Student Triumphs Despite Socioeconomic Pressures
Eric Delgado is what those in research call an outlier — an anomaly, a deviation from the typical.
Mr. Delgado, 18, one of the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, the nation’s most prestigious high school science laurel, won his prize in a way that defied the formula. That formula may not be as unforgiving as E=MC2, but it goes something like this:
A) Attend a top-flight school with high-octane students.
B) Join a freshman program that teaches you how to do research and then perform ever more challenging experiments into the senior year.
C) Pair with scientists and adapt an unresolved sliver of their research.
A + B + C = Intel. But that’s not the path Mr. Delgado followed while investigating the mechanism that bacteria use to resist antibiotics. He did not attend Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan or any of the Long Island public schools that pop out Intel winners like clockwork. Rather he is a senior at Bayonne High School, a three-block-long fortress in a blue-collar city of 62,000 where oil refinery tanks loom over a landscape of one- and two-family clapboard houses. The median household income is $41,566. Only half the 3,000 high school students go on to four-year colleges.
“We have a history of kids who go to Ivy League schools and kids who try to stay out of prison,” was how Robert Dawson, the Bayonne School District’s director of science, tartly described the spectrum of students.
Bayonne’s research program is catch-as-catch-can, a three-year-old “science seminar” where currently only five students beguiled by science fair projects meet before school with their adviser. Any research training they receive is on an as-needed basis.
But a growing number of schools across the region, including schools in less affluent communities, have been putting extra resources into developing research programs that challenge their academic stars and, in some cases, lead to science prizes for both students and school districts.
In Westchester County, Ossining High School, which also has an economically and academically diverse student body and started an intensive research program in 1998, has produced 22 Intel semifinalists, including 6 this year.
On Long Island, schools in Dix Hills, East Setauket, Kings Park, Smithtown, Port Washington, Roslyn and Great Neck turned out 9 of the nation’s 40 Intel finalists this year. They as well as six other finalists from New York State including one from Byram Hills High School in Armonk in Westchester (Connecticut had none this year and New Jersey had just Mr. Delgado) will join Mr. Delgado at the Intel dinner on Tuesday in Washington, where scholarships of $40,000 to $100,000 will be awarded.
Here’s a look at how finalists from two schools — Bayonne High School and John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School on Long Island — went about their projects and the teachers and programs that helped them.
At Bayonne, Maria Aloia, a physical science teacher who runs the science seminar, helped Mr. Delgado secure bacteria cultures and plant extracts and arranged telephone and e-mail consultations with scientists in California, Colorado and Arkansas. But he never met those mentors face to face. He did the research on his own, working out of a storage closet at the back of a science classroom where his equipment was not much more sophisticated than a centrifuge and an incubator.
Yet Mr. Delgado, a broad-shouldered youth whose twin, Nelson, is the captain of the football team, became the first finalist Bayonne ever had in the 67-year-old Intel contest (originally known as the Westinghouse). He showed that Intel scholars can blossom in any soil if a student is ardent about investigative science.
“The talent is here, but in a suburban school it’s more obvious that it’s catered to,” said Ms. Aloia, a former chemical engineer in her fifth year of teaching. “Still, we perform miracles. Eric did his research in a closet!”
Mr. Delgado’s achievement was helped by two forces of nature — Ms. Aloia, 53, who sensed immediately that Mr. Delgado had the right stuff, and his mother, Virginia Davila, 49, the daughter of Puerto Rican migrants who raised her sons as a single office-working mother but had the determination to make sure they optimized their talents.
It was not entirely predictable that Bayonne would have spawned an Intel winner. It is the kind of school where, according to teachers, some students reject evolution for religious reasons while others opt out of dissections because they consider them cruel.
Yet Mr. Dawson and Ms. Aloia found methods of immersing talented students in research in ways that don’t cost a lot of money. Bayonne is one of 19 New Jersey high schools whose students shuttle to the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University to learn how to break up DNA and identify individual genes, using organisms like brine shrimp.
“Biology is changing from dissection to biochemistry and how things work on a molecular level,” said Mr. Dawson, who sometimes wears a tie with a picture of Einstein and his E=MC2 formula.
His school’s star science student was interested in science as a little boy, asking for a chemistry set for Christmas while other children were asking for Game Boys. Mr. Delgado remembers taking apart a computer at age 11 to see how it worked “and my mom getting mad because the pieces were all over the living room.”
His Intel project had its genesis in his eighth-grade study of how proximity to power plants diminished the diversity of tardigrades, tiny segmented organisms that live off the lichen found on trees. He and his mother drove around a good part of Hudson County using tweezers to take lichen samples.
In the summer after his sophomore year he had an internship at the Jersey City Medical Center conducting statistical studies of cases where bacteria resisted antibiotics and came across a paper on herbal antibiotics that inhibit bacterial resistance.
He asked Ms. Aloia to find him some experts, and she put Mr. Delgado on a call with a scientist at a company in Hamilton, N.J., working on bacterial resistance. Mr. Delgado peppered him with questions about lab techniques. “I loved that conversation with your student,” the scientist told Ms. Aloia.
Another scientist sent Mr. Delgado strains of genetically modified E. coli bacteria that could be safely taken to school. A third scientist in Colorado sent him a plant extract that inhibited a pumplike system in the bacteria membrane that expelled antibiotics.
“As long as the professor knows that I’m legitimately interested in what I’m doing, they’re more than ready to help,” Mr. Delgado said. “They want to contribute to the next generation of scientists.”
