An Affinity for Blair High
By Rich McManus
Photos: Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
There is something almost messianic in the debut of a science prodigy, and something almost apocryphal when six of them flare like supernovae at one time, at one high school. Thus it was when Grace C. Lin, 17, and five of her classmates at Montgomery Blair High School's Science and Math Magnet Program were announced as finalists in the Intel (formerly Westinghouse) Science Talent Search in late January.
Lin, the only one of the six to train at NIH, and her costars made the front page of all the local papers, becoming overnight media sensations. Posing like self-confident rock stars, they group-hugged for photographers, baffled reporters with soundbites of their research, and rattled off the nation's best colleges as likely future destinations. They draw attention because they stir hope a sense that "the cavalry is coming" to sort out issues that have proved intractable to previous generations.
The joy of that hope dances in the eyes of Dr. Julia Barsony along with, perhaps, a bit of plain old mischief. A native of Hungary and the daughter of two teachers, she is in love with the brilliance of youth, especially the brand turned out by Blair High, whose magnet program whizkids she has recruited for the past 4 years.
"I have a tradition to have Blair students in my lab," says Barsony, who immediately regrets divulging this news to potential competitors. "They are better trained than anyone else. I had my first Blair student in '94 Danny Gould, a computer gadget person. He was a Westinghouse semifinalist in 1995. My lab chief, John Hanover, used to joke about Danny, saying that he will be the next president of IBM.
"(Blair students) are very, very capable people," continues Barsony. "It's easy to tell if someone is highly gifted. With Grace, I could tell after an hour of conversation. We could reach easily an understanding of what's going on here in my lab. If you see that in a kid, you know you won't have much trouble training that person." Then Barsony breaks out of personnel-reviewer mode with a huge smile, "Grace is also a very nice person. She's the kindest person I know."
Barsony's second Blair intern, Carl Miller in 1996-1997, is now at Duke, and won the International Math Olympics almost always conceded to a brilliant Russian while in high school.
Fortunately for Barsony, Grace Lin wasn't selected by other principal investigators when she applied to NIH's summer program last winter. She was casting about for summer opportunities when Barsony phoned her, like a college basketball coach recruiting a high school phenom.
"There are so many more qualified applicants (for NIH's summer program) than positions available," Barsony said. "It's almost as competitive as medical school, as a matter of fact.
"I actually wanted a computer person when I interviewed Grace," she recalls, adding that she fully expects Grace to help her recruit the next star out of Blair. "Most of my students are basically recruited by other students."
Lin came to the Laboratory of Cell Biochemistry and Biology earlier than the summer students, in April. "She came as a special volunteer, and has worked here continuously, without payment," Barsony noted. "Which is a heroic commitment to science, in my view."
Lin's parents are making the heroic commitment, it turns out. They emigrated to the United States about 20 years ago from Taiwan. Grace was born in Columbus, Ohio, while her father was at Ohio State University training to become an engineer. Though she was only 4 when the family left Ohio, Grace yet recalls, "They had lots of snow."
The family, which still speaks Chinese at home about half the time, according to Grace, relocated to the White Oak area of Montgomery County. Grace went to Cannon Road Elementary School, where science first attracted her.
"I just like making discoveries," she said, shyly, "and exploring things I didn't know about before." Her father, now an engineer at Lucent, encouraged studies in math and science, "especially the physical sciences, like engineering," Grace remembers. Her mother, who trained in agriculture during college, is now a layout editor at a local Chinese newspaper.
"In large part, Grace's accomplishments are her parents' accomplishments," Barsony observes. "They'll wait in the car downstairs for an hour for an experiment to end, and they won't yell up at her to hurry. I think they are incredible people."
Barsony's happiness relies on interacting with young, unspoiled, and preferably brilliant minds. "This is my hobby," she explains, "being happy by interacting with young people. I learn a lot from my students that's probably the biggest reward I get. I also have worked with pre-IRTA students, and I like them, actually. They don't have all those preconceived ideas. They want to find out what really is there as opposed to what you're supposed to find. I can get much more done with the brightest undergraduate students than I would with unremarkable postdocs. The best thing is to work with the most brilliant."
Barsony laments her inability to compete with the big boys, the heavyweights with Nobel prizes who can attract the best postdocs. So she focuses on youngsters before they become too attractive to others.
"I clearly remember having my best ideas at ages 14-18," she muses nostalgically.
Perhaps her motive for doting so on youngsters is rooted in her past, in Hungary. Barsony only got to medical school there by winning a major science fair. "Otherwise, I would have needed straight A's," she recollects. "But I got a C in Russian and I deserved it. No matter which language I use (she speaks several), I have grammatical problems."
Lin admits to academic weaknesses in physics and computer programming "That's what keeps me awake at night." Intensely soft-spoken, she is urged to speak up by her mentor about her other achievements. In addition to two evenings a week of volunteer work at Barsony's lab, where she will return for a second summer in 1999, Lin is taking a huge academic menu including three "magnet" courses (college-level, tougher than Advanced Placement) in cell physiology, astronomy and complex analysis, two A.P. courses in psychology and English, is writing news and feature stories for the school paper Silver Chips, plays classical piano ("at a very high level," according to Barsony), participates on the Chemistry and Envirothon teams, tutors Chinese immigrants in English, homework and "how to fit in," and is a National Honor Society member who signs up for many volunteer projects including AIDS walks and projects for the homeless.
For relaxation, Lin, the oldest of three children, likes to read and take it easy. Which is a bit hard these days as she waits to find out on Mar. 8 whether she wins the top prize in the Intel competition.
"I'm a pessimist, so I don't think my chances of winning are that high," she confesses. "I don't like to get my hopes up."
"Grace didn't do this (science project) to win a prize," reproves Barsony. "The Intel competition is a magnet requirement all of the students enter their independent projects in fairs. We never aim at winning something our aim is the highest possible level of doing science." It just turns out that Barsony's protégés including postdoc Attila Racz, who won the FARE 1998 award for his abstract at last fall's Research Festival are unusually successful when they do compete.
"It's the same good project if it wins or doesn't win," she philosophizes. "The aim is to do a good project."
This is the natural mission of NIH, she continues. "This is perfectly normal at NIH. All the resources are here, and the only limit is our own ability to work."
Lin says she enjoys the environment here despite a lab so crowded that a Post-It note would have trouble wedging in and would like to pursue a career in medicine and research.
"It's a nice atmosphere here," enthuses Barsony, "because of the incredible excitement we get in discovering new things. We can share all that happiness, and we can go sailing! It's a good life!"
One of the Barsony lab's traditions is a summer sail on the Chesapeake Bay. But she always leavens her cheer with the mandates of lonesome, solitary brainwork, which is the scientist's true elysium anyway.
"Everyone carries their own project, regardless of previous education," she says. "This lab stresses independence, and we try to get high achievers who can appreciate independence."
So independent was Lin that she blew off August's traditional poster session held by summer students. "August was high time for Grace to be doing experiments, not to be doing posters," insists Barsony.
Like a good servant, Barsony dispenses with her own research agenda when it comes to satisfying a brilliant kid. "The people who come work on what they want to work on. I usually end up doing the things I had originally planned for them to accomplish," she laughs.
Perhaps explaining the hope society invests in budding stars, Barsony uncovers what may be their true gift. "Nothing we do is hard," she says, peering indignantly at a skeptic. "Grace and I both break problems into manageable pieces, then solve them. In fact, I think she has a better talent for that than I do."
You get the impression Barsony's faith could propel even an average intern to stardom. A mentor can offer nothing more precious.
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