Dudley Herschbach | May 18, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 20 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 20 | p. 50 | C&EN Talks With
Issue Date: May 18, 2009

Dudley Herschbach

Nobel Laureate turns the spotlight on promising young scientists
Department: Science & Technology
Herschbach draws a crowd at the Intel Science Talent Search poster session.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Herschbach draws a crowd at the Intel Science Talent Search poster session.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

THEY SURROUNDED him as though he were a rock star. At this year's Intel Science Talent Search poster session, Dudley Herschbach suddenly found himself at the center of a swarm of overachieving high school seniors eagerly awaiting what he had to say. They hung on his every word. Then one asked to take a photograph with him—and then another, and another.

And so it often goes during the famed science research competition, held in Washington, D.C., every March, when the finalists realize that they're in the presence of a scientific superstar.

Herschbach doesn't mind the attention, but he hopes that the real focus will turn to these shining students. "I tell my colleagues and other senior scientists who sometimes lament the future of science, 'Come to the Intel Science Talent Search or the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, and you'll meet the future,'" says the 76-year-old Chemistry Nobel Laureate and Harvard University emeritus professor. "It's inspiring. Every year, I'm astonished by things some of the students have done."

A tireless supporter of independent research opportunities for high school students, Herschbach serves as chair for the Board of Trustees of the Society for Science & the Public (SSP), the nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that administers the Intel Science Talent Search and the annual Intel Science & Engineering Fair. He has been in this role for nearly 20 years, ever since it was passed on to him by his friend and colleague, the late Glenn T. Seaborg, a Chemistry Nobel Laureate who held the SSP position for 30 years.

Neither of Herschbach's parents went to college, and they had no money to send their kids to school, so he never expected to attain a college degree. But he worked hard in high school and received an academic scholarship to attend Stanford University, where he discovered his passion for doing research.

"Four of my five siblings went to college, and all of us completely transformed our lives, so I see what a difference an education makes," Herschbach says. "I've always been very happy to be in a position to be teaching and trying to encourage young people."

Herschbach says that it is extremely rewarding to see high school students mature into accomplished scientists. Two of his present-day Harvard colleagues, David R. Liu and Adam E. Cohen, were finalists in the science talent search when he first met them. Cohen, who earned first place in the 1997 competition (then called the Westinghouse Science Talent Search) joined Harvard's faculty in 2007 as an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of physics. Liu, who won second place in the 1990 competition, joined Harvard's faculty in 1999 and is now a full professor in the department of chemistry and chemical biology.

To keep track of how many finalists he's met and talked with over the years, Herschbach asks for each student's autograph. So far, he's collected more than 300 signatures in the 10 years since he started the practice.

During the poster-session portion of this year's competition, Herschbach met 18-year-old high school senior Eric Shyu of Naperville, Ill., who had investigated the role of cadmium perchlorate in the creation of coordination polymers. After asking Shyu a series of tough questions about his research methodology, Herschbach turned to leave but realized that he'd forgotten to get Shyu's autograph. As Shyu finished scribbling his name on the program, he turned to Herschbach and asked, "What was your name again?"

When attending these poster sessions, Herschbach prefers to go incognito because he doesn't want his celebrity status to influence his conversations with the students. If they discover who he is later on, then they also "realize that a Nobel Laureate isn't all that different from anyone else," Herschbach says. "That's one of the most valuable things they can get by meeting senior scientists and realizing, 'I don't think this guy is any smarter than I am.' "

BUT OFTEN, his anonymity is short-lived. "Dr. Herschbach!" called out 18-year-old Philip Streich of Platteville, Wis., at the poster session. Herschbach turned around to face the slim young man with fair skin, wavy brown hair, and intense eyes. Streich told Herschbach that he'd heard him speak previously at the International Science & Engineering Fair. "It's good to meet you in person," Streich said.

Realizing that he had only moments to make a good impression, Streich proceeded to tell Herschbach at a rapid-fire pace how he went from homeschooler to doing research on carbon nanotubes at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, to building his own instruments to cofounding a company—all within the past few years (C&EN, Nov. 10, 2008, page 35). Streich also noted that he will be attending Harvard in the fall and plans to create his own concentration in biomolecular nanoscience.

Herschbach says he gets fired up when he meets students like Streich who demonstrate real ownership of their research. He encourages other scientists to talk with high school students about their research. "The kids love to have some attention from a senior scientist. They respond hugely, almost embarrassingly, to a little bit of encouragement," he says. "But I would say the most important reason is to have the professional scientist come and see these kids. It'll open their eyes to what high school kids can do."

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