The new documentary film Whiz Kids follows three high school student–scientists as they attempt to get their projects accepted into the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. Scientific American podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured) talks with the film's writer and editor, Jane Wagner, and with two of the stars of the documentary, Ana Cisneros and Hermain Khan. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to content of this podcast include www.nature.com/nature/podcast and http://whizkidsmovie.com
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on July 19th, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast…
Khan: When you're drilling into these teeth you get a lot of dust all over your hands, and I guess I was just curious, like, what does it taste like? I just had a, like, took a little lick.
Steve: That's Hermain Khan, one of the young scientists featured in the new documentary film, Whiz Kids. The movie follows three high school students attempting to get their work accepted in to the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. The three students are Kelydra Welcker, Ana Cisneros and Hermain Khan. Ana and Hermain were able to visit the Scientific American offices on June 4th along with the movie's writer and editor, Jane Wagner. I started things off by talking to Jane.
Steve: Tell us about the reason this film came to be.
Wagner: Well the genesis of the film was really, producer Michael Drucker worked for awhile in the admissions office at Stanford University. And he really saw that these applications coming in that had Intel finalists on them [would] go to the top of the pile, and he was fascinated by that concept. And so it really began this journey into seeing who were these people who made up the Intel finalists that got this really preferential treatment at A list universities.
Steve: What convinced everybody involved though that this was a film?
Wagner: Well I think that the idea had to do with the, sort of, the über structure of the film, which was the Intel Science Talent Search. And so you had a sort of armature for the film which was a science competition. And then we found these great characters. We went all around the science competitions really looking for people who would be dynamic on film, who had stories to tell, who did great research, and who potentially could get into the Intel Science Talent Search, which is a crapshoot because, you know, out of the three to four hundred applications there were only 40 finalists, and these are all, if you actually manage to get an application in, you [are] a stellar candidate. And so that really was the idea. And then it became a matter of really seeing how we could follow the journey of the scientists, how we could see the, sort of, coming of age story, the last year of high school and what this science competition meant to them. And so really is this is journey following them through the last year of high school and how being involved in science or something that they're really passionate about can get them to the place they want to go to. But the challenge, as I am sure you know with your work, is that for general audience I think the language of science is so outside the genre of vernacular that making [the] science accessible to general population is really a challenge.
Steve: And you actually touch on that in the film; there's one sequence where you have footage of some of the kids just giving the titles of their projects, and that's to remind us again of how outside the realm of normal life a lot of this work is.
Wagner: Exactly and also just how articulate about this particular topics teenagers are. I mean, when we were filming this film with Ana and Hermain and Kelydra [it] was hard to remember that these were high school students.
Steve: That's absolutely the case as a viewer, I was sitting there thinking that everybody just comes across as so much older and more mature. If you told me that these were people in their late 20s I would buy it instantly, and what we were really talking about it is people who are 16 or 17 years old.
Khan: Doing research really forces you to, not necessarily grow up, but it forces you to develop a sense of maturity [in] the sense that you have to learn as priorities, you become more focused in what you're doing. There's a lot of attributes that you have to take into yourself and kind of cultivate while you're doing research in order to have a successful project, because if you don't have that level of discipline, the level of discipline that is expected from an adult often times, you won't be able to successfully complete the research or to do what is necessary to come to test whatever you want to test.
Steve: But you had a lot of that kind of discipline and drive going in. I mean, the movie shows you getting up at 5 in the morning.
Steve: So you're obviously a very driven person [and] the film goes into some of your family background that you believe is part of what drives you so hard.
Khan: Yeah, I think that, I mean, I ha[d] to grow up a little bit early because I didn't have the level of support that other children my age had. I had to learn to set those priorities for myself, I had to learn to get things done myself and ultimately that's why I think that I was successful. I mean I don't look at back it as, like, "Woe is me, I didn't have a childhood." I think of it as, I learned very important character traits at a very early age. Whatever my family circumstances were, I reflect positively on what I learned from this.
