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Youth in STEM: High School Senior Jacob Umans Leads the International Youth Neuroscience Association

January 9, 2017

In a pursuit to further my STEM knowledge, I have spent the last few months discussing various topics with other high school students from around the globe. It seems baffling to me that most, if not all, have developed an inexplicable fondness for the sciences, whether it be through optogenetics or mechanical engineering. However, only a few seem to follow through with their big ideas, and I have had the pleasure of speaking with one outstanding student about his path to STEM success.

Recently, I spoke with Jacob Umans, senior at Capistrano Valley High School and co-President of the International Youth Neuroscience Association, on his journey to his highly coveted success in STEM.

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Mallika Pajjuri: What initiated your profound love for the sciences?

Jacob Umans: “I honestly am not too sure how I originally became interested in STEM. Ever since I was little, I was inexplicably drawn to STEM fields, particularly medicine. Throughout the years I had the opportunity to explore the fields more, both within and outside of the classroom, and these further convinced me to pursue STEM fields. One particularly interesting experience I had was curing aging in seventh grade. As anyone can see, this plan did not quite work out as planned. However, merely thinking about these global questions helped draw me into STEM.”

Pajjuri: Why should students consider STEM related careers and ventures?

Umans: “The pace of advancements in science and technology means that in a STEM field you will always have the opportunity to learn more about your field. At least to me, the idea of spending my life continuing to learn and apply my problem-solving skills to new situations is enticing. Furthermore, in STEM fields all researchers are able to work on world-changing work, with opportunities ranging from writing code to model planetary motion to testing new Alzheimer’s Disease medications.”

Pajjuri: Neuroscience appears to be your strong suit and passion. How and why did you develop this interest from childhood through adolescence?

Umans: “I would say that my interest in neuroscience started around the time I ‘cured’ aging. Ever since that point, I have kept on reading more about neuroscience and found every detail incredibly fascinating. The brain is just amazing – it is what allows us to have memories, emotions, and consciousness. Neuroscience is so interesting to me because every fact I learn about the brain is part of what makes me who I am, what makes me human. Learning about the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, which steals not only the lives but also the livelihoods of its victims, has motivated me to pursue research in the molecular basis of memory and higher functions to help develop new treatments for this disease.”

Pajjuri: Your accomplishments in STEM are, to say the least, impressive. You competed in one of the nation’s most prestigious STEM competitions, the National Brain Bee, and, subsequently afterwards, conducted research at one of the nation’s most prolific research institutions, Salk Institute. How have you benefited from these various experiences?

Umans: “On the second night of the USA National Brain Bee, I ended up meeting with other competitors in the basement of the host hotel. We met not as competitors but as teens driven to spread our passion for neuroscience. At that meeting, we founded the Youth Neuroscience Clubs of America. The organization has since evolved into the International Youth Neuroscience Association, with members in nearly twenty countries. It is truly an honor to be president of the IYNA and to work with our brilliant members towards our common goal of promoting neuroscience education around the world. My hope for the organization is that we can inspire the next generation of neurologists, neuroscientists, and neurosurgeons to work towards an improved understanding of the brain and better treatments for neurological disease.

“Over this past summer, I had the opportunity to conduct research in the Stem Cell Core Facility at the Salk Institute as a participant in the Heithoff-Brody Scholars Program. Working at Salk was a life-changing experience; not only was I able to explore the subject I loved, but I also had the opportunity to do so in a way that benefited the field. Working in the Stem Cell Core Facility also gave me a much better understanding of the importance of interdisciplinary research – stem cell biology and neuroscience, much like essentially any other pair STEM of fields, can be paired to allow knowledge of both to advance.”

Pajjuri: How can teens get actively involved in science?

Umans: “The best way to start getting more involved in science in high school would be to take advanced science classes, especially AP or IB classes, to gain a more advanced understanding of the different fields. Once you have found something that you’re interested in learning more about, the next step is, naturally, to learn more. Additional textbooks, online classes, or even summer courses at a local university can give you the more advanced understanding of the field necessary to understand current research in the field. Once you have a strong grasp of the fundamentals, emailing researchers at a local university to try to work in their labs over the summer is an excellent next step. Many researchers will be excited to have a driven high school student interested in their work, and even if they do not have the space they still may recommend that you try to talk to other researchers. If it is difficult to conduct research in the lab, it can also be valuable to analyze the data from online databases or just read scientific papers. In my opinion, starting to think about the big questions of your chosen field is the best way to start getting involved in science. In addition, either starting or joining a science club is a great way to get more involved in science – getting to learn with like-minded friends is a great way to advance your knowledge of and interest in science.”

Pajjuri: What advice do you have for teens navigating towards STEM careers?

Umans: “The best advice I have to offer is to try to find one area you are truly passionate about and to just start learning about it. There are so many different STEM fields that becoming an expert in all of them is next to impossible, so it is important to find what you care most about. This will not only prepare you for a career that will leave you satisfied, but it will also allow you to enjoy the time you spend studying. If you don’t like to learn about a specific topic, it probably won’t be especially interesting to work on in the future.

“Also, it is important not to get discouraged by the achievement of others. Yes, there are probably teens out there who are smarter than you, unless you are in fact the smartest in the world. However, that does not mean you will not turn out to be a great scientist in the future. With a little luck and a lot of determination, anyone certainly has the potential to succeed.”

Pajjuri: What advice do you have for anxious parents who would like their kids to be STEM geared and prepared?

Umans: “Before answering this, I just have to point out that neither parents nor anyone else should force their kids to pursue a STEM career or participate in a particular STEM-related program. While it may be the right choice for me and many others, it is ultimately up to the kids themselves to determine whether or not they want to pursue STEM. That being said, I would advise parents to help find opportunities for their children–summer programs, online classes, and after-school programs dedicated to science education can offer a level of depth within a specific subfield (for example, neuroscience or quantum physics) that normal high school classes may not be able to provide. Additionally, if you happen to know people who already work in a STEM field it could also be valuable to allow your child to speak with them to gain a better understanding of what working in STEM is like. However, the most important thing parents can do is support their children’s goals and encourage them to keep following their passion, STEM or otherwise.”

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