From: Rohit Khare (Rohit@KnowNow.com)
Date: Sun Jun 04 2000 - 23:40:10 PDT
[2-1 F/M ratio, & cute covers too :-) Seriously, a nice piece to see
in the NYT, but a little too earnest to include every name, every
teacher, every school, and I got buried under the details to try
perceiving what's really going on.. RK]
The Smart Set
At Midwood High School in Brooklyn, the science geeks are a new kind
of elite, bound for real-world fame and fortune. By STEPHEN S. HALL
Photographs by MISS LIZ WENDELBO
On a wet, blustery April morning, mist blowing sideways across the
docks marking the lower end of Union Street on the Brooklyn
waterfront, 17-year-old Alice Warren-Gregory races down the steps
from her family's third-floor apartment a little after 5:30 a.m.
Clutching a calculator and a copy of "The Great Gatsby," she hurries
up the block in the predawn darkness to catch a waiting B71 bus. As
we step on board, the driver says, "Good morning, Alice," and closes
"I got four hours of sleep the night before, and I went to bed at 1
a.m. last night," Alice says grumpily, settling into a seat and
opening her book. We have barely gone a block, and she is already
fretting about how far behind she is. "I was supposed to write my
essay on 'Song of Solomon' for English, but I didn't get to it," she
says. "I had to do my laundry." The topics of this early-morning
conversation -- laundry, homework, her guitar lessons, the boring
party in Manhattan over the weekend -- form little tiles in the
typical mosaic of teenage ennui.
But as the empty bus lumbers down into the Gowanus flats and up
toward Prospect Park, strange words and phrases begin tumbling from
Alice's lips. "Synaptic plasticity." "Hippocampus." "Long-term
potentiation." She isn't talking about things she has learned from a
textbook; she is talking about the stuff and ideas of contemporary
brain research, things she'll be working with later that same day.
Indeed, she is talking about a science project she is pursuing after
school under the guidance of Constantine Pavlides, who happens to be
a world-class neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York
and a leading researcher on the role of stress in the neurophysiology
of memory and learning.
The Pavlides lab, she says, has been pursuing a theory suggesting
that animals -- presumably including humans -- convert the things
they learn during their waking hours into long-term memory during the
period of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement, or REM sleep,
which also happens to be the peak period for dreaming. It is on the
leading edge of modern scientific research, and Alice, who just took
her College Boards and still doesn't know where she wants to go to
college, spends part of every school day living on that edge. "If you
deprive animals of REM sleep, they have lots of trouble, like with
spatial relationships," Alice explains. "Kind of like me," she adds
with a laugh. "Dr. Pavlides was explaining this to me, and I'm, like,
yeah, two things I know a lot about -- stress and lack of sleep."
Stephen S. Hall is a contributing writer for the magazine. His most
recent article was about embryo research.
Alice's typical 18-hour school day begins before 6 a.m. As a junior
at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, she attends one of the most
overcrowded, antiquated, ethnically diverse and, in terms of science
education, unusually successful schools in New York City's public
school system. She is one of approximately 60 students in the class
of 2001 known informally as "Intel kids" -- gifted students who
literally sign a contract promising to devote several precious years
of their teenage lives, weekends and summers usually included, to
conducting original independent research and competing in a series of
local and national science competitions, culminating in the
prestigious Science Talent Search sponsored each year by the Intel
Corporation (formerly by Westinghouse). Since 1990, Midwood High
School has produced 112 semifinalists, one of the best records in the
A generation ago the kind of students who entered science fairs were
considered nerds -- preternaturally bright kids whose ardent
intellects, moire-patterned wardrobes and clueless social instincts
put them outside the adolescent mainstream. Geeks still roam the
halls of American high schools -- and of Midwood, for that matter --
but many of Midwood's Intel kids move comfortably in the newly
respectable mainstream, where being scientifically astute has a
certain cachet. They inhabit an area of cultural endeavor that --
coming a quarter-century after the birth of biotechnology and
personal computers and, yes, the rise of Nasdaq -- is now seen not
only as intellectually precocious but also, suddenly, improbably, as
positioned in a fast lane pointed toward wealth, creature comforts
and the freedom to choose what to make of one's life.
At a place like Midwood, which draws on a less elite population than
city schools with admission exams, like the traditional powerhouses
Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science, the Intel contest
provides the flame that heats a new, high-tech version of the melting
pot myth. Many of the students competing for next year's prizes lived
just a few years ago in places like Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Vietnam and
Bangladesh, and English is often a second language. Many come from
households with difficult financial or familial circumstances. Like a
test-tube version of the teenage strivers immortalized in the movie
"Fame," they see the science-fair competitions as a path to attention
and acclaim, to scholarship money and a better college education and,
ultimately, to a better life. For many students, merely doing the
research and producing a paper is a transforming experience.
