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Is Canada losing the lab-rat race?

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Ariana Rostami ranks chemistry and biology as her favourite classes. She gets top marks in her advanced Grade 11 courses and is happy to discuss quantum mechanics. But ask her about a career in research and she grimaces as though someone suggested locking her in a dark closet.

Which is only a slight exaggeration of how she and many of her fellow students regard the scientific enterprise – they picture long, lonely nights exiled in a lab, isolated from other humans, continually begging for funding.

“Look up ‘scientist' on Google,” the 16-year-old says, “and you will see someone in a lab coat.” At the moment, she is considering something with more immediate results, such as physiotherapy.

Ask her biology classmates at Colonel By Secondary School in Ottawa if any of them want to be scientists and only a few tentative hands flicker up. What's worrying is that this is no average high-school science class. It is part of the International Baccalaureate program, chosen from a large pool of applicants. These are students who spend half of their time in labs, working through experiments, not dozing off during lectures – the kind of education most scientists wish they had had. If any group should be producing lab-coat keeners, it should be this one.

Julia Dutaud, 16, sitting in the back in her school-rugby T-shirt, would like to study environmental science – a field growing as rapidly as any – but she wonders if she could make a good living at it: “Going into science would be a nice thing to do,” she says. “But we aren't sure how much opportunity we would get after university.”

Half the students are planning to be doctors instead, a profession they and their parents consider more stable.

They aren't alone. A study released this week found that in Canada and many other Western countries, few of the best high-school science students are interested in trading their A's for electron microscopes and brain scanners. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that on average 60 per cent of the highest-achieving, 15-year-old science students were uninterested in careers in advanced research.

At a time when science is crucial to addressing the world's problems, governments and educators are struggling to recruit young initiates. Ariana Rostami was learning to walk in 1994, the last time Canada won a Nobel Prize in science. The nation's scientists have been recognized for stellar accomplishments in many areas, but public recognition and popular acclaim do not seem to follow.

Scientists wistfully recall the Cold War space-race era, when politicians gave impassioned speeches about science's potential. And Canadians point out this past Monday's speech by U.S. President Barack Obama to the National Academy of Sciences: “Science,” he declared, “is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently has been criticized for a far more timid approach that threatens to limit the creativity and options of researchers – a fact clearly not lost on the class at Colonel By.

How do you change education systems that often drive students away from science and build a national culture in which the best young minds naturally envision themselves as future Nobel winners and not ostracized, penny-pinching lab rats?

Just ask the students in Ottawa if they can name a Canadian scientist. “Only if he's dead,” jokes Shadman Zamau, 16, before volunteering Alexander Graham Bell – whose invention of the telephone is now more than 130 years old. INNOVATE AND CELEBRATE

In the fall of 2003, Dwayne Miller, a leading Canadian physicist, watched a little old lady climb on to the Berlin subway and take a seat next to him. It was about 2:30 a.m. on the Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften (Long Night of Research), when the science labs of the city open to the public, accompanied by bands and beer tabs.

Across the aisle, an 18-year-old woman with steel-toed boots, spiked hair and body piercings struck up a conversation with the older passenger, asking if she had seen anything interesting. Soon, next to Dr. Miller, they were engaged in a passionate conversation.

“The very next stop, they both walked out together and went to a science event,” he recalls over the phone from a conference in Germany. “I thought I was going to cry, let me tell you. In Canada, we are science-averse, and here they were just loving it.”

Last year, Dr. Miller's research team made an important discovery about what happens to matter at extremely high temperatures. “The closest way I can describe it to is we stuck our hand into the sun, grabbed a chunk and took a look at it.”

The popular German newsweekly Der Spiegel wrote about it; in the U.S., Wired magazine featured his research. In Canada, his work passed without a murmur.

“We don't celebrate Canadian accomplishments,” he says. “If Canadian science was portrayed in a more winning way, you would see a lot more people get the fever.”

The OECD study found that even top science students seemed unclear on what scientists do and what career paths are available. Ms. Rostami admits: “I guess I don't really know what kind of people they are. If I talked to people in the field, and saw their point of view on research, that might interest me more.”

