Science Whiz-kids; Westinghouse Has Been After Them For 40 Years

Nina Tabachnik was just the kind of whiz kid the Westinghouse Science Talent Search has been flushing out of senior high school classes across America for 40 years.

The daughter of a physicist and mathematician, Nina grew up knowing she wanted to be a scientist. She is also an accomplished pianist, has taught herself to play half a dozen other instruments, and is fluent in French. She has written poetry in French and English, some of which has been published.

Every September the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (WSTS) reminds high school science teachers all over the nation that it's that time of year again.

Responding to this annual alert in 1972, the teacher of the biology research class at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens, N.Y., told Nina about the Westinghouse program and encouraged her to do a project she could enter in the national competition -- the oldest, largest, and most prestigious science talent competition in the nation.

She hit upon a timely, vital topic: the impact of air pollution on the earth's oxygen supply.

''I looked at the effects of aldehydes (a major component of automobile pollution) on the amount of chlorophyll in Euglena gracilis -- organisms which share characteristics of both plants and animals,'' Dr. Tabachnik says.

''Plants provide us with a large part of our oxygen. Their capacity to do so is partly dependent on their ability to make chlorophyll.''

Her research revealed that the amount of chlorophyll in the organism was severely decreased by aldehyde pollutants.

''I'm not sure whether it was a direct result of my project in particular,'' she says, ''but I am sure that as a result of many projects going on along similar lines at the time, governmental standards for car exhausts were changed. Cars are now equipped with pollution control valves, and standards for gasoline manufacture are different.''

How old was she then? Sweet 16.

Judges of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search were impressed. Out of 1, 000 applicants, they tapped her as their first-place winner.

She was the first girl to pull down the top prize. The judges say privately it was also the first time anyone had won this $10,000 scholarship without a single dissenting vote.

Since then, Dr. Tabachnik has earned a bachelor of science degree from Yale University, an MD from Cornell University, and a PhD in biochemistry from Rockefeller University in New York. At 26, she is a physician interning at Children's Hospital in Boston, intending to pursue pediatric neurology.

The Nina Tabachnik story is a classic example of what the Westinghouse Science Talent Search is all about.It is a continuing effort by a major corporation to identify, encourage, and reward future scientists among today's high school students. It is sponsored by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and the Westinghouse Educational Foundation.

In Nina's case the search did not inspire her to pursue a scientific career. She already had decided that. ''But it reinforced my interest and was a tremendous encouragement to me to continue in research,'' she says.

Here is how ''the Westinghouse'' works:

Every applicant must complete a scientific project, write a paper describing it, and get his application and scientific paper to the Science Service in Washington by midnight, Dec. 15. Science Service is a small nonprofit organization dedicated to the public's understanding of science. It has been administering the Westinghouse search since the latter began in 1942.

Two assessors, PhDs or MDs who are specialists in the fields in which the projects are conducted, evaluate each entry. Then a panel of eight judges, also PhDs or MDs, choose 300 honors winners. From that number they pick 40 national winners.

The once-in-a-lifetime highlight of the whole experience comes in the spring when the top 40 are treated to a five-day, whirlwind, red-carpet trip to Washington, where Westinghouse Science Talent Search has its headquarters.

After oral examinations on their projects, students meet government officials from the President on down and top government scientists. They stage a science fair to demonstrate their projects. And at a windup banquet, the students mingle with the nation's top scientists invited to Washington for this annual event.

The winners are announced at the banquet: one first-place winner of a $12,000 scholarship (the dollar amounts have kept pace with inflation); two winners of $ 10,000 scholarships; three winners of $7,500 scholarships; four winners of $5, 000 scholarships. No one goes home empty-handed. Each of the remaining 30 national winners receives a $500 cash award.

In addition, Dorothy Shriver, who has been program director of WSTS since it began, writes letters of recommendation to admissions directors to help the winners enter the colleges of their choice and to receive further financial aid, if needed. This assistance is often an important factor in opening college doors. One leading university's admissions director says WSTS's list of 300 honors winners ''is an institution among university administrative people.''

