Project Prometheus releases inner scientist

Updated: 2012-02-23 13:06

By Liu Xiangrui (China Daily)

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Project Prometheus releases inner scientist

Nobel laureate Eric Wieschaus talks with young Project Prometheus participants. Liu Xiangrui/China Daily

SHANTOU, Guangdong - "What's your life like? Are most scientists really like the science nerds in the popular TV series Big Bang?" Wang Gefeng asks Eric Wieschaus, a 1995 Nobel Prize-winner.

The 16-year-old's question begins a free-ranging conversation between the laureate and a dozen teenagers sitting around a table.

Wang is one of 83 high school students who spent three unforgettable days at a camp with eight world-class biomedical scientists, including Wieschaus, at Shantou University in Guangdong province.

"These young students are eager to learn science," says Wieschaus, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. "As a scientist and educator, I am interested in becoming part of their growth and scientific education in China."

The program, Project Prometheus, is sponsored by the Li Ka Shing Foundation and intends to build a platform for students to interact with top scientists through group discussions, lectures and meals.

The foundation, established by Hong Kong business tycoon Li Ka-shing, has a long-term commitment to education and medical care on the Chinese mainland.

"The students not only learn about their mentors' research and careers but, more importantly, witness their passion for their work and their integrity," explains project leader Lin Haifan, council member of Shantou University and a professor at Yale University.

"I am interested in the lives of scientists - everything about them," says Wang, a senior high school student from the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. He developed a strong interest in biology at junior middle school and dreams of becoming a scientist.

"My first impression was that the mentors are ordinary people, too. In other words, we can become great scientists as long as we learn what's unusual about them," Wang says.

For Xia Yuyang, from Guangdong province's Shenzhen city, sharing the scientists' insights is a priority. He believes three days in the company of these scientists will have a tremendous influence on him.

"It's important to learn about their ideas and attitudes toward their research," the 16-year-old says. "That's what we can't get from our textbooks or teachers."

Every year, the project will focus on a theme or a field and select about 100 high school students from all over China who have a talent for science.

Seven Chinese academics are on the selection panel, and candidates are required to submit a paper explaining their interests in, and experiences with science.

The theme for this year's event was biomedical research. However, topics and questions raised by the students are wide-ranging and imaginative.

For example, Lu Sizhu, a 17-year-old from Jilin province, wants to know why people get addicted to the Internet and drugs and whether it's possible to develop a psychotropic medicine to cure the addictions.

"We hope they will be further enlightened by science and scientific exploration," Lin says. "We can combine (the project) with the college entrance examination system, so that these students have a greater chance of getting attention from universities and foundations."

Lin admits, however, that it's too early to predict whether the program will have a profound influence as the exam system is prioritized in China.

"My impression is that all Chinese students at this age appear to be struggling with the problem of high school education and exams, which will decide their future," Wieschaus says.

"I suspect that the situation in China has to evolve over time, because to support true originality in science, you need more flexibility for the students, not to focus on exams as much."

The late scientist Qian Xuesen called for reform of China's education, pointing out the system had not produced outstanding talent.

Speaking of which, Project Prometheus consultant and former vice-minister of education Wei Yu says: "As to the 'Question of Qian Xuesen' - a hot topic - this program is a new and meaningful experiment to nurture innovative talents in the country's high-tech areas."

Wei says that through the examples of the mentors the program can assist students cultivate a passion for science and understand the true goal of scientific research.

"Real scientific creativity requires passion and dedication," Wei says. "But the present college entrance examination and related training wears away students' interest in science, making them practical and able to just get good grades at college and a decent job."