Part of the problem is simply public relations. While winning awards such as the Nobel Prize raises the profile of science, many scientists also point out that raising science's profile also wins more Nobel Prizes. Canada punches above its weight in a number of important fields, including stem cells, genetics, cellular signalling, astronomy and neuroscience.

As the journal Nature recently said, Canada has maintained a position among the world's top 10 countries in scientific output. Where it often falls short, besides in funding, is in self-promotion.

“We demonstrably do exceptional science, pretty much on bare-bones budgets,” says Tony Pawson, a researcher at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital who in 2008 won the Kyoto Prize, Japan's equivalent of the Nobel, for discoveries about cells that offers insights into diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

The United States, which wins the bulk of Nobel Prizes, is much better at advocating on behalf of its scientists – even during the previous eight years under president George W. Bush, when science was far from a top priority.

U.S. institutions lobby on behalf of their researchers in a way that Canadian universities often do not, suggests Alan Bernstein, former president of Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the granting agency that funds medical research at Canadian universities and now the executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York.

Success breeds success, he says. “As a nation, we expect our hockey teams to win because they always have. If you are good as a nation at something, there are role models for young people coming through.”

Scientists themselves accept some of the blame. Samuel Weiss, who won a prestigious Gairdner Award last year for his discovery that the adult brain can produce new cells, says Canadian scientists have to get better at thumping their chests.

“As scientists, we are way too reticent to tell the story and engage the community the way scientists engage the community in other countries. … We'll point to government, but I don't know if we have made the case about how important science is.”

Dr. Miller returned home from Berlin that fall in 2003 with the idea of replicating the event in Toronto. And last year his Science Rendezvous drew about 20,000 people; this year's event happens next Saturday. Scientists will be hosting large-scale experiments on the street and popping into Starbucks to start spontaneous conversations on topics such as the origins of the universe.

Dr. Miller imagines it becoming national some day. He is hoping to win over one group in particular – parents, who would often rather steer their straight-A children into medical schools. “Parents have to see that science is a real option for their children,” he says. “We're hoping for a culture transformation over time.”

THE KEENER

Eugeny Naumon, a 17-year-old Colonel By student, has no doubt where he will be in 10 years – in a lab, using the grey matter under his blond hair to ponder complex physics questions. He is the only one of the 30 students on this Thursday morning who expresses unequivocally an ambition to work purely in research. He is carrying a 98 average in physics and he subscribes to Scientific American and New Scientist. (In his careers class, an aptitude test suggested he be a petroleum engineer – he doesn't remember seeing a category for physicist.) “I know I am sounding a bit nerdy. … But that's how I am,” he says. “I just love physics: Why does this equation work? How is everything connected?”

Mr. Naumon has an advantage perhaps – both his father (who still lives in Russia) and his mother (now a teacher here in Canada) have PhDs in physics. He and his mom often discuss physics at the kitchen table. And even he admits that he is not yet precisely certain what a theoretical physicist does. “I just want to know the pure science, and the theory behind it,” he says. “And discover something new. So pushing the frontier of science, that's my dream.”

In fact, though, not every scientist follows such a clear path from high school. More than a few will admit that had the OECD asked them then about science as a career, their 15-year-old selves might also have been short on enthusiasm.

Dwayne Miller laughs at the prospect. “I really liked science and wanted to study it. But I thought science was for ‘rocket scientists.' My attitude was, those people were so smart it was beyond you.”

Some of Canada's most brilliant scientists stumbled into their careers by a series of alarmingly random steps. Dr. Miller realized what was possible when, in his third undergraduate year, he was left in charge of a lab at his summer job at the Whiteshell nuclear facility in Pinawa, Man. – and was surprised to discover a synthetic mineral that could reduce the radioactivity of certain isotopes. “You have to have some moment where you see that you can contribute – a can-do science experience.”

Alan Bernstein of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise – now an internationally respected researcher in cancer and genomics who has penned more than 200 research papers – recalls hating Grade 10 biology, where he had to recite the anatomical parts of a flower and a frog.

“Now, Grade 10 boys are actually interested in body parts,” he says. “But frogs and flowers don't have those body parts. I was taught to memorize boring stuff, as opposed to what science really is – the most powerful way our species has evolved to look at the world around us.”

