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Such early experiences can be pivotal. My father—who might
be described as a physicist trapped in a physician's career—injected
science and a scientific point of view into virtually every family
activity. At the age of 9, I was focused on minerals and fossils, and by
the time I hit junior high, I was knocking on doors of geology professors at the University of Iowa asking questions about crystal structures
and meteorites. Happily, they opened their doors.
And that brings me to the Ronald H. Brown Middle School
students in Washington, D.C., who participate in an HHMI-funded
program at Georgetown University called the Institute for College
Preparation. These motivated students spend six years of weekends
and summers taking classes in math, science, language, and other
subjects. Leaders Tom Bullock and Charlene Brown-McKenzie
provide a family atmosphere—and as a healthy dose of fun—but they
have a serious goal in mind: college, perhaps graduate school.
Since the mid-1990s, three groups of students have stuck with it,
graduated from high school, and gone on to college—101 students,
to be precise. In an area where nearly 30 percent of adults lack a high
school diploma, that's a signal achievement. But what's even more
compelling about the Georgetown program—which will now expand,
thanks to a major gift—is that it enables students to find their voices.
Listen to LaToya Walker, a college math major who completed the
program in 2005: "I'm good at math. I kind of always knew what
I wanted to be. But Mr. Bullock and Dr. Fleming [a Georgetown
instructor] helped me realize that I wanted to be it more." If Walker
succeeds in becoming a math teacher, as she hopes, chances are she
will do the same for her own students.
That experience—of loving a subject and wanting to spend your
time thinking about it—connects LaToya Walker with a scientist she
may never meet, Charles Shank. A veteran of the fabled Bell Labs
and former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,
Shank is now a senior fellow at the Janelia Farm Research Campus,
where new challenges overlapping neuroscience and applied physics
have him feeling like an eager graduate student.
Those are the connections—real and metaphorical, intellectual
and experimental—that HHMI seeks to create and nurture. It's the
serious fun of enabling great teaching and great science.