Young Science Prodigies Buck Greying Trend In Breakthroughs

on July 21 2012 2:26 PM

For some kids, science fairs are a lot more sophisticated than baking soda volcanoes. Just this past May, a 15-year-old Maryland boy was awarded $75,000 at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for developing a simple test for pancreatic cancer that's 28 times faster, 28 times cheaper and 100 times more sensitive than existing tests.

Jack Andraka told the Baltimore Sun that his project was inspired by the deaths of an acquaintance and family member. He says he contacted hundreds of professors and government officials before Johns Hopkins University researcher Anirban Maitra took the teenager under his wing and gave Andraka the use of a laboratory.

What I tell my lab is, 'Think of Thomas Edison and the light bulb,' Maitra told the Sun. This kid is the Edison of our times. There are going to be a lot of light bulbs coming from him.

Andraka actually has a bit of a head start on Edison -- the renowned inventor didn't obtain his first patent until age 22. He's also something of an anomaly in the present day, where scientists are making breakthroughs at much older ages than in the past.

Gone are the days of William Lawrence Bragg, a British man who was 25 when he was awarded the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in X-ray crystallography. Today, the average age at which a physicist does his or her Nobel Prize-winning work is 48.

This greying of science is actually measurable. In November 2011, a Northwestern University management professor and an Ohio State University economist published a paper in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences that examined the work of scientists that won Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 2008.

Before 1905, around two-thirds of Nobel Laureates in chemistry, physics and medicine performed their prize-winning work before age 40, and a fifth of them did it before they reached 30 years old. By 2000, however, the percentage of prizewinning work done before age 30 dropped to nearly zero.

In comparing work before 1905 with work done after 1985, the authors found that the age at which a physicist did his Nobel-winning work rose from 37 to 50 years old. In medicine, the average age of a laureate increased from 38 to 45; in chemistry the age jumped from 36 to 46.

The image of the brilliant young scientist who makes critical breakthroughs in science is increasingly outdated, at least in these three disciplines, co-author and OSU researcher Bruce Weinberg said in a statement last November.

What's responsible for the change? Weinberg and his co-author, Northwestern's Benjamin Jones, think that the aging could be a result of a shift towards more experimental work, which requires more experience, as opposed to theoretical work, in which a bright young mind can take leaps without necessarily needing decades of toil in the laboratory.

For example, while thinking about relativity doesn't necessarily require a lot of fancy equipment, the search for the Higgs boson involved years of work by hordes of scientists on the Large Hadron Collider, which with an estimated cost of $4.4 billion is one of the most expensive scientific instruments in existence.

21- and 22-year-olds simply don't get access to this kind of equipment, Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan told Nature News last year.

Weinberg and Jones think that the reason the shift towards older prizewinners is especially notable in physics has to do with the fact that the groundbreaking work by youthful physicists in the early 20th century coincided with the initial development of quantum mechanics.

Older physicists at that time had no advantage, because the concepts were so new. Nowadays, though, physicists are building upon decades and decades of research that take the better part of a career to master.

So how does a young person go about making their mark? It helps to have help. Prodigies like Andraka aren't working in a vacuum - they often benefit from having science-loving parents (Andraka's mother is an anesthetist and his father is an engineer) and mentoring from experienced scientists.

With encouragement, young people are making a splash in science just as older folks do - through a combination of insight, luck and hard work. In 2009, a 16-year-old Taiwanese girl discovered a bacteria in the guts of a mealworm beetle that breaks down the compound polystyrene, allowing the mealworm to chow down on Styrofoam.

According to the Tawain News, Tseng I-Ching dissected around 1,000 of the beetles before discovering a mysterious red bacteria that would later win her the top prize in the microbiology division of the 2009 Intel science fair.

Other advances in pollution-eating microbes have come from the younger set: Canadian Daniel Burd won top prize at his national science fair in 2008 for his discovery of a plastic-degrading bacteria. Burd isolated the bacteria by collecting soil samples and using equipment that he mostly bought through eBay, according to Discover Magazine.

Burd's experiments involved stewing ground-up plastic in a mixture of yeast, water and landfill dirt. He saw that the plastic was breaking down faster than normal. By playing with different ratios of his mixture and different temperatures, he was able to find the bacteria that were chowing down: a rod shaped microbe from the genus Sphingomonas and another from the genus Pseudomonas.

The process of polyethylene degradation developed in this project can be used on an industrial scale for biodegradation of plastic bags. As a result, this would save the lives of millions of wildlife species and save space in landfills, Burd wrote in his research paper.

Young scientists today may have one major advantage over young scientists working decades ago: the Internet. Search engines like Google Scholar, PubMed and JSTOR can point budding researchers towards existing research; there's an abundance of science blogs and science journalism available with a few clicks; and in certain forums, like Reddit's r/askscience section, they can pose questions to other researchers.

The Internet has definitely made it much easier. You can do things kids from 10 years ago wouldn't have been able to do, young scientist Eric Delgado - who found a way to combat the antibiotic-resistant microbe MRSA by using a plant compound that blocks the bug's ability to ward off drugs -- told Discover in 2008.

Even hoary government research institutions are looking to cultivate younger minds. In academia, a lot of young scientists language in post-doctoral purgatory while they wait for faculty spots (and the ensuing grant money opportunities) to open up.

In 2010, the U.S. National Institutes of Health launched a $60 million, five-year pilot project aimed at helping promising, newly-minted PhDs leapfrog into independent academic positions at American universities.

For certain young scientists, the long post-doctoral training period is a hurdle that can result in valuable time lost by scientists in pursuit of independent biomedical research and deter students as they consider possible careers in biomedical research, the NIH said.

To kickstart promising young scientists' careers, the NIH's Early Indpendence Award gives recipients up to $250,000 per year for up to five years.

The first 10 recipients of the grant include an epidemiologist at the University of Washington School of Health; a biophysicist from Harvard developing techniques to rapidly reprogram cells; and a UC Davis geneticist studying the neuroanatomical and molecular roots of autism spectrum disorders.

The awards will reduce the amount of time these exceptional junior scientists spend in training and allow them to start highly innovative research programs as early in their careers as possible, NIH director Francis S. Collins said in 2010.

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