Young Scientists Inspire the President and the Nation

One of the greatest privileges of serving as President of Society for Science & the Public (SSP) is the front-row seat to the impressive accomplishments of students from around the world. What these students theorize and put into practice are beyond any reasonable expectation of scientists their age; indeed, many of their projects would be impressive at any age. Presidents, Vice Presidents, and prominent members of the Administration have traditionally recognized these accomplishments by receiving selected winners of the Intel Science Talent Search at the White House. Each year, I leave as impressed with the students' poise in this interaction as I am with their scientific accomplishments.

Recently I was invited back to the White House with eight of our program alumni to the first ever White House Science Fair. There, some of the brightest minds in the country -- from scientists, to cabinet Secretaries, to the Science Supporter in Chief -- discussed projects and policy to promote the kind of learning environment that supports the success of these young scientists. There in the East Room, student scientists like Nicholas Rajen from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Courtney Jackson of Cloquet, Minnesota, were lauded for their accomplishments, just as winning sports teams have been many times in that same room.

A few select students were invited to display and discuss their projects with the President. These included Erika DeBenedictis, the winner of the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search, who developed a software navigation system to help improve spacecraft travel through the solar system. Amy Chyao, who took top honors at this year's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, engaged President Obama in a discussion about her development of a photosensitizer for photodynamic therapy (PDT), an emerging cancer treatment that uses light energy to activate a drug that kills cancer cells.

After meeting with the students, President Obama spoke of his interaction with Chyao and her dedication to solving one of society's greatest problems at such a young age, saying, "Now, if that doesn't inspire you, if that doesn't make you feel good about America and the possibilities of our young people when they apply themselves to science and math, I don't know what will."

The recognition of these student accomplishments by the President should be equally inspiring to each of us: To teachers to encourage their students to pursue independent research; to parents to engage their kids in science competitions that are a far cry from toothpicks and potatoes and baking soda volcanoes; and to the rest of us to recognize that the potential for our future could lie in the innovation of a curious student.

Which reminds me of something our immediate past chair, Dudley Herschbach (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1986) often says. Whenever he encounters colleagues who are dispirited about America's future in science, he simply advises them to go to an SSP competition to take in the amazing things our youth are capable of if given the right resources, inspiration, and motivation.

I encourage qualified scientists to do the same by volunteering in the coming months at a science fair in their community or otherwise engaging local young people in the beauty and promise of science.