Science Transcends the Lab -- and the Silver Screen

As was well chronicled in The New York Times yesterday, Natalie Portman, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress on Sunday for her work in The Black Swan, is an alumna of the Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), a program of Society for Science & the Public (SSP). This year’s Intel STS winners will be announced on March 15; it must be thrilling for the 40 Finalists for 2011 to witness one of their own -- Ms. Portman was a Semifinalist in the program in 1999 for her project on a “Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen From Sugar” -- achieve such remarkable success.

For eight decades, SSP science education programs -- the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the Intel Science Talent Search (formerly the Westinghouse Science Talent Search), and the new Broadcom MASTERS -- have inspired generations of science enthusiasts. Ms. Portman is certainly not the first of our alumni, now some 80,000 strong, to earn public acclaim for her work. SSP alumni have garnered Nobel Prizes, MacArthur “Genius Grants”, Lasker Awards, Fields Medals, and much other distinguished scientific recognition.

While it may seem on the surface that Portman’s Academy Award is out of place with these scientific accolades, or perhaps that her Oscar is incongruous with her background in scientific inquiry and study, there are many interesting connections between Hollywood and the science world. Other well-known SSP alumni who have focused their analytical natures on challenges outside of the lab and behind or in front of the camera include Brian De Palma, the director of Scarface, Carlito's Way, and other remarkable films, who was a Finalist at the National Science Fair (now the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair) in 1957; Homer Hickam, who brought his rocket to the Fair in 1960, also reached the big screen when his book Rocket Boys was made into the film October Sky.

Moreover, beyond the celebrity of filmmaking, a foundation of science provides solid grounding for whatever field a creative person (and scientists are nothing if not creative) may choose. Young scientists bring with them the discipline, rigor, and determination so often common to successful people across industries and careers. Illustrating this are other distinguished SSP alumni including Mary Sue Coleman, the President of the University of Michigan; Scott McGregor, the Fortune 500 CEO; Tom Leighton, cofounder of Akamai Technologies; and Randall Crowder, the former Dallas Cowboy wide receiver.

How will the lives of this year’s Intel STS 2011 Finalists unfold? I invite you to learn more about them as they compete for a top prize of $100,000 -- and perhaps launch themselves toward their own Nobel or Oscar.  


To get involved: Attend the Intel STS Public day in Washington, DC on March 13 or the Intel ISEF Public Day in Los Angeles, CA on May 12 or find your local fair for the opportunity to support younger students competing at science fairs.