But it comes at tremendous sacrifice. "Everyone who has worked in my
lab has gone to Harvard, Yale, Brown, all Ivy League schools," Alice
says. "I really feel a pressure to perform." That pressure often
chases an otherwise lovely smile from Alice's face; in more relaxed
moments she can be sassy, irreverent, insightful and unusually
self-aware, but like many Intel kids, she has her eyes firmly latched
on the prize. "I think it's really good to have something like Intel,
because it gives you focus," she says. "I think some people in high
school lose sight, and then they get to their senior year and find
that they've gotten caught up in trivial things. Right now is a
really good time to work hard at something."
With her 18-hour school days, two things Alice knows a lot about are
"stress and lack of sleep."
In these days of standards-based education, the Intel competition
functions as a kind of ex officio nationwide Regents test for the
best and the brightest. It is often referred to -- in Intel news
releases, certainly -- as "the Nobel Prize of high school students,"
and kids who reach the finals and semifinals get lots of attention.
What rarely gets described is the gestalt of life as a burgeoning
adolescent intellect -- the incredibly long days, the hard and heady
work, the inevitable shedding of many quotidian pleasures of teenage
life (dating, participating in sports, listening to or making music)
in order to conduct advanced lab research. As Alice puts it: "There
are people in the Intel program at school who have social lives. I
just don't happen to be one of them."
After leaving the subway and stopping for a bagel with cream cheese
("This is probably the last thing I'll have to eat until 7 o'clock
tonight"), Alice walks briskly to Brooklyn College, where Midwood
students attend some of their college-level advanced-placement
classes. The first to arrive, she sits on the floor of a long, empty
corridor interrupted only by a succession of cranberry-colored steel
doors, all locked. "My mom is really concerned about my health,"
Alice says at one point. "She thinks I have an eating disorder. But I
just don't have time to eat, that's the problem."
Unexpectedly, a little fear creeps into her voice. Her mother, she
continues, recently announced her desire to leave New York -- the
sooner she could move, the better. Alice interprets this development
as a potentially devastating disruption of all her dreams -- of
staying at Midwood, of completing her Intel project, of getting into
a top-drawer East Coast college. "I just want to finish up at
Midwood," she says, swallowing hard, staring straight ahead. "But as
it stands now, I really have no place to go." Shortly after sunrise,
she is deep into the day's first crisis.
At 7 a.m., the chemistry teacher, Alan Finkelstein, arrives and
unlocks the classroom door, and Alice, along with 30 or so other
sleepy-eyed students, files into the room. Finkelstein wordlessly
begins to write a problem on the board. "The electrolysis of an
aqueous solution of potassium iodide results in the formation of
hydrogen gas at the cathode and. . . . " Like everyone else, Alice
gets out her calculator and begins solving what, for her, is a far
more tractable kind of problem.
'The Scientific 'Hood'
t has always been hard to be a high school intellectual. my 1967 high
school yearbook contains a photograph of the Science Seminar club.
Eight students, all boys. No one is smiling. It would be easy to make
fun of the horn-rimmed glasses and bold plaid shirts, but what is
most striking to me is the body language: the tense, tight-lipped
posture of defensiveness, as if being smart, clever and
intellectually adventurous singled you out for ridicule. The damning
adjective for any teenager from that era was "mature." That was code
for smart, responsible and virtually incapable of the puerile,
thrill-seeking, predatory, reckless and authority-defying behavior so
essential to adolescent self-esteem.
I wasn't in that picture, but only because the brainiacs at my
suburban Chicago high school left me in the dust. I don't believe the
word "geek" had entered the lexicon then, but the sense of the word
surely had: kids gifted in science and math inhabited a rarefied
universe, where everything intellectual was easy and everything
social was hard. Or so it seemed. In reality, I have come around to
the view that science institutionalizes the need to challenge your
strongest convictions with rigorous thought, which is one reason it
constantly chases the New and is now, arguably, a much more
interesting avant-garde than, say, art. And there comes a moment,
sooner or later, when we all admire its creativity and yearn for its
interventions. One of the "kids" in that photograph, Douglas Brash,
is now a professor at Yale who has played a leading role in
explaining why we risk developing cancer when we sunbathe --
molecular explanations that may lead to molecular interventions and
treatments for the growing epidemic of skin cancer.
Where once it was assumed that they would 'do well' in the
traditional academic sense, the new economy has made clear that they
will most likely do well - fabulously well, in some cases - in the
financial sense, too.
While geekdom has not totally been erased from the culture of high
school science, the difference at Midwood is immediately apparent. In
Alice's junior research class, taught by Stanley Shapiro, an
enthusiastic, joke-spewing instructor who has a Ph.D. in chemistry
and coordinates the science research program at Midwood, girls
outnumber boys by almost 2 to 1, as they do in the entire program.
And plastic shirt-pocket pen protectors don't live here anymore.
