Friday, April 10, 2015

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

One question we often hear about high school kids pursuing advanced studies such as laboratory research is whether they may be specializing too early - or responding to external pressures to find a particular “PASSION” that will help them stand out in the eyes of college admissions officers. While these are valid concerns, and ones that must be answered case by case for the sake of our kids’ emotional safety, I’m happy to report that my experiences working with students in the lab paint an overwhelmingly different picture. I see student interest fueling the acquisition of practical skills - skills that, when developed in a timely manner, are most instrumental in helping students find durable happiness and success as adults.

Take Josh. He is, by all accounts, an extraordinary teenager. Already admitted to several colleges, he is continuing to spend his afternoons in the lab, where he is finishing up work on a yearlong biology project. His study, an examination of the molecular cues regulating the production of osteoclasts (bone resorbing cells), stems from his interest in bone density and potential therapies for managing osteoporosis. After forming a collaboration with a lab in Boston that helped him acquire appropriate cells and protocols for his study, and also invited him to visit on a few occasions to discuss his data and help troubleshoot his experimental design, Josh is now thinking of ways he might apply his long-time love of physics to answering biological problems for a living!

While Josh may be an extraordinary boy, the skills he is learning are quite “ordinary” as far as real work goes (you know, the kind the work that goes into holding down a job). Josh and his classmates are learning executive skills that are absolutely necessary for becoming productive and efficient adults. We all know that some of these skills are learned earlier than others, and putting off this important developmental growth can really get in the way of our students' overall happiness and success in adulthood, regardless of how intellectually gifted they may be.

In an age where access to information is virtually automatic, our kids need to learn how to get down to brass tacks - to begin and, most importantly, to complete inquiries with fearlessness, organization, precision and heart. Many of our student researchers go on to pursue majors and, ultimately, careers in biomedicine or biotechnology, but a fair number of them do not. I would argue quite strongly that the executive skills they hone while carrying out their own research projects are fully transferable to any new field of study, be that economics, law, journalism or art.

Guided research costs time and money…but not as much as you might think! A lot of companies have offered us tremendous discounts - up to 80% off antibodies – THANK YOU SANTA CRUZ BIOTECHNOLOGY!!! And most of our students are working in collaboration, to some degree, with professional scientists who help support the work they carry out here on campus. The gains are well worth the investment, when one considers the type of learning that goes on and the myriad applications for the skills theses kids are sharpening in the lab. Stay tuned for my post on resume camp, a workshop we run just prior to that, over the years, has been particularly popular with parents(!) 

I love this photo! Not staged, rather I found this collage of interests all around Josh and asked whether I could capture the moment...

It was an “ordinary” Friday afternoon in the lab. Josh returned after his last class, astrophysics book in one hand and carrying a mysterious stack of sheet music in the other. He left both on his bench to pick up where he left off with his experiment. Passaging his cultures so they would be settled for the weekend, and adding reagents to some cells he plated the day before, Josh was focused, paying close attention to his sterile technique and cleaning up as he went along. During incubations, he maximized his time by reviewing a concerto he'll play in an upcoming performance. All year, he has needed to consider the timeframe of his experimental protocols, along with his course schedule, music rehearsals and weekend plans with friends to make steady progress on his project. Eight months into his work, he is strategizing his time like a professional scientist and becoming ever more nimble when things don’t go exactly to plan. I’d say he’s ready for the world…and any new passion that takes hold!

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