skip navigation nih record
Vol. LVIII, No. 24
December 1, 2006

next story

NIH, ‘Discovery’ Prove Perfect Combination
National Cable Channel Brings Kids’ Science Battle Here

On the front page...

A small team garbed in protective gear huddled over several pages and screens of data in an NIH lab one late-October morning. The facts didn’t look good: A patient, call him Joe, was showing symptoms of infection with a virus that had been top news for months. What exactly did he have and how widely had he spread it? The team had just 90 minutes to work: Identify the illness. Prevent a pandemic with limited antiviral supply and no vaccine. Develop public health policy. Communicate with the media. No one seemed worried, though. On the contrary. Teammates looked eager, confident and excited. A couple even…giggled.

Fortunately, the facts were pure fiction. Joe was made-up. The team, dubbed “disease detectives,” was 5 middle-schoolers among 40 competing as finalists in this year’s Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge. Little did they realize, though, their 3-day adventure in science here took months of detailed planning and signaled the start of what planners hope will be a beautiful new friendship between NIH and Discovery.


NCI’s Dr. John Cole (l) and Robin Brown are OECs—occupant
Dr. Milton English (r) of NHGRI discusses zebrafish with Discovery Challenge “disease detectives.”

Natural Match Made

As successful partnerships often do, the NIH-Discovery union began with an introduction by a mutual friend. Discovery is a long-time generous donor to the Children’s Inn at NIH, said the inn’s director of development and public relations, Anne Swire. She recalled the network’s donation of office equipment, production of an inn video, an Animal Planet show about the inn’s butterfly garden as well as financial contributions over the years. In fact, Discovery Communications CEO Judith McHale sits on the inn’s advisory council.

“Earlier this year we were at one of our regular meetings,” Swire said, “when she mentioned that they were looking for a new federal partner for their young scientists program and wondered if NIH might be interested. That’s how we brought them together.” The Young Scientist Challenge was developed in 1999 by Discovery Communications and Science Service, a non-profit organization, as a way to help boost the nation’s achievement in science and math. More than 13,000 youngsters have participated in the challenge since then, with winners collecting more than $700,000 in scholarship awards. Discovery has collaborated on the contest with other federal agencies in the past, most recently the Smithsonian Institution.

A challenge team deliberates in an NIH laboratory.
A challenge team deliberates in an NIH laboratory.

For its part, NIH—via its Office of Communications and Public Liaison—jumped at the opportunity to associate with the popular science contest, which shares the agency’s goals to educate young people about medical research and interest them early in pursuing science careers.

“I think it only makes sense that these two organizations team up,” said Dr. Milton English, a research fellow in NHGRI’s Genetics and Molecular Biology Branch, who developed a zebra-fish experiment for the event. “I know NHGRI is actively involved in education by reaching out to students and teachers both in the local area and across the country…Perhaps this partnership with Discovery will provide us with yet another conduit for us to reach more students. I would certainly encourage other scientists here to get involved in programs like this. Far too often scientists are viewed as nerds and geeks. If students can get a connection to scientists, they will come to realize that science is lots of fun and the people who do the research are not that strange at all. Plus, if we as scientists could serve as positive role models for kids, I think it is certainly worth the effort and time.”

Forging a Bond

Discovery Challenge officially begins with a stamp of the “science
Discovery Challenge officially begins with a stamp of the “science staff” by (from l) Discovery head judge Steven Jacobs, NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman, assistant director of the Office of Intramural Research Dr. Richard Wyatt and a challenge finalist.

The new partners began intense prep sessions in early spring to bring “Finalist Week” to NIH. Essentially Discovery asked NIH for challenges that would stimulate bright kids, motivate them in teams, give them a taste of medical research but also allow them to finish projects in an hour and a half. Led by NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman, several institute directors and senior scientists enthusiastically rallied to the cause with ideas. Experienced Discovery head judge Steven “Jake” Jacobs, a scientist and science division director of the National Science Teachers Association, helped gear potential exercises for children. Judging would be provided by Science Service, which had already reviewed about 6,000 science fair projects by kids around the country and whittled the number of competitors down to 40. Narrowing the list of projects NIH could provide proved to be no small hurdle either.

“My challenge did turn out to be more kid-friendly than I anticipated,” says Clinical Center senior investigator and staff radiologist Dr. Ron Summers, who crafted an experiment imaging a somewhat sensitive area. “When I initially proposed the challenge, it was unclear to me how the kids would deal with a subject as delicate as the colon. Somehow, the kids all got into the spirit of it. I think the virtual colonoscopy software and virtual-reality colonoscopy simulator smoothed the way, since they were hands-on and like a video game in some respects. I also think that Jake’s idea about having the kids make a video to explain to other kids what they learned was a stroke of brilliance.”

Beyond the Ceremony

By Oct. 23, all was in place at about 8 a.m. in Lipsett Amphitheater. That’s when 40 eager youngsters, their chaperones and the Discovery Channel crew began their search for “America’s Top Young Scientist of the Year.”

“Every day we do challenges very similar to the ones you’ll be doing here today,” said Gottesman, welcoming the finalists and releasing ceremonial trial balloons shaped like jack o’ lanterns. “This is an exciting time to be interested in medical research.”

The Clinical Center’s Dr. Ron Summers talks through the imaging challenge with contestants (from l) Almas Abdulla of Florida, Shalila Baena of Hawaii and Scott Yu of Rockville.
The Clinical Center’s Dr. Ron Summers talks through the imaging challenge with contestants (from l) Almas Abdulla of Florida, Shalila Baena of Hawaii and Scott Yu of Rockville.

