Science Fair

The official source for information about Google's Science Fair

Powered by Blogger.

Can you help us solve tomorrow’s problems?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Editor’s note: We’ve invited guest blogger Spencer Wells, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Director, The Genographic Project and one of our finalist judges for the Google Science Fair to talk about how he believes young people can help us solve tomorrow’s problems

Spencer Wells explains Genographic Project to participants in northern Chad. Photo by David Evans

I visit a lot of schools every year to discuss my work as a geneticist and anthropologist with students. Some of the time is spent with me telling the kids about what I’m doing – about our species recent journey from an African homeland, and how we all carry the story inside ourselves, in our DNA. Probably the most interesting part of any visit, though, is when the students give feedback through their own stories, comments and questions. And one of the questions that nearly always comes up is ‘how did you become a scientist?’
Chance, good teachers, and role models all play big roles in determining a person’s career choice. For instance, my parents took me to see the King Tutankhamun exhibit that toured the United States in the late 1970s. This chance encounter with the amazing objects on display awakened a passion for ancient history that still drives me. Similarly, my mother returning to graduate school to pursue a PhD in biology when I was ten showed me that science could be fascinating. It wasn’t simply a dusty tome of facts to be memorized, but rather, a way of learning about the world – solving puzzles on a daily basis, with Mom as an active role model. And finally, my own teachers – special shout-out to Mr. Swift, my 9th grade biology teacher, and Mr. Aiken, my high school chemistry teacher! – showed me that science could be fun. Whether it was Mr. Swift passing around a boa constrictor in class or Mr. Aiken hammering a nail with a banana that had been soaked in liquid nitrogen, they showed me that science is really fun, in addition to being fascinating.

On expedition in Chad, Spencer Wells explains the Genographic Project to local village leaders and community members. Photo by David Evans

It’s this passion that I try to convey to the students I talk with – the idea that you need to find your passions and run with them. Even if it seems esoteric (are you obsessed with butterfly wing patterns, or really want to understand why the aurora borealis lights up the arctic skies?), find that something – or things – you care passionately about, and start digging. You never know where it will lead you, or the rest of the world. For instance, my passion for history and science in high school translated into a PhD in population genetics, and ultimately into my work on Genographic. Similarly, the intricate scales that make up the patterns on a butterfly wing may provide an important insight into the development of better photovoltaic cells, while the aurora borealis may provide clues that could be used to develop alternative sources of energy. The desire to explore has to come from within you, though – asking hard questions and not being content simply to wonder, but to discover.

As young people, you have the wonderful gift of limitless possibilities – you aren’t restricted by anything other than your capacity to dream and your willingness to work hard. Adults can be very set in their ways – old dogs, new tricks and all that – but kids can approach problems with a fresh perspective that might be critical to solving an old problem. Yes, you’ll need to learn some things along the way – Einstein had to do his geometry homework just like everyone else – but keep an eye on the longer-term goal of using this knowledge to solve a problem or answer a question that gets you really excited. You may be young, but you can still dare to change the world.

Spencer Wells, Ph.D., National Geographic Explorer in Residence.