Generating a Human Return on Investment: Three Young Scientists Pursue Dreams

Businesses have financial data to show how they are performing. Research centers can point to how their discoveries are cited by peers. But nonprofits seeking to benefit society? Hard data and accountability that goes with it can be elusive.

That’s why what happened yesterday at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue was so impressive. The Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR), the Seattle-based nonprofit that seeks to improve science education, showed some truly meaningful results today that didn’t come in the form of a chart on a PowerPoint. Instead, the group gathered three young people who were inspired by its mentorship program in the past, put them up on stage as the poised young adults they have become, and asked them to tell their stories.

I’m sure that a lot of people would cynically write this off as a well-intended but fruitless endeavor. After all, something like 46 percent of Americans reject evolution and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, according to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in their recent book, “Unscientific America.” Aren’t kids in China, India, and pretty much everywhere else around the world absolutely clobbering Americans in just about every measurement of science and math educational achievement?

NWABR’s executive director Susan Adler had a quiet but powerful counter-story. This effort was founded in 1999 around a conference room table at Immunex, now Amgen, the world’s largest biotech company. The people there then, and those still there today, haven’t wavered in their belief that they have to give back to young people to invest in the future of science.

“We here in the Northwest invest in our leaders, and they often return to us,” Adler said.

And there they were in the flesh, three bright young Northwest natives, telling KPLU science reporter Keith Seinfeld about how their teachers, and volunteer researchers the expo matches them with, inspired them to pursue their current career paths.

They kept their stories short and to the point. One of the alumni, Jessica McHugh, was urged by her teacher at the time to join the inaugural Student BioExpo in 2001 while she was a student at Eastside Catholic High School. McHugh’s project looked into the damage tobacco products can do at the molecular level in yeast. She went on to get a medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine. Now she has returned home as a family practice physician at Swedish Medical Center’s Cherry Hill campus.

“I was fortunate to be in a high school where science was really appreciated,” McHugh said today. Joining the Expo showed her that this wasn’t just some nerdy, isolated pursuit. “It was an eye-opening experience to meet other like-minded people. It was a great opportunity to interact with other students,” she said.

Andrew Kennard came at the Expo from a different angle. Until he was a sophomore at Garfield High School in Seattle, he never really had much interest in science. He thought he’d be an architect, maybe a writer. The Expo, from its very beginning, has always sought out kids like this and allowed them to pursue scientific ideas through more than just the wet lab, but other things like writing essays, sculptures, song and dance. Kennard chose to write an essay about the pros and cons of current epilepsy medications, since the neurological condition affected one of his aunts. He interviewed a researcher at Seattle-based ZymoGenetics, and was matched up with a mentor from Amgen who helped him think about the vast biological challenge of developing drugs for a disease like epilepsy, when scientists still know so little about what’s fundamentally causing it.

“How can you write about something like that in 10 pages?” Kennard said. “I hadn’t done it? before. And I really felt fulfilled afterward. It was a feeling I hadn’t had before in school. It stuck with me after the Expo. In science, you can tackle big problems you don’t know how to solve, and there’s a lot of room to make a difference.”

Kennard, who just finished up his freshman year final exams at Harvard University, hasn’t decided on a major yet, but he’s thinking about a career in biomedical research.

The light bulb for science turned on in Camille Charlier when she won an award at the 2005 Student BioExpo for songwriting. Charlier, then a student at Shorecrest High School in Shoreline, WA, was personally motivated to learn more about psoriasis, a skin disease that she lives with. So she studied up on what researchers think might be going awry on Chromosome 17 that leads the immune system to go awry and start attacking otherwise healthy skin cells like they are a foreign pathogen. Importantly, she discovered through the expo that science is a creative process, not just about rote fact memorization. It was the kind of field that would bring out the best in her creative impulses, not something that would stifle them.

So she combined what she learned about psoriasis into a new composition of music, as a way of better communicating to people what this mysterious disease is about.

“I thought science was 100 percent rational and objective. But science contains an aspect of creativity,” Charlier said.

After explaining how this experience helped launch her on her journey to Portland’s Reed College, where she’s a senior in biology, Charlier had the guts to take the microphone and sing her award-winning song from 2005 about “sinister psoriasis.”

It’s anybody’s guess how many of the kids passing through the program this year will end up following paths like McHugh, Kennard, and Charlier. Expo co-founder Jeanne Chowning made clear that organizers will be happy if quite a few of the 2,500 students who have passed through this program over the past decade will simply become scientifically literate adults. But just by exposing so many kids to scientific experience of mentors, giving them opportunities to learn, and helping them build relationships, some surprising things can come out the other end.

Like Charlier’s performance. Adler was beaming when it was her turn to take back the mike. “She really sounds just as wonderful as she did then, five years later,” Adler said.

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2 responses to “Generating a Human Return on Investment: Three Young Scientists Pursue Dreams”

  1. Kevin says:

    This was a wonderful experience for these you people. Ms. Matthews from Eastside provided a wonderful environment for her students to experience science first hand. As much as these students are an example of the benefits, their teachers and this program should be an example of fabulous mentorship