Student researchers hold the key to many important innovations, proving that you don’t need a doctorate or a professional laboratory to contribute to
"Well, the sky just, like, hugs the plane and picks it up and it goes in the air and that's how it flies. Like a spaceship," said one particularly precocious first-grader, waving his hand in the air so vigorously that he almost fell out of his chair.
Suddenly, 15 other hands shot up, the owner of each desperate to share his or her personal explanation of how a plane flies. The enthusiasm in the room was palpable—surprising considering that the kids had already endured a long school day.
I'm currently a senior at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and each Thursday, I head to a nearby elementary school to assist with Science Explorers, an after school science program. That week, we were making paper airplanes out of different materials to see which could fly the farthest. The week before, the room was filled with both literal and figurative light bulbs going off as we built parallel and series circuits. After getting especially excited about separating salt and pepper using a static balloon with a couple of fourth-graders, I realized that in terms of science, I am still very much the same 5-year-old explorer I used to be, reveling in the motion of anthills, strange plant specimens, and tide pool creatures.
I had always viewed my experience with science as entirely progressive. The more classes I took and textbook definitions I remembered, the more I would understand about the world around me.
And then, I realized that my path was not quite so simple.
Last summer, I headed to Texas Tech University for seven weeks of independent research through the Clark Scholars program. Knowing my interest in environmental research, my mentor, Dr. Michael San Francisco, suggested that I design a water-purification device out of household items that would be more effective than anything currently on the market.
After reading about engineering marvels like LifeStraw and the Life Bottle, my first thought was, I am a 17-year-old with no experience—you must be joking.
As I continued to read, I learned about the seeds of the Moringa oleifera tree, which has been previously studied as a coagulant for water purification. Essentially, a protein in the seed causes all the particles in dirty water to clump together, making them easier to filter out. Inspiration had taken root. I decided to work toward creating a filter out of household items built around the seeds.
The field of water purification has been mainly focused on technological advancement: creating fancy new filters and manufacturing brilliantly engineered devices. But, in my opinion, this impressive technology will never make potable water a reality for the people who need it most: those living in impoverished regions without access to such sophisticated resources. So, I took a step in the opposite direction. In tests, my prototype lowered the levels of toxic E. coli bacteria in water by as much as 99 percent. This new filter may one day allow those in impoverished areas to clean their own drinking water using readily available materials.
My research, which led me to become a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search is all about moving backward—using what we already have to achieve what we want to achieve. I think a similar mentality can be applied to the entire research field. There's a certain brilliance in the way kids approach scientific problems that often gets lost before adulthood, buried under years of textbook learning and terminology. Students who aren't even old enough to drive are already making scientific discoveries that rival those of professionals.
Jack Andraka's pancreatic cancer test is 168 times faster and 26,000 times less expensive than what is currently available. Also, he's only 16-years-old.
Amy O'Toole co-authored a paper on bumblebees' ability to learn different spatial configurations of color that was published in the prestigious Royal Society journal Biology Letters. O'Toole was 10-years-old at the time. Her co-authors? Her primary school classmates.
Yet all too often, I talk to fellow students about research and hear a stream of self-deprecation. "I don't have access to the right resources to do research." "I have no idea what to do." "I'm not smart enough."
None of that is true! Student researchers hold the key to many important innovations, proving that you don’t need a doctorate or a professional laboratory to contribute to science. All you need is an idea and an imagination—both overwhelmingly abundant in kids and young adults.
Those first-graders' description of the sky "hugging" the plane may not be the textbook definition of lift, but to me, it makes perfect sense. So, if you have an interest in science or a crazy new idea, pursue it! Design experiments, read papers, email professors, create makeshift basement laboratories (with parental permission, of course!), talk to teachers, spend time just thinking, and explore what you love. Don't let your doubts and fears and false sense of inadequacy get in the way—you have all the tools you need to change the world, embrace it!
Meghan Shea is a finalist in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search, the nation’s most prestigious high school science research competition.
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