Steve: I mean basically your family had to support itself by collecting cans, deposit cans, and you were on public assistance for a while, and now you're an undergrad at Yale University.
Khan: Yes, yeah. It's difficult, I mean, it's hard because, I mean, although I am at Yale that's still the background that I come from. And I am proud of my background because I think that the story that comes across in Whiz Kids is something that can inspire other children that perhaps come from similar backgrounds, that you can go to schools [in the ghetto] all of your life and you can still come out of it at the top. It's just a matter of understanding where it is you want to go and recognizing that it is going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of discipline to get there.
Steve: Ana your parents came from Ecuador, and they, you're really highly motivated as well, and what was your home environment like and how did you get so interested in science?
Cisneros: Well, in terms of my home environment, I mean, as most immigrant families when they come to this country it's very much about work and sacrifice; so growing up I [always had] babysitters; sometimes I was put into situations in which I had to, sort of, make decisions for myself. You know, mom and dad weren't around necessarily to ask them for advice or, you know, the culture and society is very different from what they are used to back home which sometimes forced me to also mature at a very young age.
Steve: I am assuming they weren't around because they were working a couple of jobs each, right?
Cisneros: Exactly. They weren't home and that just meant that they encouraged me to do things after school. So in high school, science research just became, really my haven, where I found myself, where I was successful and where I really thought, like I grew up, not just as a person but also into something else, and for me it was a young scientist.
Steve: How did you wind up choosing to get more involved in science then in the arts, let's say?
Cisneros: There was something that I felt intriguing about science research, because it wasn't like any other class I had been in. It wasn't just about doing word problems or worksheets or packets or memorizing vocabulary words and, sort of, having to regurgitate that information back. It was very much: okay, so here's [a] basis; you know, find [an] interest; what are some questions that you have about this; do your own research. It was very much independent and, like, really creating something of your own with it. And I just love that concept, and even though I was not successful as a freshman in high school I said, "You know what, I am going to stick with it to the end, and I am very happy with the outcome."
Steve: And you're finishing up at Columbia University now.
Cisneros: Yes, I am actually a biochemistry major at Columbia and hoping to get into [med] school very soon.
Steve: Let me ask you, Jane, the obvious comparison is to this movie Spellbound that was a big hit a few years ago about the spelling bee. But you very consciously go in a different direction from Spellbound which kind of covered it as a sporting event, and this is a very different treatment. We really get much more into the day to day lives of the three people who we're following in the film.
Wagner: I think that that was definitely a conscious way of approaching it. I think there were a couple of things; one is that the competition was really an armature for the film, because it's a way of attracting, in some sense, of attracting an audience that you have an armature to the film, and it gives that this über structure, so you have something that does have a beginning, middle and end that you can then put your characters in that context. But from the beginning it was really, we really wanted to follow these people, find out what drove them, the unfolding of their lives, the challenges of it. And I think that there's always a sense in which, you know, the only outcome is to win; where is in fact that's not the case, and a lot of the time. It's the journey that is as important as the actual competition, as the winning. It's the people that you gather along the way. Ana is a remarkable, shining person and Hermain as well who just attract people to them, and they go out with this openness and they can get people into their lives that help them, and it's meeting those people and having those experiences. So it's that journey that we were always really interested in and the other difference was that Spellbound starts, they started [the] filming at the competition and then went back to the characters. We wanted the story to actually be unfolded which was a challenge because, you know, we then had to know that hopefully somebody would end up in the competition.
Steve: We will be back with more of our conversation with Jane Wagner, Hermain Khan and Ana Cisneros of the film Whiz Kids, but first Scientific American is now part of the Nature Publishing Group and Nature produces it's own podcast. Let's hear from Kerri Smith about this weeks' program.
