Saturday, September 27, 2014

Weekly Whine: Westinghouse

When I was in high school, there was a contest called the Westinghouse science contest. It's one of the biggest science contests in the country and it's since been renamed the Intel science talent search.

Becoming a semi finalist in this contest was a pretty big deal, and becoming a finalist was an even bigger deal, and of course, winning with the hugest deal of all. I entered the contest, but didn't win and did not even make semifinalist.

I know this is going to seem like sour grapes, considering everything, but now that I know a lot about the contest, I think it is all sort of bullshit. I worked in the lab with three other students, and we were each basically randomly assigned projects. Before we started the project or even wrote one word, I could've told you which of the four of us was going to be the semi finalist, based on how interesting the projects sounded.

Don't get me wrong, there were people who came up with math projects that were entirely their own invention, and they were geniuses and definitely deserved to win. But I would say the majority of people who did well just lucked into a really good lab and got assigned an interesting project. For example, I am sure that anyone whose project involved PCR was just following what their mentor told them to do. I know from my own lab, the guy who was a semi finalist didn't do any more work than the rest of us, and basically had no creative say in the project. We all just followed what our mentors told us to do.

I guess this is the fatal flaw in having high school students do fancy science projects.


  1. Even beyond high school, I think there's a lot of luck involved in receiving merit for research. For example, in applying to medical school, residency, and fellowship, you're allowed to list research experience. It certainly sounds more impressive to say that you're listed as an author on three papers than it is to say that you just spent time in a lab. Yet what does authorship really mean? We all jump to assuming things about productivity and smarts. Yet it could just as easily be that the candidate was in the right lab at the right time; that the lab was generous about listing people as authors, and that they had a number of mature projects that were ready to be submitted for publication.

    Beyond judging a resume, judging science projects adds an interesting dimension to things. The way that a project is presented can have a lot of influence over how interesting and relevant it is. There's certainly a skill behind presenting things well. Thus, shouldn't it be considered fair to allow a judge to consider the appeal of the project? (The counter to that is that the judge will likely find some things more appealing than others even before seeing the presenter's work, and this creates an unfair advantage or disadvantage.)

  2. 2 things:
    1. Mentors assign projects based on who they think is likely to be most successful. If they aren't excited by you, you're going to get the crappy project. It's not really fair because a mentor's perception of who is going to succeed is often based on things like... who is male and what ethnicity the person is (among other things which have nothing to do with aptitude)
    2. I think it rocks that you got to work in a lab in high school at all. I went to a fancy private high school and never got this opportunity even though I explicitly asked about it. I think PCR had just been invented when I went through, though. We did it manually in bio lab once and that was a pretty big deal. Maybe opportunities increased after I went through?