Maria Bouzas, a junior, stands in front of the class describing her
research project; she is wearing baggy blue pants, a loose gray
sweatshirt and a light green kerchief around her streaked hair and
sports a stainless-steel diamond-shaped stud through her lower lip.
After describing the molecular biology of diabetes, and some
particularly grisly techniques she has learned in a laboratory at
Brooklyn College, someone in the class asked, "You did that?"
Maria suddenly brightened. "Yeah, man," she gushed. "I broke my way
into the scientific 'hood!" (I later learned that she also rides dirt
bikes on the weekend and subscribes to a motocross magazine.)
Everyone at Midwood seems to have a story. Alice, for example, lives
in an apartment in Carroll Gardens with her mother and younger
sister. Her mother works as a massage therapist at a Y.M.C.A. in
Manhattan; she has hired a baby sitter so that Alice can do her
after-school research at Rockefeller until 7 p.m. and not have to
pick up her 7-year-old sister, Karyn, after school. To pay for the
sitter, she has to work longer hours, which means she rarely sees
Alice during the school week. "I'm usually in bed before she gets
home," Alice said. Alice often leaves for school before her mother
I noticed that Alice mentioned her mother a lot, but her father not
at all. "He's not a factor," she said in a strenuously neutral voice.
She had written a poem about him, she told me, that appeared in
Patterns, Midwood's literary magazine; it describes a daughter going
to visit her father after he has undergone drug rehabilitation.
"Three weeks was long enough," it reads, "For him to see/how slowly
he was killing me/How waiting to find your father strung out/over
cold, white, bathroom tile/was enough to rip your soul to shreds."
Alice has a grade-point average of 97.1 and recently totalled 1490 on
her College Boards.
As Jay Touger, one of three research advisers at the school, put it,
"You never know, looking at these kids, what life has done for them,
or to them." Ananya Das's family, which belonged to the Hindu
minority living in Moslem-dominated Bangladesh, fled the country in
1994 after increasing incidents of religious violence, including the
kidnapping and rape of young Hindu girls; she is studying perception
and the visual system at a lab at Brooklyn College. Mong Thi Le, who
goes by the name Meagan, is a quietly brilliant 17-year-old who
emigrated with her family from Saigon in 1996 and now has a
grade-point average of 96.23. Anti-Semitism forced the family of
Marianna Shnayderman, one of a large contingent of Russian emigres at
the school, to leave Kiev in 1991; in addition to having been an
Intel semifinalist, she will be Midwood's valedictorian at graduation
ceremonies this month. Eugene Simuni, another Russian, came to the
United States less than three years ago, yet finished higher than any
other New York City student in this year's Intel contest. His
classmate Emmanuelle St. Jean, the daughter of Haitian immigrants,
was the only African-American among the Top 40 Intel finalists.
Shapiro likes to tell the story about the time one former student
needed to supply a Social Security number to fill out a science-fair
application, which is how it was discovered that she was,
technically, an illegal alien.
'A Lot of People, Like, Don't Even Know That I'm Smart'
idwood may be an especially comfortable place to be smart. It's
competitive -- everyone seems to know everyone else's grade-point
average, down to the hundredth place, and students can have a 90
average and still rank 200th in their class. But many of the Intel
students glide in and out of their elite subculture without passports
"I don't think of myself as being smart -- I think of myself as being
normal," says Emmanuelle, who chose Barnard over Harvard for college.
Diana Murakhovskaya, a senior who is also editor of the school's
science magazine, Prism, says: "I don't see myself as a geek. I have
my smart friends. I have my museum friends. I have friends I go to
clubs with on the weekend. A lot of people, like, don't even know
that I'm smart."
Emmanuelle and Eugene were Midwood's two finalists in this year's
With its six Ionic columns and its Georgian cupola, the architecture
of Midwood High School makes an outdated argument for a traditional,
even classical, education in a neighborhood, and world, that has
changed around it. The school was built to accommodate 2,800
students, mostly from the Irish, Italian and Jewish families that
used to live nearby, but now nearly 4,000 crowd its hallways. In
addition to its two gifted programs, for medical science and for the
humanities, it is also the zoned high school for Midwood and
surrounding neighborhoods, with their predominantly minority
populations; the school is just over 40 percent African-American, 31
percent white, 19 percent Asian and 9 percent Hispanic, although the
research program is much less heterogenous.
In many respects, Midwood is as up to date as any high school in the
nation. Students affect a hip urban nomad look, lugging enormous
backpacks, athletic bags, coats and lacrosse sticks from room to
room. (No one is allowed to use the lockers anymore because thefts
became so rampant.) The Intel students typically avoid the crowded
cafeteria and eat lunch in class (everything from takeout barbecue to
mocha Frappuccinos). They can get credit for phys ed by taking the
"cheese bus" (the classic yellow schoolbus) to a bowling alley or
billiards parlor. And the school newspaper recently ran an article
entitled "Should Cross-Dressing Be Allowed at the Prom?"
