Science live for Russian high-school students
A two-week Summer School in the Russian research centre Pushchino proved to be a life-changing event for some of the eighty high-school students in attendance. Fyodor Kondrashov, group leader at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, initiated the project two years ago to give young people a realistic experience of what it is like to do scientific research.
For EMBO Young Investigator Fyodor Kondrashov the summer of 2013 has been very eventful. Just a few weeks after receiving a starting grant from the European Research Council, he travelled to his home country Russia for a two-week summer school hosting 80 Russian high-schoolers aged 15 –17. He took charge of this project almost single-handedly for the second time – a fulfilment of his life-long dream and an "extremely exhausting task."
The students participating in the "School of Molecular and Theoretical Biology" were accompanied by almost 60 faculty members. Most of these were graduate and postdoctoral students; a few group leaders also accepted the invitation to attend. Having genuine team leaders in the programme was an important part of the concept. "The idea is to make the kids participate in real science rather than just play like they are doing science," says Kondrashov. EMBO Installation Grantee Marcin Nowotny was on the faculty board as well as Long-Term Fellow Cajetan Neubauer from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, United States. Both came to Pushchino thanks to a small grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Russia has a long tradition of extra-curricular activities at schools so it was not unusual that Fyodor began teaching junior colleagues while still a graduate student at the University of California at San Diego. Public engagement is a fantastic way for the scientists to gain important skills and to make a difference. "By the time the two weeks were over, we were completely exhausted. Yet it was an incredibly rewarding experience," concludes the evolutionary biologist.
The fourteen days in Pushchino were packed full with science. Every day, the students spent two hours in theoretical lectures; the remaining five or six hours were reserved for experiments and analyses at the bench – or the computer. Each group consisted of at most ten students and was guided by several scientists. Lectures and courses covered most of the modern life sciences, from embryology to paleontology and from bioinformatics to microbiology. The school was using the infrastructure of the research institutes in Pushchino, a science city two hours' drive south of Moscow.
Cajetan's group focused on environmental microbiology and regularly went on field trips to collect samples from the nearby river Oka. "I had some highly talented students from a variety of backgrounds," he says. Some of the attendees came from large cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow, others from remote villages in Siberia. Their educational background was just as diverse.
Whereas some had private school experience, others came from rather impoverished families. 17-year-old Grigory Khimulya from Sochi said: "The school was of the most important events in my life. It is hard to describe how enriching and exciting it was for me."
The school is organized and managed by the Dynasty Foundation, the largest private foundation in Russia supporting science and science education. In the future, Fyodor hopes to find additional sponsors and perhaps even organize one season of the school in Barcelona where he is currently working.