For many winners, the WSTS Washington summit gives them the first opportunity in their lives to meet so many other teen-agers who are as turned on by science as they are. Acquaintances often ripen into personal and professional friendships. The Washington trip has led to the marriage of two winners.

''For me,'' says Dr. Tobachnik, ''it was a tremendous opportunity just to meet some of the other people who had participated in the competition. And to discuss with older scientists some of the things I had done. They realized what it was to start out in science and encouraged all of us to continue.''

Research, she explains, is a field of ups and downs. ''There are long periods when you are either waiting for an answer to a question or trying to generate an answer that doesn't seem to come. It is very comforting and reassuring, especially when you are just starting out, to know that there are others going through the same thing.''

These personal contacts gave her a feeling of what it is like to be involved in science. Meeting women scientists working at the National Bureau of Standards reassured her that it was possible for a woman to have a career in the sciences.

Like Nina, many WSTS winners excel in music and other activities such as sports that give balance to their lives. ''All the older scientists I met had outside interests,'' she says. ''So my impressions were reinforced that it was possible to become a scientist and still take part in other activities.''

In research, she says, ''you often need something like music to relax with or to tide you over the times when things are discouraging or taking their time manifesting results.''

Dr. Tobachnik says she thinks WSTS's process of selecting winners is a fair one, especially since it mirrors what happens later on in a scientist's career. ''The way a person's work gets judged in science is that a paper is written and appears in literature. Then he may be invited to give a lecture at a conference , and that is how he is judged by his peers.''

John Scott Penberthy of Richmond, Va., a freshman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found his participation in WSTS momentarily elevating. ''I was so shocked and elated to hear I was one of the 40 national winners last year that I leaped out of my chair.''

His project was the software he designed for ''Star Ship.'' This far-out computer game permits up to nine users at terminals in different locations to play not just against the computer but against one another. He has since expanded the game to include up to 50 players.

The object of the game is not too exalting: ''Seek out and destroy as many enemies as possible without getting killed yourself.'' But the system has constructive applications. For example, many research institutions could use the principles of the game to interact not only with the same data base but also with one another, he says.

Scott says the trip to Washington was ''definitely one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.'' It's true his group got bumped by the Prime Minister of England and so missed meeting President Reagan. ''But I talked to people you just read about in books, bigwigs for sure - scientists who are doing the cutting-edge stuff in biology and other fields.''

Did WSTS influence his career choice? ''Oh yeah, by far! I thought I would just do straight computer science. Now I am looking toward using computers in a medical career - bio-engineering, highly specialized surgery.''

''Some people don't get any recognition for a long time,'' John says. ''The Westinghouse gives them a lift and says, 'You can do great stuff if you just keep with it.'

''Mrs. Shriver feels that the talent search has been ''extremely successful, '' not only in identifying outstanding students but also in ''providing the nation with more and better scientists and engineers.''

The results indicate WSTS has come of age in spotting gifted high school seniors and encouraging them in scientific careers. The Westinghouse search is harvesting crops it planted decades ago. The insight of its judges is being vindicated by the great things being done by former winners. So many winners have won Nobel prizes that Westinghouse now gives them what one recipient calls ''a thingie'' - a nice little plaque honoring WSTS winners who win Nobel prizes.

In the last 10 years, five of them have won it. Three of these Nobels have been awarded in just the last three years.

In addition, two former WSTS winners, Dr. Paul J. Cohen and Dr. David B. Mumford, have won the Fields Medal, the highest honor available to mathematicians. (There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics.)

Almost all WSTS winners become scientists. A survey of the 1,640 past prize-winners shows that all have attended or are attending college, and about 99 percent have chosen some branch of science as their major field of study. Seventy percent have received PhD degrees or become physicians -- a rate nearly 25 times the national average. A third are teaching in colleges or universities. Harvard University has the most, with 15 on its faculty. Many other winners are doing scientific work in industry.

To date Westinghouse has invested a total of $1,621,000 in its science talent search. But it does not use the search for its own benefit and doesn't use the contests to find future employees. In fact, only two or three winners have ever worked for the corporation.