But time has stood still at Midwood in the worst possible way: its
physical plant is a running joke among students and teachers. When I
marveled at the beautiful 1940's-era glass-paneled cabinetry in some
of the science labs, the principal, Lewis Frohlich, barked: "I don't
need museum pieces. I need modern equipment and facilities." (He is
about to get his wish: after nearly six years of bureaucratic and
community delays, Midwood hopes to begin construction on a $22
million state-of-the-art science annex across Bedford Avenue from the
school in the fall of 2001.)
And yet Midwood's shabby facilities also prove the point that
dedicated teachers mean more than modern equipment. Midwood's two
Intel finalists this year worked under Touger's tutelage. Ann
Nicastri, who was a Westinghouse semifinalist in the 1950's, guides
research students in biology. When you ask students why Midwood has
been so successful in recent Intel competitions, they invariably
mention the close and informal rapport with their teachers, and after
watching their interaction over several months, I realized that in
order to push students to their limits, and perhaps a little beyond,
you need to know them very well. Recently, for example, when Alice
began to feel a little overwhelmed, she went in to see Shapiro and
"yenta," as he put it, about all the stress she felt in her life --
how she was burning the candle at both ends, working too hard, tired
all the time. "My reaction was, 'Good,"' Shapiro told me later.
"That's what I like to see in my students."
"We ask the kids to do the impossible," Touger said. "We ask them to
do the equivalent of a master's thesis or a graduate thesis on a
topic they know nothing about at first, and to do it in one year. And
they do it. Year after year, they do it."
he first time I encountered Alice, she had come into room 256 --
technically a prep room for the physical science teachers, but in
practice a kind of clubroom for Midwood's teenage intelligentsia --
with an excuse. Her English teacher had lost the only (handwritten)
copy of the essay she had done on "Scientific Attitude," one of five
essays that form part of the Intel contest application. Shapiro
looked at her skeptically -- as much, it seemed, because she
preferred writing in longhand to using a computer. They bantered back
and forth, and somehow the discussion turned to the way that kids,
even in rural areas, can become interested in science. Shapiro
mentioned the movie "October Sky," about young rocket enthusiasts
growing up in West Virginia. Alice, whose attitude can fairly be said
to lean toward the humorously unsentimental, made a ribald remark
about the recreational practices of teenage boys in rural America. In
my day the comment might have earned a suspension, or at least a
lecture. Here, everyone laughed.
'Miss Nicastri was apologizing to me. She was saying, "I'm so sorry,
you should have won, I'm so sorry." And I'm saying: 'Miss Nicastri,
it's not your fault. It's O.K., it's O.K.'"
Room 256, in other words, is the place where the traditional
boundaries of authority and deference between students and teachers
break down. The atmosphere of adult collegiality in turn creates an
environment of adult expectation. Room 256 has high ceilings, high
windows and an unbelievable amount of clutter, including half a dozen
models of the solar system, quaintly obsolete electrical devices, the
odd box of rocks, bottles of chemicals with yellowing labels, one
computer for a dozen teachers and a ceiling fan that, upon closer
inspection, is a floor fan lashed to the ceiling.
On any given morning around 8:30, several seniors invariably gather
in the room around a 12-foot worktable. The conversation veers into
molecular biology or computer models of traffic flow, then just as
quickly back to plans for the prom. Diana, who is a dark-haired
18-year-old born in Odessa and an Intel semifinalist this year, goes
clubbing on the weekend with Marianna, the class valedictorian, and
other girls from Midwood. But she can tell you more than you could
possibly want to know about the reactivity of ATP synthase molecules
on the surface of cancer cells. She plans to get an engineering
degree from Cooper Union. "I probably want to start my own business,"
she said. "Or belong to a corporation -- like, be the boss of it."
Ross Krupnik, 17, a genial and thoughtful student who lives in
Sheepshead Bay, also did some original research on ATP synthase. "We
have, like, clashing results," he admitted, nodding toward Diana.
"Yeah," she replied, "but mine are being published."
Steven Beigelmacher, 18, spent one morning lecturing the others on
his empirically derived technique for pouring hot coffee into a thin
plastic cup without its melting; a computer jock, he will spend the
summer calculating pensions for retired city firemen before attending
Carnegie-Mellon University in the fall.
They don't, however, spend all their time reciting equations. One
day, Diana announced that having finally turned 18, she had made a
long-anticipated appointment to go sky diving this month. Someone
asked if she liked para-sailing; she shook her head and said it was
too boring. Instead of going to the prom, she and some friends have
rented a limo and plan to go to dinner and clubbing before catching a
bus to Ocean City, N.J., for a day of jet skiing at the beach.
