by Philip Ellis on Thu, 7 Feb, 2013
When we think of scientists, most of us picture professionals working in labs or in university settings. But how did these people get to become scientists? They were born into the world like everyone else and could have selected from a myriad different career paths. The evidence does not suggest that scientists necessarily have children who become scientists. Thus the reality is that “new” scientists come from the general public fortuitously, and this reality is often unappreciated.
Many researchers and institutions devoted to motivating the next generation, including for example, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a national non-profit concerned with supporting “profoundly gifted students”, stress the importance of exposing youngsters to the latest scientific thoughts and discoveries through the internet and other sources. The public availability of current, up-to-date scientific and technical information is essential in this regard and the benefits of its availability are tremendous.
For example, a few months ago, Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old high school freshman from Maryland developed a break-through dip-stick test to check for pancreatic cancer which has been shown to be incredibly effective (400 times more sensitive than previous tests), 90% accurate and extremely cheap ($0.03 per test). See the article detailing his discovery. Jack indicated in an interview with the BBC news service that the idea for his pancreatic cancer test came to him while he was in biology class during a lesson on antibodies and while he was independently reading an article on carbon nanotubes, a subject he was interested in at the time. He followed up with more research on nanotubes and cancer biochemistry by using free, open-access, online scientific journals.
The resulting revolutionary test he discovered, which had eluded the medical establishment to date, admittedly came from a very unlikely source. And yet, not having critical information in the public domain would have precluded this and countless other success stories. In fact, “establishment” scientists overwhelmingly rejected Jack. He was turned down by 200 professors at universities and NIH before being given lab space at Johns Hopkins University where he made his breakthrough discovery. His tenacity, supported by research in the public domain proved invaluable.
“New” scientists—and especially those that come to a scientific discipline from new perspectives, like young students, are also sources of “out-of-the-box” thinking and can often provide new perspectives on age-old problems. These “new” scientists, though, are outside the establishment, and they rely on publicly available scientific and technical information to bolster their interest and eventually, take them on a science career path. Just as science advances only if knowledge is shared, young minds are shaped only if knowledge is shared. OSTI’s mission includes making research and development findings available and useful to everyone, including young people like Jack Andraka.
OSTI, in its mission to accelerate and enhance the flow of scientific and technical information, applauds Jack and the many other “new” scientists like him as they embark on their scientific careers and wishes them success as they strive to advance science and technology.