Mr. Delgado zeroed in on a hypothesis that the plant extract could be engineered to inhibit resistance in bacteria like E. coli that are more common in humans. Starting last August, he put in 20 to 30 hours a week on his project and demonstrated when the extract could or could not be effective.
Such focus explains why he can also be captain of the mock-trial and debating teams and work 10 hours a week as a veterinarian’s helper. (The only TV he watches is when he is running on the treadmill.) Not surprisingly he is heading for Princeton next fall on a full scholarship.
“He’s got a Type B exterior and Type A interior,” Ms. Aloia said. “He’ll look real cool on the outside and on the inside he’s got a zillion things going on.”
His mother still cannot quite take in how much a child of hers has accomplished, and her voice broke as she recalled her struggles. “I always said nothing’s impossible and whatever you want to do you can — just put your all into it,” she said.
Winning an Intel prize is nothing new at Great Neck North, which has produced 8 finalists and 39 semifinalists.
Freshmen enroll in a 14-year-old program where they learn how to search databases, apply statistics, organize scientific papers and produce compelling oral reports, then practice their skills with simple social science experiments. Around 25 students take the class, and those who stay into the sophomore and junior years perform a series of independent experiments that they submit to science fairs.
Toward the end of the student’s junior year, teachers help those interested in the Intel contest find professional mentors. Such research opportunities everywhere offer a way to cultivate scientists at young ages in the same fashion that Olympic skaters are molded at a young age by expert coaches. Six Intel/Westinghouse finalists have gone on to win Nobel prizes.
“Getting kids to play the game of science with the scientists is likely to get them interested in science professionally,” said Alan Schorn, a physics teacher and the impresario of Great Neck’s research program. “It’s like the classic guild system. A shoemaker takes on an apprentice.”
The community they live in is the famously Gatsbyesque peninsula of 40,000 on the North Shore of Long Island with gently rolling acres of Tudors and colonials and a median household income of $76,645. At Great Neck North High School, 93 percent of the 960 students earn Regents diplomas, and many are accepted to elite colleges. Graduates include the film director Francis Ford Coppola, the Olympic ice skater Sarah Hughes and David Baltimore, winner of the 1975 Nobel prize in medicine.
This year, the school’s finalists were Benjamin Mueller and David Rosengarten. Mr. Mueller, 18, worked at an M.R.I. lab at Columbia University Medical Center under the guidance of Dr. Joy Hirsch, professor of functional neuroradiology, taking the Long Island Rail Road and the subway every day during the summer to perform brain scans on five adult subjects, including his father, a musician, and his mother, a book editor. In a project partly titled, “The Neural Basis of the Decision to Reward or Punish in Parenting,” he tried seeing what regions of the brain were fired up by rewards or punishments for deeds like scoring a straight-A report card or getting caught stealing. He discovered that a parent’s decision to reward more often uses neurocircuits associated with emotion while decisions to punish require more cognition and calculation.
Mr. Rosengarten’s project in astrophysics, “Rotation Curves in Five Dimensions,” investigated the motion of stars within galaxies and the influence of matter not visible to the eye — so-called dark matter. Mr. Rosengarten, 17, the son of an accountant and an elementary schoolteacher, was doing long division in first grade, algebra by sixth grade and Advanced Placement calculus and physics by ninth grade. He developed his project in a conversation with a professor of theoretical physics at Stony Brook University, Martin Rocek.
Like so many Intel finalists, both students do many things well. Mr. Mueller, a sturdy 6-footer, is captain of the basketball and soccer teams. Mr. Rosengarten is captain of the chess and math teams and plays cello in the orchestra.
Their full-blown induction in science began as freshmen in the school’s research program. The other day, a freshman, Alex Schifter, 14, was testing his hypothesis that up-tempo music gets people to work harder while a more indolent beat slows them down. He has cajoled 25 classmates to put on a sensor that measures force while music like the theme from the film “Rocky” is played. In another project, Maria Angelidis, 14, was testing 46 students to show that there are differences between boys and girls in the associations they make to color.
“Boys might associate red with anger and girls might associate it with love,” she said.
Of course, Intels are a hopeful marker of how well science is taught in American schools. By contrast, frequent studies bemoan the state of science instruction, mostly by contrasting American students with those in European and Asian countries. But experts say the issue is complicated. European schools often funnel their weakest students into vocational tracks. At the highest levels and for the most affluent or striving, many experts say, American schools do well, explaining why the nation clings to its stature as the world’s great science research powerhouse.
“More and more there’s a separation between the well-educated and the not well-educated,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Too many schools — particularly in poor or rustic areas — give short shrift to science instruction, resulting in widespread ignorance of basic principles, he and other experts said. Jo Ellen Roseman, director of an American Association for the Advancement of Science project to improve science literacy, said fewer than 25 percent of middle-school students recognize that a burning marshmallow is a chemical reaction.
Some critics hold responsible what they see as the current emphasis on “critical thinking” at the expense of basic scientific knowledge; others blame innovations like the No Child Left Behind law that focus on reading and math to the detriment of subjects like science.
Locally, New Jersey and Connecticut finished roughly 21st and 23rd among the 44 states that took the National Assessment of Educational Progress science test in 2005. Only 29 percent of eighth graders in both states scored in the proficient ranks and 4 percent in the advanced ranks. (New York State, with the exception of the five boroughs, did not participate.)
Whether it is in Great Neck or Bayonne, front-page news about Intel winners serves a useful purpose in both places: it draws new acolytes.
“It’s making science popular,” Ms. Aloia said. “The school is so big a lot of students never realized there was a cool science program they could join. Now a lot of kids are asking me, ‘Can I try a science project?’”