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Young Researchers Explore Science

By Nathan Collins


Aleksander Sadowski came from Wloclawek, Poland, to write code that helps analyze the Mars polar ice caps for Professor Maria Zuber’s group in Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. “I enjoy doing it,” said Sadowski, who wants to be a scientist.

Sadowski is a high school student, and along with 75 or so others he is a participant in the Research Science Institute (RSI), a program jointly sponsored by MIT and the Center for Excellence in Education.

RSI was founded in Washington, D.C. eighteen years ago by Admiral H.G. Rickover, who “wanted to improve education in the United States,” RSI Director John Dell said. Now at MIT, RSI’s 75 high school students perform research tasks in science and mathematics.

“Students work on math and science projects and write a paper” about their research, Dell said. The RSI schedule also includes lectures from MIT professors, including Nobel Prize winner Professor Phillip Sharpe.

Students research varied topics

RSI students arrived on campus Sunday, June 23 and began projects with their mentors the following Friday. Assistant Director Matthew S. Cain ’02 described the research projects as “like a limited UROP.”

Emma Schmidgall, a high school senior from Minneapolis, Minn., works with Professor of Physics Eric Hudson. “I study the lattice structure of high-temperature superconductors,” she said. “I wanted to do research and here I am doing research.”

While many work on campus, the Cambridge area is filled with research opportunities, and RSI students take advantage of these as well. Cain said that students are working at MIT, Harvard, Boston University, and Massachusetts General Hospital, among others.

Caitlin Mueller of New Jersey works on learning and memory in planaria, or flatworms, at the Forsyth Institute. “It’s annoying that I have to commute a half hour each way,” but said she enjoys the opportunity and being at MIT. “Now that I’m here I really like it.”

Admission to RSI competitive

RSI is “well-supported by the MIT administration,” Dell said. Part of that support is covering room and board costs, which means that students only pay travel expenses. The tradeoff is the competition to get in -- over 900 students from the United States apply for 50 positions. The successful applicants are joined by about 25 international students each year. “I think they’re good people ... We try to recruit the best and the brightest,” Dell said.

Most RSI students have done some past research or done well in math competitions; some students are already published in their fields, Dell said. “Definitely the people coming here have taken advantage of educational opportunities,” and most of them have well-educated parents. Dell has had difficulty recruiting minority students, “though I’m sure they’re out there,” he said. He is proud of a nearly half-and-half gender balance, a significant change from the male-dominated early years of the program.

Dell’s goals are to “initiate [students] into the world of research” and to introduce them into the scientific community, as well as to build an RSI community. In addition to research activities, RSI students go on a number of off-campus trips, including a trip to the White Mountains. Schmidgall said she is learning ballroom dancing and, from her fellow students, such talents as jazz violin.

By the time they leave on August 3rd, Schmidgall, Mueller, and their fellow students will have completed short research projects, written research papers, and presented their research in sessions held Aug. 1 and 2. Top papers will be selected and published in a compendium along with abstracts of all the RSI research.

Students said they were enjoying the RSI introduction to research. “You’re discovering things,” Schmidgall said. “Normally they don’t give projects like these to high school students.”