And John Polanyi, the University of Toronto physicist who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1986, remembers pondering a possible future as a poet when he graduated from high school. Eventually, he “drifted into” research in search of something challenging. (He had grown up with a scientist father himself.) As he sees it, it was only after he finished his PhD and was given a small amount of money to work with that his science career began in earnest, at the end of a meandering path. “You don't need to take your temperature every morning to determine whether you are interested in science,” he tells his students: Let it develop naturally.

At the same time, these scientists do not want the careers of research's next generation to depend on lucky accidents. For one thing, as Bruce Alberts, editor of the journal Science, points out, less-advantaged kids might never get those breaks. The OECD study found that while Canadian-born students and immigrant students were equally represented among top performers, high-income teenagers had a clear advantage.

How many hours they spent learning was also a key factor: High-performing students in Canada spent nearly twice as much time in science classes as the least-successful students. So if schools and teachers don't inspire students to an interest in the field, they will quickly fall by the wayside.

Most scientists will tell you that the inspiring part of the work is hands-on investigation, with time for real problem-solving in the field and in the lab. American-born physicist Carl Wieman is now leading a $12-million, five-year initiative at the University of British Columbia to look for the best ways to teach science: His research interests have switched from the nature of matter to what's the matter with science and engineering at universities that causes so many students to drop them.

Most introductory science courses, he has found, actually reduce interest. “If it is presented as memorizing a bunch of facts, and removed from the real world, then you don't see physics as a tremendously exciting thing to spend your life on.”

On the other hand, giving students an invigorating challenge, such as figuring out how to generate and distribute wind power in a community, could be a good way to teach them the fundamentals about electricity: “Instead of memorizing basic laws and equations, you would start with a problem you want to solve.”

While Dr. Wieman's work is focused on university students, high school and middle school are probably even more important, he says: “If you have a bad high-school teacher, a bad high-school experience, and don't know people who support [science] … you will decide on something else.”

And he speaks from experience: At university, Dr. Wieman barely passed his first physics course. “I didn't enjoy it at all. But because of a fluke I got a chance to work in a research laboratory. … I realized how different it was from taking a physics course. Then I decided that's what I wanted.”

He continued blasting atoms with lasers for the next 30 years – work that won him a 2001 Nobel Prize in physics. THAT SPECIAL TEACHER

One of the reasons scientists focus so keenly on upgrading education is that they know who the most important person was to launch their own careers – a teacher. Canadian researcher Larisa Shavinina, studying a sampling of Nobel laureates, found that almost without exception they credited the actions of a key teacher in their lives.

One described the teacher who came to his house to persuade his parents, who had no money and little education, to send their promising son to university. Another teacher stayed late after class with a future laureate to toss ideas around, and let the budding scientist hang out in the chemistry lab on weekends.

“These teachers all went the extra mile – they did something exceptional,” says Prof. Shavinina, who studies giftedness at the University of Quebec in the Outaouais.

And Ariana Rostami says it herself: Biology is one of her favourite classes because she really likes her teacher.

On this Thursday morning, the students in Kerri Illingworth's class are learning about respiration and preparing for a lab experiment with yeast – they come motivated to learn. They are surprised to hear that Dwayne Miller is travelling in Europe right now for conferences and even more shocked when a teacher tells them about a group of scientists who recently sold their research to a U.S. drug company for millions of dollars.

But something's missing from their brief morning discussion about the pursuit of science, between the talk about grant applications and job prospects. Science, as any researcher will say, must be fuelled by passion, not riches or glory – the search for that eureka moment.

“People who work seven days a week and into the night doing research do it for the same reason some people paint watercolours,” Dr. Polanyi says.

Later that night, about to start her chemistry homework, Ms. Rostami reflects that scientific research may just seem to take too long and carry too many risks for a generation that is used to getting the answers with a click of mouse. But she is mulling it over – there would be something amazing about making even a small contribution to science.

“It would be something that's not just about you and your name being reputable – you'd be helping the world.” And she hasn't settled on physiotherapy yet, not really. “It's really hard to look into the future that far ahead.”

There's still time to convince her that there is more to science than a lonely laboratory.

Erin Anderssen is a Globe and Mail feature writer. Anne McIlroy is The Globe and Mail's science writer.

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