Keeping a Passion for Science Alive in High School Students
When Nina Ferenc was a sophomore in high school in Virginia, she was casting about for ideas for a science fair project. She’d just read an article in Scientific American magazine about research done on regeneration by Tufts biologist Michael Levin, and decided to reach out to him to get more information.
It was, she assumed, a longshot that he would reply. After all, Levin, A92, Vannevar Bush Professor of Biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts, is a prominent and very busy scientist. He publishes and presents widely, runs a lab, and has students of his own.
“I was grinning ear to ear when I saw that he replied to my email,” she says. But Levin didn’t just reply—he quickly became Ferenc’s mentor on a project she was running using planaria, the same species of flatworm that Levin uses in his research. She ended up publishing her research with Levin in the journal Macromolecular Bioscience in 2019—pretty impressive for a high school student.
Ferenc isn’t the only young student who has found Levin generous with his time and advice. That was obvious in late May when Levin hosted an online science symposium for 10 young people he mentors, in which they presented on their research, or what they hope to do research on.
It was a great opportunity for the students to meet each other—they are scattered around the U.S. and Canada—and get some experience presenting themselves and their work, Levin says.
“The chance to meet others with shared interests was invaluable as an opportunity to see how connected the scientific world can be,” says high school student Chloe Nunn. “Not all kids have the dedication and curiosity for this type of research, because it takes up lots of time and requires persistence during the research.”
Pranjal Srivastava, who first contacted Levin when he was a junior in high school in California, spoke about a research project that Levin had suggested and guided him on, a review and meta-analysis of the existing bioelectricity scientific literature, which provided a real service to those in the field, Levin says.
“For someone working at his level, he is stupendously responsive,” says Srivastava. “I don’t understand how he does it, considering everything he does. I was amazed he did so much work with me.”
Now Srivastava is a rising junior at the University of California at Berkeley, his curiosity about math, statistics, and biology flourishing in a lab where he’s been working. Levin is “a role model for me—I hope to be a professor in the future,” he says.
The Perfect Balance of Questioning and Explaining
For his part, Levin says he’s happy to help these students. When he was young, he says, he would reach out to scientists via their publishers, letters taking a month to go back and forth in the mail. Now young people contact him directly and he promptly replies.
“They email me saying they’ve read my papers, and they have some questions,” he says. “Would I be willing to talk to them? Well, of course I’m willing to talk to them. I want to encourage them.”
He says he finds most of the students to be “brilliant and incredibly motivated.” While some have parents and teachers who support them, others are pretty much on their own, and “will go to incredible lengths to do research,” he says. “They’re just so motivated to do it. I meet with them regularly and guide them.”
Levin says some of the young students haven’t done any research yet, but they’ve read all of his papers, “and they give them a thorough combing over like no reviewer had ever done. We sit and we talk about—how come this graph looks like this? And how did you do this?” He almost, he says, could put them right to work in his lab.
Ferenc, now a rising junior at the University of Virginia, says that “after taking me under his wing, advising me through experimentation, he suggested I publish my research first in a pre-print, then peer-reviewed journal,” she says. “I was thrilled and would have never done so alone.”
Levin’s teaching style “had the perfect balance of questioning and explaining,” Ferenc says. “I am still amazed by his intense commitment to my paper with everything he had going on in his lab and around the world, giving presentations and talks. I will forever be grateful to have him as a mentor.”
Levin says his efforts bring their own rewards. “I think it’s important to encourage young scientists,” he says. “They’re just completely enchanted with science—I don’t know where the heck it comes from, but there it is. I love seeing it—it energizes me to help these kids along.”
He notes that young people often lose their early passion for science as they go through middle school and high school. “I don’t know if it’s social, if it’s peer pressure—but a lot of times, it’s like they get muted by the world, by unimaginative teachers, by their friends who don’t see the value of what they’re thinking about,” he says.
“So I’m super-motivated to help these kids maintain that enthusiasm, curiosity, and openness, until they get to the point that they can start doing their own research.” Levin adds. “They’re like sponges, soaking stuff up—and they have good ideas of their own. It’s very inspirational to me.”
Taylor McNeil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.