The latest Soapbox Science mini-series focuses on the role of mentors in science. Tying in with this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, where almost 600 young scientists have the opportunity to meet each other and 25 Nobel laureates, we’ll be looking at the importance of supportive relationships and role models. We’ll hear from a mix of mentors, mentees and projects set up to support scientists and we aim to explore not just the positive examples of good mentoring but what can happen when these key relationships are absent or break down. For more discussions around this year’s Lindau meeting, check out the Lindau Nobel Community site.
Sarah Fankhauser officially began her scientific career when she majored in biology at Georgia Tech. While at Georgia Tech, she had the opportunity to work in a microbiology lab and completed her senior thesis on the chemotaxis system of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis. After graduating with a BSc in 2007 she began her PhD. work at Harvard Medical School studying the immune response to bacterial pathogens. While at Harvard, Sarah has taught a range of students, from graduate and medical students to middle and high school students, about a variety of scientific subjects. In 2011 she founded the Journal of Emerging Investigators, a science journal dedicated to publishing the research performed by middle and high school students. Sarah is passionate about science teaching and engaging more researchers in the classroom and she plans to teach at college or high school level.
Each year thousands of students participate in school or regional science fairs. Of those thousands, only a tiny percentage of students go on to a state science fair, and even fewer compete at a national level. For students who don’t move on, what do they learn about why they are not moving forward? What happens to the research from students who do not move forward? As a past science fair participant and now a seasoned science fair judge I unfortunately know the answers to these questions. Even for students who perform exceptionally well at science fair, the feedback and critique from judges and teachers is minimal. In fact, for most of the science fairs I have judged I am simply required to give a numeric score for the students. In some ways this is necessary because there are simply too many projects to judge in a short amount of time, and providing meaningful feedback to each student just isn’t possible. Unfortunately, this means that students usually have no idea why their project is not moving onto the next level and they have little idea or thought on how to improve their research in the future. Inevitably, this leads to thousands of science fair tri-boards in the trashcan by the end of science fair season.
As a graduate student, surrounded by academics, it can be hard to look outside of my bench and identify the struggles of younger scientists. Fortunately, I am also a part of a wonderful group of fellow graduate students who truly care about mentoring younger scientists. Last year, after reading the “Blackawton Bees” article, we became inspired by the 3rd grade students who performed the research and wrote the manuscript, which was eventually published in Biology Letters. We realized that there are many students who are performing research, for example through a school science fair, but go unnoticed by the public at large or even by their own peers. More than that, these students are not receiving thorough scientific mentorship to guide them through the research process. Professional scientists share their work through publication, and they receive usually very thorough feedback through the peer-review process. Why does this not exist for younger scientists? Why do we expect younger scientists to do research as a solitary endeavor when professional scientists wouldn’t even consider doing research in such a manner?
It is with these thoughts in mind that a group of graduate students at Harvard University started the Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI for short). This is an open access science journal exclusively devoted to publishing the research performed and submitted by middle and high school students. Students who submit their work to JEI receive feedback from at least two graduate students or post-docs in the field on how to improve their research and communication of their project. Now science fair doesn’t have to be the end of a research project, but simply another step in the process. We encourage students to submit their science fair research projects, especially those students who don’t have the chance to move forward to the state or national level. At JEI we are looking for ingenuity in testing a reasonable hypothesis, not sophistication of techniques.
At JEI, we have come to realize our mission of educating students about what the scientific research and publication processes are really like. By providing students with critique on their hypothesis, methods, interpretation of results, and presentation of their data we are teaching them that the scientific process is a logical, step-by-step approach to thinking about a question and developing ideas on how to test that question. It isn’t about getting the “right” answer; in fact we welcome “negative” results because this often leads to the most thorough discussion of factors that led to those results. And what do the students think of the review process, which inevitably gives them more work to do prior to publication? From the mentor of one author: “The comments were professional and helped guide Kelly in moving her research forward. This project, including submission was a rewarding experience; she learned a lot during the research, as well as about the process while working with professional mentors. The feedback continued her exposure and education, and renewed her energy on the project.” And what about the value of actually publishing one’s work? One author, Sarah Geil, states, “I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am for this opportunity to be published. Not only did I get to share something I have come to love, the publication has given me so much: scholarships, awards, recognition in many newspapers and magazines, and a grand way to end my high school years.”
Our long-term goal at JEI is to be a resource for all students interested in science. Not only do we want to mentor students throughout the research and writing processes, but also we want to build a society of young scientists who are confident in sharing their work with their peers and the public. At JEI, we believe it takes a community to raise a scientist, and we are unwilling to wait until students are in graduate school to introduce them to that community.