I learned about the School of Molecular and Theoretical Biology several years ago at a science education roundtable at Stony Brook University. This unique non profit summer internship program brings together leading scientists and curious high school students from over 20 countries every year. Under the mentorship of professors and postdocs, the students work in university labs on unsolved scientific problems. I spoke with the founder of the school, Fyodor Kondrashov.
Julia Brodsky: What motivated you, an accomplished scientist, to start an international summer school for high school students?
Fyodor Kondrashov: I largely attribute my good fortune of becoming a scientist to the support I received from the scientific community early on. It feels insufficient for me to conduct research and publish results – I feel a moral obligation to help the future generation of scientists while sensitizing them to the responsibilities of science in the modern world.
JB: What are the guiding principles of your educational philosophy?
FK: Our first principle is giving students the initial taste of what authentic science is all about. They may spend up to five hours a day in a lab, working side-by-side with researchers. The practice of science immersion makes students feel a part of the international scientific community, observe how scientists think about the unknown, and develop a growth mindset. Scientists, too, get inspired by 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 each 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 inclusivity?
FK: We start with inclusive admission practices. Our process is designed to enable a fair comparison between the students from, say, a city school in Boston, and a rural school in Malaysia. Our experts are sensitive to cultural and social differences and have experience evaluating individual abilities and the potential of every student. 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 every student.
JB: And what happens after the student is admitted?
FK: We make sure to accommodate for their financial or social constraints that could otherwise prevent them from attending the 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 prepared 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?
FK: In many countries, it would be uncommon for a teacher to encourage students to begin their path to science by taking an English class. Yet English is the language of modern science, and therefore we teach our classes in English. Learning scientific terms in English allows many of our students, such as those from the 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 might be interested in running a similar program.
JB: How does the war in Ukraine affect your program?
FK: The conflict has deeply affected many of our students and our school strongly condemns the violence taking place. We have made efforts 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 unable to attend in person.
JB: What happens after a student completes your program?
FK: We focus on supporting and growing our community. We have a separate program for our alumni, which helps them to stay in touch with each other and their mentors. Notably, more than half of our alumni have chosen to remain in STEM fields and proceed to graduate studies.
JB: What could you say about the people supporting your efforts?
FK: The school is driven by enthusiastic scientists who share our values and are willing to contribute countless hours to helping the students learn. It is hosted by a rotation of amazing colleges and universities giving us access to their labs and equipment. We couldn’t do this without help from our organizers and coordinators, who do the lion’s share of ensuring a welcoming experience for the students. Finally, we wouldn’t exist without the generous financial support of the Zimin Foundation.
Kondrashov hopes the School of Molecular and Theoretical Biology will serve as an inspiration for new authentic and inclusive programs in years to come.