Kerri Smith: This week Steve, X marks the spot with our treasure map of where to find diamonds, crime and punishment and the community of viruses found in your poo. Plus our weekly news roundup.
Steve: That's Kerri Smith on the Nature podcast available at iTunes and at nature.com/nature/podcast. Now back to our discussion of the film Whiz Kids.
Steve: One of the things that the film illustrates—doesn't really overtly talk about but the illustration is really clear—is the incredibly important role of some of your teachers who just, they see the promise in their students, and they get incredibly energized themselves and are really like your personal life coacher.
Khan: Yeah, I think for me I had, I was lucky to have support from one particular teacher in my high school and then to have support from my research mentor. And she became more than just a research mentor, she really became a friend during this process. In school it was Ms. Iraseri who was in charge of the science and engineering research program and the biggest thing that she did teach me was how to be resourceful—how to introduce yourself to scientists, how to ask them for help and how to come across as mature as possible. Because often times when you're e-mailing scientists [at] these different universities, and you're asking them to be part of their lab most people shrug high school students off, saying, you know, "Sorry, we don't need anyone; if we need some[one], we'll call you."
Steve: You know, basically that's what you were told when you first got in touch with the folks at Williams.
Steve: They didn't tell you to get lost but they said, "Well this is not really practical…"
Khan: Yeah, yeah.
Steve: "for you to do this." But you just refused to take no for an answer.
Khan: I refused to take no. I mean, the fact that Dr. Blackwell at Williams even offered me an interview, which was just kind of, her being nice to me, that was more than anyone else gave me, and when I ha[d] that opportunity I was not going to let go. And so I showed up at the interview, and I made it clear that this is what I want to do, I am committed to this and if you give me the opportunity, I will [show up] everyday.
Steve: And Ana as a high school student, you wound up spending six weeks at a laboratory at Colorado State in Fort Collins, right. Was that a pre-college program or did you just arrange that for yourself?
Cisneros: Part of my program, the science research program, in my school, was sort, of teaching us that resourcefulness that Hermain just mentioned and it's really true. The lab recognized it's limits but it gave us skills that empowered us to do things on our own, which included e-mailing researchers and being, you know, introducing yourself; you know, sharing your ideas and thoughts about their research and how you think that their research could possibly help in your personal research that you're doing in a high school setting. And so Dr. Omer Falik, he is a root ecologist from Israel and he happened to be doing research at Penn State at that time. So he continued to be my online sort of mentor, so I [could] e-mail him with questions. And, sort of, that relationship grew and grew; then I could call him and then I thought that was a big deal calling whenever I had questions and concerns about my project. And then he got a [position] at Colorado State University at the agricultural department and he was like, "You know what, this is my first summer here; I think this is a great lab that focuses on root ecology, which is, you know, applicable to the type of research that you want to do, so why don't you come over here for six weeks and meet me?" And finally I got a chance to work with him.
Steve: And this is a very science-interested audience that's listening to this, so why don't we spend a couple of minutes and you can each talk about what your actual scientific research was about. Root ecology is just what [it] sounds like, you talk about roots of plants.
Cisneros: Yes, so there's this concept that plants aren't as inanimate as we, you know, deem them to be. Plants in fact interact with each other and one of the mechanisms that they use are chemicals, these ectoderm metabolites that they release. So I had read during that time an article that claimed that plants can in fact recognize these secondary metabolites and they can recognize them and decide "[Well,] these metabolites belong to a neighboring plant that is of a similar species or these secondary metabolites are from a foreign species that I don't recognize. And so what happens is, how does the plant react to this recognition? "Well if it's a plant that I can recognize, then it's not an invader, therefore I don't waste my resources in competition but I invest them in crop yield." Whereas if it does not recognize a neighboring plant, it says, "Well I don't recognize this plant, it's probably competing for my nutrients, so I will invest my energy, my metabolites, to increase then, you know, root development to complete and, like, outgrow, this neighboring invading species." And so that was, sort of, the context of my project, and so I worked with pea plants. And I did these very much sort of in-house simple, elegant assays where I collected [UNCLEAR 16:23] from different species of peas and then I had different experiments where I introduced to the root system of growing pea plants, metabolites from the same species to see, sort of, what the morphological changes were due to the plants in response to the chemical; and then chemicals from [a] different species of pea plants and, sort of, compare the growth. You know can we, sort of, repeat the experiments that were done before, and can we find any correlation in crop yield and resource competition? And I mean [in terms of its] application for the future, the hope is to, if this mechanism in fact exists, we should be able to manipulate it either invasively or noninvasively, however you choose, and use it to increase crop yield in an agricultural setting, [where] that's always the goal, you know, to be as less invasive as possible and get as best of a product as you can.
