Go to any college admission session and ask, “What activity is most impressive that a high aspiring science or engineering student can do for college admissions?”
For those that do get an answer, the response will overwhelmingly be the same: to conduct scientific research. The prospect of conducting research as a high school student in boosting one’s chances of being admitted to a dream college has swept across the country in recent years.
This highly contagious parasite, much like Ebola, or a fad like Starbuck’s or yoga pants, first slithers quietly into circles of proud Asian parents boasting about their children’s accomplishments. At first, the virus is dormant: uneventful summers go by without any symptoms showing, but then, a sudden outbreak erupts and all hell breaks loose! Little Johnny was named a Siemens semi-finalist! The parents flock to Little Johnny’s parents: what is Siemens? How can my son also do this? Then by the same stroke of luck, Little Johnny is named an ISEF finalist! A free trip to Los Angeles!!? Why isn’t my child there?
Little Johnny, before a quiet studious stereotypical hardworking student, is now the center of attention, and the predominant force on the college admissions horizon.
In the quiet, upper-middle class epitome of suburbia in which I reside, the above hypothetical case happens all too often. It is not uncommon for volunteer lab space at local universities or hospitals to fill up in November or December, with applications being filed in September. This is for the following summer, almost half a year later. Parents now subscribe their 7th and 8th grade children to start preparing for four years of intense research, forcing them on a track that hopefully ends with a Harvard admission letter.
Admittedly, I probably did contribute to this tragedy. As a multi-year participant and award-winner in every research-based science competition available, from Siemens to Intel ISEF, Intel STS to Google Science Fair and more, I often dole out advice to younger students and their parents about my interest in neurology research. I describe in detail how ensuring axonal regeneration in ischemic rat brains can lead to better therapies, how I was inspired to do research based on my experiences volunteering at a nursing home. And at the end, as an offhand comment, I add the benefits that these competitions have brought me: incredible friends across the world, amazing experiences, and last and certainly the least, points on my resume.
But it seems that the final point always resonates the most. Suddenly, eyes shine bright and ears perk up. Disheartened, I only now realize that what I had previously been describing fell upon deaf ears. Our contemporary society is one that pushes only for results, marginalizing the more important learning process. The predominant Asian demographic I was addressing certainly exacerbated this tragedy, as such abstract philosophies as “passion” and “interest” do not exist when a parent can elevate his/her child’s chances of becoming a Crimson.
It is indeed quite distressing when parents live vicariously through their children, but even more so when local consultants are able guarantee (with 12 easy installments of $400) fat envelopes at the end of four years through a research track. They shuttle the poor kid to a “good” lab that will feed him their own results, allowing him to compete in such competitions. Later, these establish the basis for admittance to any number of selective research camps, including RSI, SSP, Simon’s, among others. Finally, with a good, packaged essay about how research “genuinely” changed his life, the student is well on his way to his Ivy League diploma pursuing his degree in finance.
And that is how we destroy the scientists of tomorrow.