"If there was a television show, Room 256 would be the place," said
Martin Langan, the assistant principal for the school's science
department. "This is like the teacher's version of M*A*S*H." The
scene even came with goofy public-address announcements. "Today's
meeting of the Islamic Society has been canceled," went a voice over
the loudspeaker. "Thank you. Have a good day today, and a better day
The (Rube) Goldberg Variations
lice, who was born in California and moved to Brooklyn when she was
in the fifth grade, entered the research program as a sophomore
because of her exceptional performance in science classes. "I didn't
ask to be an Intel student," she explained one day as we walked to
her lab at Rockefeller. "They just sort of put me into it without
asking. My mom's reaction was, 'This is what we wanted!' and I said,
"There was a little hesitation," confirmed her mother, Patricia
Gregory. "She can be very, very hard on herself, and has to be
perfect. She wasn't sure she could handle it as well as her
schoolwork. But I felt she was too young not to take risks." By May
of last year, she placed first in Midwood's annual sophomore science
fair and was on her Intel way.
The most promising science students at Midwood, approximately 105
freshmen, are steered into the research program. During their first
two years, the students take classes in research methods, develop
critical thinking and are encouraged to submit entries as sophomores
in various science fairs. "If you can't get 95's easily, then you
better drop out, because you won't be able to keep up with your
schoolwork," Shapiro said. "And it's usually self-selection out." By
sophomore year, the total in the program is down to 95, and by junior
year the number is about 60.
The advanced level of the research adds a layer of
incomprehensibility to the already fitful conversation between
parents and teenagers. "My dad, like, didn't even know I was in Intel
until he saw my picture in The Daily News," Diana told me. Lauren
Mikulski, a senior, said describing her research project to her
family was difficult because "we had a vocabulary in the lab that
isn't even in the dictionary, it's so new." When she showed her
father a draft of her research paper, he said it was good. "But did
you understand it?" she continued. "No," he confessed. Not an unusual
reaction, except that Lauren's father teaches organic chemistry at
Brooklyn Technical High School.
The sheer workload and commuting time -- getting to school by 7 a.m.,
taking the subway to labs -- makes the day especially long. During
the summer following her sophomore year, Alice stayed with family
friends who lived closer to Midwood while taking a course in
molecular biology. She began to hang out with two other Intel
students who lived nearby, Daniel Shaw and Etan Marciano. "Those guys
are so funny," she said at one point. Indeed, as sophomores the two
boys parlayed their humor into the winning entry in the Rube Goldberg
contest held last year at the New York City Science Fair. Their
device was a monument to high-precision superfluous engineering,
designed to deposit cereal and milk in a bowl mechanically, and to do
so in exactly 60 seconds. "Breakfast for One," they called it.
When I went to visit him one Saturday afternoon, Daniel was playing
Chopin's Waltz in C Sharp Minor on the piano in the living room of
his family's home in Ditmas Park. A junior at Midwood, Daniel, 16,
had just come home from playing tennis and later that night would be
hanging out with his girlfriend. I had first met Daniel on a Tuesday
afternoon at Midwood when he came into Room 256 to meet with Shapiro
and discuss the first draft of one of his Intel essays. He had jet
black hair, slicked back, and wore baggy pants and tennis shoes,
which in one sweeping motion he planted firmly on Shapiro's desk.
Juniors like Daniel and Alice are encouraged to engage in a version
of what Jay Touger calls "six degrees of separation," in which the
brother of the father of a friend of a friend might know someone who
runs a laboratory in Brooklyn or Manhattan and might be approached to
work as a mentor. A student was once placed at N.Y.U. Medical Center
through someone who knew a custodian there.
While Midwood might be accused of tailoring its program too
specifically to successful Intel applications, there was nothing
narrow about the discussion between Shapiro and Daniel. It was a
stream-of-consciousness conversation that had almost nothing to do
with science but everything to do with two associative, nimble
intellects jumping from one topic of interest to another, highbrow
erudition tussling with lowbrow humor the entire way.
While eating his lunch, Shapiro perused the first few paragraphs of
Daniel's essay on "Scientific Attitude." "Yeah, clever stuff," he
grunted approvingly. "I didn't know you played the piano."
"I play three instruments," Daniel replied. "The piano, the cello and
the bass guitar."
"Too bad you didn't go to the High School for the Performing Arts."
"Yeah," Daniel laughed, "I could be a starving artist instead of a
"What kind of pieces?" Shapiro asked, referring to the music. "Are
you talking about 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'?"
"No, no," Daniel protested. "I was decent. I can play Beethoven
sonatas. The 'Moonlight Sonata.' 'Pathetique.' Chopin waltzes."
"Can you play the 'Appassionata'?" Shapiro asked.
"No," Daniel said with a knowing laugh. "But that was always my goal."
"So who was Haydn's favorite composer?" Daniel scrunched up his face
and half-heartedly suggested Beethoven. Shapiro shook his head. "And
it wasn't Mozart, either," he said. "His name was von Weber, who
almost no one has heard about. It's beautiful stuff, but no one knows
about him." The conversation moved on to 12-tone scales and then,
somehow, to gefilte fish. "Did you know," Shapiro said, "that Mrs.