Steve: So the crops you're trying to grow don't waste—from our point of view—their energy growing roots when we want them to grow fruits. And we could then control that regardless of their immediate environment. And what happened with that project ultimately? Because in the film, we see you working on it what's now three [or] four years ago.
Cisneros: Well for my research I had gone to Colorado to actually do these assays with Dr. Falik using Arabidopsis plants just because we, you know, Arabidopsis has been genetically determined already so we can do genetic testing and do more sort of biochemical assays with it just because so much is known about Arabidopsis. But what you see in the film is that six weeks just wasn't enough to complete my research, it wasn't enough to really see what were the parameters [in] which I had to grow the Arabidopsis plants and what medium would best work with the type of work that I wanted to do. And so that doesn't work out, but then when I go back I take sort of everything that I could, you know, squeeze out of Dr. Falik and his research and try to replicate it with pea plants, but I believe more and more research has been done now. The botany field is sort of growing slowly and growing with more attention of being, you known, put on botany research [and] definitely on this idea of how we can manipulate research competition among plants since it is known that a lot of energy is wasted in these interactions between plants, which if we are able to avoid it would really be revolutionary. I mean we all depend on food, and we all eat vegetables and fruits, and so I think it's an important issue as [far removed] as plant research [seems from] everyday life.
Steve: And Hermain we see you in the film cutting up these fossilized crocodile teeth; and by the way, I did mean to ask you what were you doing tasting—[What] was it? Cow teeth, cow enamel?
Khan: Yeah, right it was bovine enamel.
Steve: To find out that it tasted like popcorn. Because in the film, the film shows Hermain wondering what the enamel of a dinosaur tooth might taste like, and then you explained it—is it to your sister?
Steve: You say to her as if, you know, how could you not know this, that cow enamel tastes like popcorn. Why do you know what cow enamel tastes like?
Khan: Well, when you're preparing these teeth it just takes so many hours. I think one tooth takes about 50 to 100 hours to prepare.
Steve: Were you practicing on cow teeth, is that how you were working with cow teeth at all?
Khan: No cow teeth were actually, I was using mammalian teeth as a, kind of, control and so for the crocodilian tooth experiment. But when I was preparing the cow teeth, the other students and I in the lab, we were very serious about what we did and we always follow[ed] protocol but like every now and then, we get a little bit of playful mood I guess and I had, when you're drilling into these teeth, you get a lot of dust over your hands, and I guess I was just really curious, like, what does it taste like? I mean, does it taste like moldy grass or something? I don't know; and so I just kind of, like, took a little lick and there's not much to it, I just wanted to know and so I didn't think about what was going to happen.
Steve: And it tasted like popcorn.
Khan: Yeah, that's [as close as] I can describe it; it was kind of tasty.
