Intel Science Competition Teenagers (June Inspiration)

We hear so many bad things about teenagers…the time they spend on electronic devices, the lack of motivation, the use of drugs, lack of respect for parents and on and on. So it was wonderful when, a few months ago, I read an article in The New York Times dated March11, 2013 about some of the finalists in the Intel Science Competition. This prestigious competition used to be called the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and of those who have won it, seven have gone on to win Nobel Prizes and 11 have won MacArthur “genius” awards.

There were so many things that were inspiring about the article. Basically it was a profile of some of the finalists and each was special in his or her own way. But they each had only four 15 minute interviews with the judges to talk about their competition projects and demonstrate their science knowledge. Can you imagine pouring your heart and soul into a project that takes not only creativity, but months and months of work, and then have to have the confidence to articulate your ideas enough to impress world class scientists with your ideas? I thought about how proud their parents must be of them, not just of their intelligence but of their drive, interest and passion.

It would be easy to think of these students as typical science nerds, but the article also pointed out that in some ways they are just ordinary teenagers. One finalist was worried about her driving test, and another, when asked what he was most excited about in going to the finals in Washington D.C. stated that he was excited to meet President Obama. Yet another was going to board an airplane for the first time.

But in other ways, they were not typical teenagers. One young woman, the daughter of immigrants, was affected by her grandmother’s death from cancer and is researching DNA binding mechanisms of a tumor suppressing cell. Another young woman had never entered a science competition before and was studying how a cell’s cilium- hairlike projectiles on the cell’s surface- can be disrupted by a foreign chemical and how that disrupts cell signaling.

A young man from Ossining High School is the first from his high school to make the finals. He too lost a family member to cancer and is studying the factors involved in a tumor suppressing protein’s degradation.  A young woman from Morristown, NJ, taught herself cell phone software coding and electrical engineering techniques that could be used in “telemedicine”  and has applied for a provisional patent.

It was also exciting to read that in the last decade, between 40 and 50 percent of the finalists were girls. We know that the higher levels of the science world are still predominantly men, and I was thrilled to think about the future for these young women and imagine them doing research, getting patents and teaching at top universities.

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, wrote that attending the awards dinner in Washington “was the most inspiring evening he had had…in twenty years” and that he was touched just to read about four of these  dynamic youngsters. One of last year’s semifinalists had been living in a homeless shelter when she learned what the judges thought of her achievement! The students’ diversity, intellect and desire to achieve something significant were all important, but for me, it was their passion that shined through.

I know that it is not only the smart, high-achieving teenager who is inspiring. Many of the teens that I treat are inspiring in their own ways: for the obstacles they overcome, for the way they help others, for reaching beyond what is easy,  and for having the courage that they show when the chips are down. All of these students have a strength of character that reminds me of what is good in our world.

Let me know about a teenager who has inspired you and why. My  Inspirations blog is now a monthly feature on my website  and The Patch. I hope you too find people or things that inspire you every day and please let us know about it.