Goldberg, the chemistry teacher, makes her own gefilte fish? And it's
"Those are two words," Daniel said firmly, packing up his books,
"that should never appear in the same sentence -- gefilte' and
On the Saturday afternoon I visited Daniel, we crossed Argyle Road to
Etan's house, and the two boys fetched the Rube Goldberg device from
the basement. While setting up the apparatus, they talked about the
research they were conducting for their Intel projects. Rube would
not have approved.
Through an uncle who is an orthopedic surgeon, Daniel had found a
position working in a lab at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, testing
the effect of naturally occurring estrogens (known as
phyto-estrogens) on bone-forming cells known as osteoblasts; this has
suddenly become a hot avenue of research lately because of concerns
about hormone replacement therapy for postmenopausal women. Etan,
meanwhile, was working with psychiatric researchers at Columbia
University who were investigating the biology of several drugs that
seemed to mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia.
Science is now, arguably, a much more interesting avant-garde than, say, art.
"Ready?" Etan said, with a sly self-aware smile, after they had set
up the device. "Ready to be amazed?" It doesn't translate readily
into words but involved a golf ball rolling down a tube that hit a
lever (which caused cereal to fall into a bowl) and then knocked
another ball, which caused a container of milk to tip over, slowly
filling the cereal bowl until the weight completed a circuit
underneath the bowl that turned on a motor, which removed a nail from
the lower end of the tubing, allowing the golf ball to descend and
then plop into a little basket and activate a pulley, which lifted
it, as the rules required, exactly 30 centimeters above the surface,
returning the ball to its starting height.
It was a little hard to reconcile the geeky exuberance of their
creation with the heavy exertion usually required to maintain teenage
indifference, and I was curious if Daniel and Etan felt the same
defensiveness that characterized the students in the picture from my
yearbook. "We're friends with people on the lacrosse team that we
hang out with," Daniel explained. "We hang out with a lot of kids who
are, quote, popular, although they do make fun of us all the time and
call us nerds. But," he added with a triumphant smile, "we have
better grades than they do."
Perhaps the shrewdest observation came from Lauren Mikulski. "I think
a lot of people perceive that the Intel students are supersmart and
dorks," she admitted. "But there is so much cultural diversity at
Midwood, I guess, that you don't see it as much." Brilliance, in
other words, is just another form of diversity at a school with an
Islamic Society and Gay-Straight Alliance. As Marc Ostrega, a
teacher, put it one day, science is just another alternative
For Every Action, an Equal and Opposite Reaction
hether you are an athlete or an intellect, there is nothing more
humbling than the day you discover that you are no longer among the
best, after having been there for so long. For a lot of students in
the research program, that day came on Jan. 10, when all 44 Midwood
seniors who entered the Intel competition filed into a classroom on
the third floor to learn who had been selected as Intel
semifinalists. The media had been alerted, and juniors like Alice
also attended. "I felt nervous for the people who were there," she
recalled, "and I was sitting there thinking: Oh, God, this is going
to be me next year. Who wants to find out in front of all these
It was a great day for Midwood, with 13 semifinalists in all -- 11
from the science research program and 2 from the school's social
science program. That total tied a school in Bethesda, Md., for tops
in the nation. But three out of four research students did not make
the cut, and some of the teachers took it harder than the kids.
That thought came to mind when I spoke to Lauren, who squeezed in an
appointment with me between her daily stint at the yearbook office,
where she is head photographer, and a meeting of the prom planning
committee. She wore a copper-colored V-neck sweater and tight black
pants and fairly bristled with energy. For her Intel project, Lauren,
18, worked in the Rockefeller University laboratory of A. James
Hudspeth, searching for a gene that creates tiny hairs in certain
cells of the inner ear, allowing an animal (the bullfrog, in her
case) to detect sound. She worked in the lab seven days a week for
one summer and four or five days a week during the school year. But
the Intel deadline arrived before Lauren had found the gene she was
looking for. (A crushing paradox about the Intel competition is that
some of the most ambitious and interesting projects are in effect
penalized because they can't be completed in time.)
"I was down to five or seven genes," she said. "So it was very
frustrating." Not that she didn't have a few other things to divert
her. In addition to her many extracurricular activities -- being
director of Midwood's Black Heritage Alliance Show and an officer in
the student government -- every afternoon, after getting up at 5
a.m., attending classes and then putting in her time at the
Rockefeller lab, she would head over to N.B.A. headquarters in
Midtown, where she worked (sometimes as late as 10 p.m.) in human
resources for the Women's N.B.A. And then she would transfer four
times on the subway ride back to her home in the Windsor Terrace
section of Brooklyn. When I casually asked if she had a boyfriend,
she practically shouted, "Does it sound like I have time for a
She, too, was sitting in the room when the Intel semifinalists were
announced, and she ended up having to console her teachers. "All of
my advisers were very surprised," she recalled. "Miss Nicastri was
apologizing to me. She was saying, 'I'm so sorry, you should have
won, I'm so sorry.' And I'm saying: 'Miss Nicastri, it's not your
fault. It's O.K., it's O.K."'