Steve: There's a scene in an episode of CSI, the original CSI series, where one of the technicians who—the character played by William Peterson, the guy [who runs the lab]—one of the technicians who William Peterson doesn't really care for, doesn't [think is that bright], says that he discovered something about this sample by tasting it and William Peterson's character says, "You tasted it", and the guy says "Well, yeah. Do you think that was [the] wrong thing to do?" And he says, William Peterson says, "No, actually this is the first thing you've ever done that has impressed me". Because that's, I mean the reason it's called diabetes mellitus is because ancient physicians would actually taste the urine and if it tasted sweet, that was their diagnosis for diabetes. So actually tasting what many people might consider it to be a really disgusting sample, it's an age-old technique in science, and so we applaud you for sticking to those classical methods. So what are we actually trying to do with these fossilized crocodile teeth that you're working with?
Khan: Sure. So my project actually centered around electron spin resonance dating, and so there's a lot of dating methods out there, the most commonly known of which is probably carbon 14. But they all have limits to the time spans that they can date. Like, for example, carbon 14 can only date from the recent past to 10,000 years ago. And so if you want to study more ancient hominids you need to kind of rely on a different type of method of dating and so electron spin resonance is very valuable in that sense because it can date from 10,000 to five million years, give or take. So my research focused on a site in India called Devni Kadri and Devni Kadri is really, kind of, very important because the only known hominid fossil from somewhere between Georgia and the Indian subcontinent kind of, came from Devni Kadri and so the only problem with dating these fossils—or more broadly the only problem whenever you date a fossil, a really ancient hominid fossil—is that finding it in the first place is so difficult. So when you find it, you don't want to destroy it, which is often what is required from many of these dating methods. You want to use references to proxy the age and crocodilian teeth would be a perfect example, are perfect for that use because they are ubiquitous in the water-bearing sites [where] you often find these hominid fossils.
Steve: So the assumption is that you find the teeth and the hominid fossils in the same site.
Steve: At the same stratographic level but they're probably the same age.
Khan: Right, that's assuming that there is no reworking, but there's ways to determine that by dating fossils at several thin layers. And when I was going, so initially I thought like, okay, this is going to be the same procedure as a reptilian or as a mammalian tooth [with these crocodilian teeth], but I found that crocodilian teeth had a propensity to take in ferric iron which obstructed the signal that you're trying to measure.
Steve: Right, because you're doing electron spin resonance.
Steve: So any kind of magnetism is going to mess up your findings.
Khan: Yeah, you're trying to find the signal from hydroxyapatite which is the dominant mineral crystal in the crocodilian tooth enamel. And during digenesis the hydroxyapatite takes in this ferric iron and that messes everything up. And so I just, that was when I was like, "Oh God, what do I do, and so that's where the project really became apparent to me. What I ended up doing was I modeled geochemically how this ferric iron is entering into tooth enamel, particularly reptilian tooth enamel, by using recent crocodilian teeth, which I [had] gotten from the Museum of [Natural] History archives; then geochemically analyzed what is happening within those recent teeth's tooth enamel, and then I found that the iron is actually being reduced and from there I was able to get a pure signal, a pure ferric ion signal that I was able to subtract from the hydroxyl ion signal that was obstructing the hydroxyapatite signal.
Steve: So it was like taring out the—t-a-r-e—taring out the weight of the basket when you measure a basket of fruit.
Khan: Yes, absolutely.
Steve: So you had a baseline that you knew would be there in the crocodilian teeth, the ancient crocodilian teeth, and you could just take that out.
Steve: And what are your plans when you get out of undergraduate?
Khan: Oh! I ended up [deciding] to major in political science, and I finally, I think kind of sort of, made my decision that I am going to law school, but that's in the future, not for a couple of years [until after I] graduate.
Steve: That's really interesting, because in the film we very briefly see representative Rush Holt who is a PhD physicist and is now a member of Congress, so having that science background and getting involved in politics can only be an advantage to everybody.
Khan: Right, I think so; I think that having scientifically literate policy makers is very important.
Steve: And Ana you're planning to go to medical school?
Cisneros: Yes actually I just came back from a semester abroad in Costa Rica. This summer program that I did in Costa Rica focused on tropical medicine and global health. So it's really opened me up to beautiful experiences working with communities and trying to find strategies to help communities going through infectious diseases that affect the entire world. So my hope is not just you get an MD but also get an MPH, a masters in public health, to go along with it.