Of the 12,437 honors winners, several thousand have have received scholarships and financial aid from other sources -- a direct result, WSTS believes, of their recognition in its search. Without this combined aid, it says, many of these high school seniors would not have gone to college.

Westinghouse winners come from public and private schools in all parts of the nation as well as from American schools overseas.

''Things are tough for science right now,'' says Dr. Sheldon Glashow, a WSTS winner and Harvard physics professor, ''partly because high school teaching is not what it was when I was a lad. In the '40s there were still a lot of unemployed PhDs, so many high-school teachers had doctorates. We still have some very good teachers, but not so much in science and math.'' High-paying industry jobs are luring them from the classroom.

''So it is really hard for kids to get a science education now. Sometimes they don't know they have science skills because no one has told them. What WSTS does is let them know. That is certainly great.''

Parental support is important. But the crucial factor is a science teacher who is willing to do a little paper work and to inspire and help a student to do something he might otherwise not have done. As it was in his day, says Dr. Glashow, Bronx Science High is still very keen in soliciting promising students to enter the competition. New York, where many science teachers have displayed outstanding dedication, has consistently produced by far the most winners -- 517 compared to 128 by second-place Illinois.

Dr. Tabachnik says she wonders ''whether the kinds of young people who participate in WSTS are the same kind of people anyway who would have the stamina to continue on a project long enough to have such a fruitful outcome as a Nobel prize, or whether in fact it is the science talent search itself that encouraed those people to continue.''

Dr. Roald Hoffman, a professor of chemistry at Cornell University who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year, says he is a ''little conservative in claims of success in identifying talent until I see a scientific study which shows me that the people WSTS has not selected have done worse.'' Mrs. Shriver says WSTS has never had the funds to do such a survey.

Nevertheless, he says, no other organization has ever tried to do what Westinghouse is doing and he thinks the talent search is ''all positive.''

Dr. Nancy S. Milburn, dean of Jackson College for Women and the College of Liberal Arts for Men at Tufts University, was one of the earliest girl winners of the WSTS. In 1945 when there were so few girls interested in science that quotas were set for girls to make the competition fair, she was one of the top four winners.

(For the past 15 years there has been no quota for girls. In this year's competition, 90 girls and 210 boys compose the 300 honors group, and 13 of the 40 finalists are girls.In 1980 judges deadlocked and awarded two $12,000 scholarships -- to Lisa J. Randall of New York City, a mathematician, and to John M. Andersland of East Lansing, Mich., a botanist.)

She had thought of a career in medicine, but WSTS gave her confidence that a woman could have a career in biology.WSTS also influenced her choice of Radcliffe College, where She did her undergraduate work and earned her doctoral degree in biology. On the trip to Washington, she met Richard H. Milburn, now a professor of high energy physics at Tufts.They were married two master's degrees later - hers from Tufts, his from Harvard.

Projections for the next few years are gloomy that the US will be able to meet its needs for engineers and scientists, Dean Milburn says. There are fewer advanced degrees being granted, she believes, than will be needed for the technological overhaul of American industry. So she thinks it is a good thing that Westinghouse is encouraging young people think about science as a possible career and making clearer to them what science is all about. But she feels it is unfortunate that many students are turning to computer sciences when there is such a pressing need for physicists and mathematicians.

And it troubles her that ''the rewards are not there for scientists. Scholarship funds are not nearly as easy to find as they were post-World War II and post-Sputnik. So students are turning instead in other directions. . . . The best people are going into industry, not teaching science and mathematics. WSTS puts rewards there for students interested in science.''

Dean Milburn says she wishes Westinghouse would reward not only gifted students but their science teachers - the ones who let students experiment on their own.

''It is not too hard to get people to memorize facts,'' she says. It is very difficult to get them to do hard analytical work. The best analytical work for most of us, I think, comes when we are observing phenomena at the laboratory bench rather than learning about it in a textbook.

''I see a great need there. WSTS helps the fortunate few. We certainly want that. But if it could also reward enlightened and dedicated teaching of science , then some of the middle-level students would also benefit and pursue careers in science.''

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