Failure happens to the best of them. One day in mid-May, Eugene
Simuni returned to Midwood after having spent the previous week at
the International Science and Engineering Fair in Detroit. He was
Midwood's star science student this year; he had already won $10,000
in cash as the grand prize winner in New York City's annual science
fair and $25,000 in scholarship money as the fifth place finisher
overall in the Intel Science Talent Search, which is considered the
most rigorous science competition. He had been accepted at Harvard,
M.I.T. and just about every other place he had applied.
"So what'd you win?" somebody asked when he walked into Room 256.
"I got a T-shirt," he laughed. He did merit an honorable mention in
the biochemistry competition. (Emmanuelle finished third in
microbiology.) The consensus at Midwood was that the judges at the
Detroit fair simply did not understand Eugene's project.
'Welcome to New York, Eugene'
lice has her pugnacious moments, and they often surface during a
long-running friendly disagreement she has with Eugene, a senior in
her Spanish class. Eugene spent much of April wrestling with the
enviable problem of deciding whether to attend Harvard or M.I.T.
(Harvard won out.) But for the time being, he doesn't plan on
pursuing a career in science. "Eugene wants to make money," Alice
told me one day, confiding this in a way that made it clear she
considered it a prodigious waste of intellectual talent.
"I don't see my career as a scientist," Eugene confirmed. "Now I'm
thinking about working in the technology field, but not as a
scientist. More as an administrator. My personal feeling about money
is, it's not the most important thing in life -- you should love what
you're doing. But it's still important!" A year ago he would have
been inclined to pursue a career related to computers. "Now, because
I've been doing so much biochemistry, I'm more interested in
biotechnology. So this choice is not easy."
Born in St. Petersburg, Eugene attended a special mathematics and
science academy in Russia. In December 1997, when he first arrived at
Midwood, Eugene would sit alone in the cafeteria, barely able to
speak English yet resolutely determined not to be fazed by the
experience. "I couldn't say I was too much shocked," he said. He has
a cheerfully phlegmatic personality, quick to laugh when he is teased
but serenely unruffled by the experience of learning his chops as an
American teenager in the crucible of an inner-city public high
school. "I wasn't shocked by anything. I realized that that would be
the case, so I didn't feel especially bad when I sat alone in the
As far as I could determine, the only things that left Eugene even
moderately puzzled about life in America were episodes of "Seinfeld"
and how to operate the mimeograph machine in Room 256. One morning
when he was standing by the machine, Emmanuelle, Midwood's other
Intel finalist this year, came in. "Did you get your check yet?" she
asked, referring to the $1,000 each semifinalist received. "I got it
yesterday," Eugene said.
"How come you always get your money before me?" she demanded. Eugene
shrugged and smiled. "I already know what I'm going to buy with
mine," she continued. I immediately thought of a stereo, a bushel of
CD's, clothes. "Stock," she announced confidently. And she knew
exactly which biotech company she was going to invest in.
'If You Make Gazillions of Dollars. . . .'
It wasn't just that they invested in stocks and won six-figure
scholarships. It was the level of the research they conducted that
frankly stunned me. As a high school student in the 1960's, I knew I
didn't have the right stuff for the science-fair circuit from my very
first (and only) project, which was based on the profoundly misguided
idea that water pollution might actually benefit the health of
animals. Almost everything associated with this benighted project was
wrong, including the assurances I gave my family that frogs could not
possibly escape from an uncovered laundry tub in the basement.
The Intel students don't do science projects -- they do science,
period, often working at the frontiers of knowledge and sometimes
under intense competitive pressures. Eugene, working at Rockefeller
University with Ethan Marin, used computerized data on the
three-dimensional atomic structure of two proteins (known as G
proteins) to compare the way they relayed a biological signal inside
cells. He showed that the structure of one of these proteins differed
in a way that could explain why it acts in a more delayed fashion in
the rod cells of the eyes (and thus affects vision) but not in other
cells of the body. Emmanuelle, working with a biologist at New York
University Medical Center named Jayne Raper, identified a portal-like
molecule on the surface of trypanosomes, the family of microbes
responsible for sleeping sickness in Africa and a disease in cattle.
This "scavenger" molecule allows the parasites to feed on cholesterol
in the bloodstream of humans and animals, and thus the research
suggests possible strategies for developing medicines that would
block the parasites' ability to feed. Emmanuelle doesn't even have a
driver's license yet, but, Raper said in an interview, "she will get
her name on a scientific paper."
The Top 40 Intel finalists, including Eugene and Emmanuelle,
converged on Washington last March for the mother of all high school
science fairs, the Science Talent Search, which was originally
conceived by an advertising and public relations executive at
Westinghouse in 1942. The students stayed for six nights at the
elegant Mayflower Hotel, set up their little booths to explain their
projects to public visitors at the National Academy of Sciences and
endured several grueling days of questioning by a panel of judges.
