winning team of student scientists.

Yet none of our accomplishments got an inch of space in the newspaper. I remember trying to control my frustration as I saw the football team’s win locally made the papers while our seventeenth place finish nationally was overlooked. So, I fought—I fought for my teammates, for the recognition they deserved in that windowless room where we practiced.

But I too finally realized the ridiculousness of the situation. I was attempting to make science quizzes compete with bone-crushing tackles. Which would you rather see? The answer’s obvious. Like I mentioned previously, it is not possible to endow nerdy, young scientists with the same popularity as football players.

Thus, I again saw sympathy in the eyes of those I spoke with. But what I did not see was any budget. Several of my team members quit. They were tired of working so hard and not getting enough reward. We were not going to even get a room in our school for our team. Therefore, I witnessed the collapse of my own creation.

Why is this lack of recognition so important though? Why should we care? So what that they don’t get noticed? They’ll go to a good university, get some research awards, and maybe even win the Nobel Prize in the near future with their work. Why does it matter that we need to give them attention now, at such a young age?

Well, put simply, there is a high probability that they will quit trying, in secondary school, due to lack of attention and negligence for their efforts. According to McKinley Reports, 25 percent of gifted people (in sciences and math) are underachievers. They quit trying because nothing they do leads to any measurable success or satisfaction.

Even further, between 18 and 25 percent of these talented students drop out of school. Unrecognized gifted students can get bored, or frustrated.

Yet, if you continue to read this study, you’ll see that 80 percent of teachers believe that “our advanced students need special attention—they are the future leaders of this country, and their talents will enable us to compete in a global economy.” Why aren’t we listening to these teachers?

All these statistics point to one conclusion—if they are not acknowledged now (like young YouTubers or popular school athletes), they may decide to give up. Their work will never continue, effectively taking away one more person in the effort to treat heart attacks, fight cancer, and prevent more deaths.

So, I needed to figure out a way to get my friends—my peers—put on the map. Since the internet had to be part of the solution, I started building a site in a frenzy, perhaps what led to the name: ScienceBuzz.com.

ScienceBuzz is a voluntary nonprofit academic-networking site dedicated to providing students a platform to showcase their talents and scientific work to thousands of other users and industry professionals. Students can publish their research, collaborate with peers around the world, communicate with experienced scientists, and have a one-stop site for all resources and opportunities related to science.

In this manner, all students, no matter their background and without such cutthroat selectivity as those science fairs, have the opportunity to collaborate with and be recognized and encouraged by the global scientific community. They have the ability to gain visibility within their own high school and become as treasured and appreciated as the school’s athletes.

I personally networked with professors, scientists, press agencies, institutions, and biopharma companies. I gave people fan pages and prepared elevator talks for how the site would make people at least ‘internet-famous’ like gamers or the guys who created the Peanut Butter Jelly Time video.

I’ve always felt that recognition for intellectual accomplishments, support from peers you respect, and an intense commitment to doing what you believe is right, are essential for motivating young scientists. We need a collective desire for fairness in the world. I built ScienceBuzz.com to complete this mission for us science-dreamers. And soon, it was filled with seasoned scientists and high school students alike.

Within months, ScienceBuzz.com turned into a miniaturized version of the scientific world. Yet now, this society was filled with both scientists and high school students alike. Students now do not rely on a competitive nature to experience that feeling of satisfaction, as they needed to for science competitions. The recognition and fame is brought to their doorsteps. ScienceBuzz and I have introduced a collaborative spirit into the minds of these students, a quality which I have always valued.

My motto in promoting ScienceBuzz.com is ‘We’re Not Famous…Yet.’ I have knocked on doors of several corporations, eventually garnering support from the likes of the National Institutes of Health, Genentech, Amgen, Janssen Biotech, and the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS). They now all understand the urgency of the problem and how much this solution is needed. Students are now able to be visible locally and globally from California to Brazil to Thailand.

As Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and the National Institutes of Health, told me during one of my pitches, “student scientists are as important to our society as any other adult or celebrity.”

Hundreds of users have reviewed the site, saying that it finally makes them feel as if they are important and respected in the work they do. Yet, our work is not even close to being finished.

ScienceBuzz.com, I hope, has been a step in the right direction. But we need more people, more involvement, and more help to solve this pressing problem.

Roy Ghosh, Parkland High School Class of 2018, is a researcher with NIH, NICHD. Ghosh built the academic networking site ScienceBuzz for middle and high school students interested in science, where they can publish their scientific work, build profiles, and communicate with peers and scientists.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.