After a humorous warm-up charge to contestants by Jacobs, the 8 teams—designated by T-shirt color—were led to their first projects. A 10th-floor ACRF lab had been temporarily outfitted to host three challenges: “Environment: Breaking the Mold,” “Endoscopy/Imaging/Colonoscopy: From the Inside Out” and “Avian Flu: Something in the Air.” Another challenge lab, “Obesity: Eat, Think & Be Healthy,” was set up on the B1-level atrium. Six lab skills activities, a chemistry challenge and a media center were located in conference rooms in the Natcher Bldg. Discovery provided a bus to shuttle kids between the two buildings.

“We did Something in the Air,” wrote Team Gray’s 13-year-old Anthony Henning of Virginia. “That was quite fun. Nolan and Amy did the epidemiologist and mayor roles. Shillipi and Nick were the doctors diagnosing the patient, Joe Plastic, and I was the virologist and I got to wear a suit that protected me from the H5N1 virus. We did a press conference in the end.”

NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci addresses a challenge team during the competition.
NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci addresses a challenge team during the competition.

“The bird flu one was especially fun,” enthused Red teammate and Californian Otana Jakpor, age 12, on an event weblog. “Erin and I got to take care of Joe Plastic. After the Mold challenge, we had lunch. (Does anyone else find the scheduling of this a little bit...strange?)”

Happily Ever After

So what did NIH discover about its debut in kids’ television edutainment?

“Though I knew these kids were the best of the brilliant, I was surprised at how quickly they grasped some of the more complicated aspects of our challenge,” said Dr. Hillery Harvey, whose NIAID group conceived of Joe and the flu exercise with Dr. Robert Glass of the Department of Energy and his middle school-age daughter, Laura. [In fact, the Glasses coauthored a paper on their concept in the November 2006 Emerging Infectious Diseases.]

Discovery head judge Steven “Jake” Jacobs (l) and acting NIDDK director Dr. Griffin Rodgers (second from r) visit Ketcham Elementary School.
Discovery head judge Steven “Jake” Jacobs (l) and acting NIDDK director Dr. Griffin Rodgers (second from r) visit Ketcham Elementary School.

Discovery Detectives Take Show on the Road

A packed auditorium of red- and yellow-shirted school children sat attentively as the Discovery Channel took its Young Scientist Challenge Contest to Ketcham Elementary School in southeast D.C. on Oct. 25.

Students from Ketcham listened to presentations by senior advisor to the NIH director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein and acting NIDDK director Dr. Griffin Rodgers. Rodgers, a sickle cell expert, recounted his own elementary school training and singled out a fourth grade teacher as being particularly encouraging. He told the students he was once interviewed by a television reporter from WUSA whom he learned was the daughter of that same teacher. “I don’t think I would be here if it were not for [your mother],” he told the reporter.

Students also watched a science show given by the competition’s head judge, Steven “Jake” Jacobs, which was designed to inspire the children to explore science. Jacobs called on student volunteers to help with a series of experiments that modeled principles used by working scientists such as observing and predicting. Rodgers proved himself a good sport and won the hearts of the students by joining a group of volunteers tapped for one exercise.

Ketcham is a school of 400 students located in Anacostia, a historic neighborhood. The school is part of an NIH Outreach effort called “Out of the Box,” spearheaded by the agency’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management. Kirschstein visits the school regularly and is well known by students, teachers and school principal Joyce Goche-Grimes.

Wearing red shirts were Discovery competition finalists, who came to the school for a mentoring exercise. Students broke into small teams—finalists paired with Ketcham students—to talk about ideas for science fair projects.

Afterwards, students reconvened with Jacobs, who works for the National Science Teachers Association and is associated with Science Service, the D.C.-based nonprofit that administers the contest. As a gift to the school, executives from Elmer’s Glue were on hand to donate poster board, project journals and science fair tool kits to Ketcham.—

NIAID’s Dr. Lone Simonsen, who conducted the pandemic challenge, agreed:

“I was impressed by the talents I saw among them. There was a kid or two who I could see in the White House helping make sensible decisions for pandemic planning based on mathematical modeling!”

Dividends from experiment interactions were mutual too, Simonsen reported. “NIH scientists had great fun working with the kids even though it was hard work,” she said.

On day three, NIH-Discovery took their science show on the road to Ketcham Elementary School in southeast Washington, D.C. (see sidebar), before a grand awards ceremony that evening that would crown the overall champion scientist and name the winners of several prize trips donated by the Discovery Networks. Some of the finalists also visited the Children’s Inn. An hour-long show about the entire week is set to air in February on Discovery Channel, Science Channel and Discovery Kids. Nothing, however, beats rave reviews from the target audience.

“We love Discovery,” wrote Green Team blogger Aaron Burrows, 14, of Texas. “The chemistry lab was amazing, and we actually got to work with top scientists on the challenges. The experience is just thrilling, and even though…we’re all competing with each other, everyone is building bonds with one another and…having the best time ever.”

A 14-year-old from Hawaii was the eventual challenge victor for the week. Nolan Kamitaki of Team Gray summed up the event on the blog, “The real win? The experience and knowledge that we can take away from this. I can’t put into words how much fun this has been…”

To read more about the competition and see a complete list of finalists, challenges and prize winners, visit dysc/index.html. NIHRecord Icon

back to top of page