"We called the Massachusetts Room, where three of the judges were,
the 'Massacre Room,"' Emmanuelle explained later. The Top 10
finishers were announced at an annual black-tie awards banquet.
The contest has always been exceptionally prestigious, but it has the
added aura now of New Economy money. The winner of the top prize this
year, Viviana Risca, of Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port
Washington, on Long Island, went home with a $100,000 scholarship,
part of the $1.25 million in prize money provided by Intel. A
representative of a major pharmaceutical company circulated through
the crowd of finalists, practically promising summer internships on
the spot. There were lots of stock market jokes.
I don't think the sea change in the way the world views these kids
became truly apparent to me, however, until two weeks later when I
accompanied the Midwood contingent to a reception at the New York
City Board of Education honoring all the city's Intel finalists and
semifinalists. "This has a special meaning for me," said Harold O.
Levy, then interim chancellor, in a ruefully witty,
been-there-done-that riff, "especially as a Bronx High School of
Science student who did not get what was called, in those days, a
Westinghouse. But I tried." As an endless stream of board members,
educational officials and other functionaries took the podium, I
couldn't help thinking of something Touger mentioned several days
earlier: "I tell the kids that if they're lucky enough to win, I will
take full credit, and Mr. Shapiro will take full credit, and the
principal and the district superintendent will take credit, and the
Board of Ed and the borough president will take credit, and their
parents will take credit. And whatever is left over is theirs."
But it was the eleemosynary pitch by Judith A. Rizzo, the deputy
chancellor for instruction, that truly signaled the fact that nerds
now rule: she already had her hand out. She implored the students to
remember that they had been the product of a public school education.
"If you start a company and make gazillions of dollars," she said
hopefully, "maybe you can buy a few computers for the schools." Where
once it was assumed that they would "do well" in the traditional
academic sense, the new economy has made clear that they will most
likely do well -- fabulously well, in some cases -- in the financial
sense, too, and it's never too soon to get your hand out.
'We Expect to See You Win a Nobel Prize'
or a good part of April and May, one Midwood student after another
walked into Room 256 with news of intellectual approbation -- and
financial reward. Amber Iqbal, a petite girl from Pakistan, stopped
by to report that she was being honored by the Society of
Microbiology for her project. The American Academy of Neurology faxed
a letter saying they were flying Lawrence Fung, the son of a Chinese
immigrant truck driver, out to San Diego as one of three high school
students in the country to collect a $1,000 award. And Ilya Sherman,
one of the Russian kids, walked in with the news one day that he had
received a college scholarship from Chase Manhattan Bank worth more
Midwood's 13 Intel semifinalists also took a victory lap through the
city. While the seniors posed for pictures on the steps of City Hall,
savoring Peter F. Vallone's parting words at a City Council reception
("We expect to see you win a Nobel Prize one of these days," he
said), the juniors at that very moment were schlepping to labs all
over Brooklyn and Manhattan, facing a hot summer of 18-hour days,
hopeful that they, too, would enjoy a similar victory tour in the
spring of 2001. At about 4 on an afternoon not long after the City
Hall celebration, Alice sat in front of a computer in a large
high-ceilinged lab at Rockefeller University, the indirect light of a
glorious afternoon spilling in through the windows. The scene had an
air of monastic serenity -- not least because the most recent
personal crisis seemed to have passed. Alice's mother assured her
that she wouldn't move until Alice finished up at Midwood.
As it turns out, the lab was in a scientific race on a very
competitive project, and she was hardly a teenage bottle-washer. They
needed her! Constantine Pavlides, the lab chief, began to explain to
me that they were looking at the activity of a certain
"immediate-early gene" called zif-268, which alters synaptic
architecture and in so doing "cements" what has been learned into
permanent memory. Suddenly he stopped himself short and laughed
nervously. "I'm not sure how much I should tell you," he said.
In the next room, Alice sat at a computer plotting some preliminary
data under the tutelage of Sidarta Ribeiro, a Brazilian graduate
student. The software automatically converted the activity of the
gene they were studying, in dreaming and wakeful animals, into
side-by-side columns. The results were preliminary, but nonetheless
promising. "We have a long way to go," Ribeiro said carefully. "But
it's very . . . auspicious. Very interesting. We're going to pursue
this." He got out a calendar and laid out a crash program to confirm
the results, which would require an intense, coordinated plan of
experimentation every day over the ensuing four weeks.
Several other scientists stopped by to stare at the data on the
computer screen. "It's a nice result," one said. "A cool result,"
another said. A look of sudden, unexpected rapture briefly flickered
across Alice's face, as if she had just discovered an extraordinarily
interesting way to be cool. "I'm so lucky to be here," she whispered,
and then went back to the numbers on the screen.
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