Steve: We follow three of the competitors in the film, none of them actually wind up winning, but everybody is a winner really. And you know it's a trite thing to say, but it's really true. So how can people see the movie? It opens, we're talking on June 4th and it opens today here in New York and it's going to open in Los Angeles.
Wagner: It opens in Los Angeles towards the end of the month and also hopefully it will have other theatrical openings; but if you go to the Web site, which is whizkidsthemovie.com, you can find out where else it's opening. It's going to be playing in D.C., at Silverdocs coming up and then we'll be building up to a national broadcast.
Steve: The national broadcast do you know where? PBS or …
Wagner: … PBS.
Steve: PBS okay, so …
Wagner: … yes.
Steve: So keep checking your local listing as has been said many times for the movie Whiz Kids and you'll be able to see Ana and Hermain and Kelydra. And it's really touching. There's a lot of real drama in the film but not, sort of, the hokey, are we going to [score] the touchdown at the end of the game kind of drama, more the drama of people in real life living in circumstances that are challenging and their attempts to do things to make their own lives better and make everybody else's life better as well. And for sheer drama there's a wonderful, I don't [know] if it's a five or six or seven-minute sequence at the Science Search headquarters as time is running out for people to get their applications in. The applications must be in by 11:59 p.m. that night and there are people trying to get, they haven't' they put it off so long that they couldn't even send it in FedEx the day before; they had to get in a car and get to the offices by 11:59 that night. So look for that in the film as well. The movie again is Whiz Kids. Ana, Hermain, Jane Wagner, thanks very much for coming in to talk to us.
Wagner: Thank you it's been a pleasure.
Khan: Thank you.
Cisneros: Thank you.
Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.
Story 1: A new study finds that the giant storm with hurricane force winds that blew through [the] Amazon basin in 2005 probably killed at least 441 million trees.
Story 2: Rays of different species were involved in an altercation when a stingray in Florida lived up to its name and stung a player for the Tampa Bay Rays of the American League's Eastern Division.
Story 3: In a survey of 2,000 doctors only one quarter said that they would rat out a fellow doc whose incompetence was endangering patients.
And story 4: Some birds can do more than just vaguely sense the earth's magnetic field when they are navigating, they can actually see it.
Story 4 is true. Apparently some birds can actually see the earth's magnetic field. That's according to research published in the Journal Current Biology. European robins for example can thank molecules in their retinas for making the magnetic fields look like shade or color patterns that's, kind of, laid over their ordinary view like the kind of information [laid over a] fighter pilot's field vision that you've probably seen in movies.
Story 1 is true. At least 441 million trees were killed in the 2005 storm in the Amazon. And a study in the Journal [of] Geophysical Research Letters finds that perhaps as many as 663 million trees perished in that storm.
And story 2 is true: Tampa Bay Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez was in the water near his Redington Beach, Florida, home when he was stung by an actual ray. He is okay. It's the most coincidental baseball occurrence since Red Sox player [Curt Schilling] bled from his surgically jerry-rigged lower leg giving him an actual red sock or when Seattle Mariner Manager [Lou Piniella] took a boat ride.
All of which means that story 3 about only one quarter of doctors being willing to blow the whistle on incompetent colleagues is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS, because what is true is that the survey of 2000 docs found that two thirds said that they would turn in their dangerous workmates. The study appeared in the Journal of [the] American Medical Association; 17 percent said that they actually did know somebody who deserved being told on and indeed two-thirds of that group said they had indeed raised a red flag. For more, check out the July 14th episode of daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science.
Well that's it for this episode. Get your science news at www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can check out the interactive feature on the sometimes dirty truth about plug-in hybrids: Your plug-in hybrid might actually run on coal. And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet every time a new articles hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.