I learned about the School of Molecular and Theoretical Biology at a science education roundtable at Stony Brook University a few years ago. This unique non-profit summer internship program brings together leading scientists and curious high school students from over 20 countries each year. Under the supervision of professors and postdocs, the students work on unsolved scientific questions in university laboratories. I spoke to the founder of the school, Fyodor Kondrashov.
Julia Brodsky: As an accomplished scientist, what motivated you to set up an international summer school for high school students?
Fyodor Kondrashov: I attribute much of my good fortune in becoming a scientist to the support I received early on from the scientific community. Doing research and publishing results doesn’t feel enough for me – I feel a moral obligation to help the future generation of scientists while raising awareness of the responsibilities of science in the modern world.
JB: What are the guiding principles of your educational philosophy?
FC: Our guiding principle is to give students a first taste of what authentic science is all about. You can spend up to five hours a day in a lab, working alongside researchers. The practice of immersion in science makes students feel part of the international scientific community, observing how scientists think about the unknown, and developing a growth mindset. Scientists are also inspired by the students’ questions. Our second principle is inclusivity, empowering and supporting students of all educational and cultural backgrounds. Our goal is to create a supportive, comfortable space where every student feels accepted and respected. Such an environment has an incredible impact on students’ academic success.
JB: What are some of your steps to ensure inclusion?
FC: We start with inclusive reception practices. Our process is designed to allow for a fair comparison between the students of, for example, a city school in Boston and a rural school in Malaysia. Sensitive to cultural and social differences, our experts are experienced in assessing each student’s individual skills and potential. We make sure we invite a very diverse pool of teachers to act as role models. The Central Tenant is a personalized approach to each student’s needs.
JB: And what happens after approval?
FC: We are careful to consider their financial or social limitations that might otherwise prevent them from attending school. For example, recently we received an application from a girl whose country traditionally does not support women’s participation in science. Her parents were afraid to let her fly alone, but we were willing to arrange for one of our staff to accompany her on the flight.
JB: How did you come up with the idea of a bilingual school?
FC: In many countries, it is unusual for a teacher to encourage students to start their science journey with English classes. However, English is the language of modern science and that is why we teach our courses in English. Learning scientific terms in English enables many of our students, for example from the former Soviet republics, to read original research and communicate with scientists around the world. In the meantime, we make sure that even students who don’t speak much English feel comfortable (which is another aspect of our inclusivity mission). We have extensive experience running a bilingual science school and would be happy to share our model and best practices with anyone who may be interested in running a similar programme.
JB: How does the war in Ukraine affect your program?
FC: The conflict has deeply affected many of our students and our school strongly condemns the violence that is taking place. We have tried to adapt to the situation. With the help of our Ukrainian alumni, we were able to add an evening science program for Ukrainian school children, and while our current program takes place in Estonia, we also run an online program for the children who cannot attend in person.
JB: What happens after a student completes your program?
FC: We are focused on supporting and growing our community. We have our own program for our alumni that helps them stay in touch with each other and their mentors. Remarkably, more than half of our alumni chose to stay in STEM subjects and pursue postgraduate studies.
JB: What can you say about the people who support your efforts?
FC: The school is run by enthusiastic scientists who share our values and are willing to contribute countless hours to help students learn. It is hosted by a number of amazing colleges and universities that give us access to their labs and equipment. We couldn’t do this without the help of our organizers and coordinators who do the lion’s share to ensure the students have a welcoming experience. After all, we would not exist without the generous financial support of the Zimin Foundation.
Kondrashov hopes that the School of Molecular and Theoretical Biology will serve as an inspiration for new authentic and integrative programs in the years to come.