How students and scientists come together for authentic and inclusive science

I learned the School of Molecular and Theoretical Biology several years ago at a roundtable on science education at Stony Brook University. This unique non-profit summer internship program brings together leading scientists and curious high school students from more than 20 countries each year. Under the mentorship of professors and post-docs, students work in university laboratories on unsolved scientific problems. I spoke with the school’s founder, Fyodor Kondrashov.

Julia Brodsky: What motivated you, an accomplished scientist, to launch an international summer school for high school students?

Fyodor Kondrashov: I largely attribute my chance to become a scientist to the early support I received from the scientific community. It does not seem enough to me to conduct research and publish results – I feel a moral obligation to help the future generation of scientists while educating them about the responsibilities of science in the modern world.

JB: What are the guiding principles of your educational philosophy?

CF: Our first principle is to give students a taste of what real science is. They can spend up to five hours a day in a lab, working side-by-side with researchers. Practicing science immersion allows students to feel part of the international scientific community, observe how scientists think about the unknown, and develop a growth mindset. Scientists also draw inspiration from students’ questions. Our second principle is inclusiveness, empowerment and support for students from all educational and cultural backgrounds. Our goal is to create a supportive and comfortable space where every student feels accepted and respected. Such an environment has an incredible impact on the academic success of students.

JB: What are some of your steps to ensure inclusivity?

CF: We start with inclusive admissions practices. Our process is designed to allow for a fair comparison between students in a Boston city school and a rural school in Malaysia. Our experts are sensitive to cultural and social differences and have experience in assessing each student’s individual abilities and potential. We make sure to invite a very diverse pool of teachers who serve as role models. The central tenant is a personalized approach to the needs of each student.

JB: And what happens after the student is admitted?

CF: We make sure to consider their financial or social constraints that might otherwise prevent them from attending school. Recently, for example, we received an application from a girl whose country does not historically 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 employees to accompany her on the flight.

JB: How did you come up with the idea of ​​a bilingual school?

CF: In many countries, it would be rare for a teacher to encourage students to start their path to science by taking an English course. However, English is the language of modern science, and therefore we teach our courses in English. Learning scientific terms in English enables many of our students, such as those from former Soviet republics, to read original research and communicate with scientists around the world. Meanwhile, we make sure that students who don’t know much English also feel comfortable (which is another aspect of our inclusivity mission). We have accumulated extensive experience in 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 program.

JB: How does the war in Ukraine affect your program?

CF: The conflict has deeply affected many of our students and our school strongly condemns the violence taking place there. We have made efforts to adapt to the situation. With the help of our Ukrainian alumni, we have been able to add an evening science program for Ukrainian school children, and although our current program is in Estonia, we also run an online program for children who cannot attend there. attend in person.

JB: What happens after a student completes your program?

CF: We focus on supporting and growing our community. We have a separate program for our alumni, which helps them stay in touch with each other and with their mentors. Notably, more than half of our alumni chose to stay in STEM fields and pursue higher education.

JB: What could you say about the people who support your efforts?

CF: The school is run by enthusiastic scientists who share our values ​​and are willing to devote countless hours to helping students learn. It’s hosted by a rotation of amazing colleges and universities giving 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 of ensuring a welcoming experience for students. Finally, we would not exist without the generous financial support of the Zimine Foundation.

Kondrashov hopes that the School of Molecular and Theoretical Biology will serve as an inspiration for new, authentic and inclusive programs in the years to come.