Rutgers’ Waksman Scholar Uses Hip Hop to Ignite the Joy of Science in Youth
'Dancing scientist’ Jeffery Vinokur says participating in university’s program for high school students changed his life
As a kid Jeffrey Vinokur liked to catch bugs, mix up chemical concoctions in his kitchen and ask questions about almost everything. For the past two years, Vinokur – who will begin working toward his doctorate degree in biochemistry at UCLA in the fall – has traveled the country as the "dancing scientist."
His show, “So You Think You Can Do Science” combines hip-hop music and dancing with flashy chemistry and physics experiments in hopes of providing the same scientific inspiration he received as high school junior attending the Waksman Student Scholars program at Rutgers University.
“The Waksman Student Scholars Program had a huge impact on my life,” said Vinokur, a 2006 student scholar from Montvale’s Pascack Hills High School and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin who has toured the nation with his show. “I had been interested in science, but the program introduced me to research and got me hooked. It provided the fuel for my scientific curiosity.”
The almost 20-year-old Waksman Student Scholars program is designed to help high school students, selected on the basis of their academic performance, previous experience and a written essay, learn modern molecular genetics by having them participate in the Waksman Institute’s continuing genome research project.
This week, 40 high school students and 24 teachers will begin the annual, three-week summer seminar and laboratory program by using the basic principles of molecular biology and genetic engineering to examine the genomic sequence of duckweed, a tiny aquatic plant that scientists say has the potential for cleaning up pollution, combating global warming and fueling the world.
Students and teachers will then work throughout the school year sequencing DNA with other students and contributing to the biological data bank by analyzing their findings and having their work published. Waksman Student Scholars Programs will also be held at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, the University of Texas at Austin and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
“What those who started the program in 1993 wanted to ensure is that the joy of science is being transferred to students,” said Andrew Vershon a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Rutgers and director of the Waksman Student Scholars Program, an educational outreach program of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology. ”Our motto has always been that students learn better by doing.”
Julie Bianchini couldn’t agree more. Studying for her doctorate degree in biology and biochemistry at Stanford University, Bianchini, who graduated from Rutgers in 2010, says it was the Waksman program she was involved in as a first-year student at New Jersey’s Hillsborough High School in 2003 that set the stage for her academic career by giving her the opportunity to do scientific research at an early age.
“I come from a scientific family and I fell in love with how this program was taught,” said Bianchini. “We were contributing novel scientific information at such a young age which is so important.”
The program – funded with grants from the National Science Foundation, GE Healthcare, and the Toshiba America Foundation – has offered 3,500 student scientists the ability to publish data they discovered after analyzing the results of their molecular experiments, Vershon said.
The Waksman Institute, he said, takes an active role in supporting Rutgers’ mission to teach and train graduate, undergraduate and high school students. Over the past 19 years, students have studied simple organisms such as the round worm, brine shrimp, fruit fly and even the onion.
“We are able to get these students at an early age, introduce confidence and provide them with knowledge about a career path in science that will be good for them as well as society,” he said.
That’s exactly what happened to Scott Gordon who participated in the program in 2000, the summer before his junior year at Rutgers Preparatory School.
Gordon, who received his undergraduate degree from Haverford College and is now finishing a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania where he will earn both a medical and doctoral degree, said the Waksman program is the reason why he decided to not only become a pediatrician but also focus on medical research.
“Before Waksman I was never exposed to research,” he said. ”They took science education to the next level. We learned cutting edge laboratory techniques and advanced scientific thinking which is extremely important in science but not something you usually learn in high school.”
Student follow-up indicates that about 70 percent of those who become involved in the Waksman Student Scholars program continue on to a career in science, either in academia, medicine or other related fields, Vershon said.
But even those Waksman program alumni whose career paths have gone in different directions insist that the student scholar program gave them the opportunity to explore research opportunities that were not available when they were in high school.
“It was a great introduction to college,” said Ava Majlesi, a 1997 student scholar from Colonia High School who switched from studying biology to political science and psychology as an undergraduate at Rutgers and went on to earn a law degree from Rutgers Law School in Newark. “Even though I didn’t go into the field of science being introduced to that level of scholarship at such a young age, inspired me tremendously.”