Quality Science Education Is The Foundation Of Success

October 5, 2007
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Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Barry Sanders, Terry Bradshaw: Football stars, both current and past, are familiar names in most American households.

Now let’s try Francis Collins, Lawrence Einhorn, Douglas Lowy and Harald zur Hausen. If “zur Whosen?” was your response, you’re not alone. These are not names you will find on any NFL roster. But I would dare say they are people who have had a more significant and long-term impact on your life and that of your family.

They are scientists. Specifically, they are scientists who, because of their groundbreaking contributions to biomedical and cancer research, are recipients of the Daniel Nathans Memorial Award. The Van Andel Research Institute established this award in 2000 in memory of Dr. Daniel Nathans, a distinguished member of our scientific community and founding member of the VARI Board of Scientific Advisors. The award emphasizes the importance of basic research and how it leads to therapies that prevent cancer and save lives.

Unlike the Heisman Trophy, the Daniel Nathans Memorial Award hasn’t become a household name. Neither have many of its recipients. These are people who are dedicated to finding what causes cancer and how we can treat it, cure it or even prevent it. These are the kind of people who, I hope, we as a community will encourage our children to emulate. 

Dr. Einhorn, for instance, pioneered the development of a life-saving medical treatment for testicular cancer, increasing the survival rate from 10 percent to 95 percent. Dr. Collins led the successful effort to complete the Human Genome Project and opened the door to individualized, prevention-oriented medicine. Drs. zur Hausen and Lowy were recipients of this year’s Nathans Award at a ceremony last month. Each played a pivotal role in the development of the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. Dr. zur Hausen’s lab uncovered the fact that infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the leading cause of cervical cancer. Dr. Lowy’s studies led to the development of a novel way to prepare vaccines that are highly successful in preventing HPV infection.

These are important people. They have made life-changing discoveries. Yet, when we turn on our televisions on Sunday night, a live broadcast from their laboratories will not be one of our program options. Why is that? The obvious answer is, its far more exciting to watch an NFL game than a scientist peering into a microscope. But I think the answer, and the implications, go deeper. Too few American children believe they can be scientists. Too few aspire to the profession and choose to study science at the college and graduate level.

A national study among high school students shows that a full 45 percent say they would be “really unhappy” in a career that requires a lot of math and science. Contrast that with the number of kids who would love to be professional athletes. I find it both curious and troubling that, while only 1 percent to 3 percent of high school students receive college athletic scholarships, plenty of kids pin their hopes on a full-ride to a Big Ten school and four years on the playing field.

It is vital that more American families encourage their children to consider pursuing science education. Currently, just 5.7 percent of 24-year-old Americans hold science degrees. We need to do a better job of instilling in our children the belief that they can be scientists. Motivation and inspiration are key components in this mission.

They are also integral to the Van Andel Education Institute Science Academy mission. The Academy is designed to “grow scientists” and encourage young children to become life-long learners. Here, we hope to motivate children at an early age to dig deeper and inspire them to believe they can do science. We want any child from any socio-economic background to believe he or she can become a scientist. We want our children to dream of discovery. We want them to aspire to cure disease and enrich lives. And, as we discover more about how these children learn science, we hope to use that knowledge to develop new model programs that empower educators to teach science effectively.

On the other end of the educational continuum, the Van Andel Institute Graduate School held its opening convocation in August. At that time we welcomed our inaugural class: three gifted students whose journey toward a scientific career began when something or someone inspired them to believe they could be a scientist. We are honored that each has chosen to continue their journey here, using the technology and techniques associated with contemporary genetic research to extend developments in cell and molecular biology and bridge the gap between basic understanding and medical treatment. 

In the decade since the Van Andel Institute was established and the seven years since we opened our doors on Michigan Hill, we have learned a great deal about operating a world-class research institution. One thing we’ve learned is that quality science education is the foundation of success.

I think we can borrow a great deal from the world of sports when looking at ways to increase science literacy in the U.S. Teamwork and collaboration, passion, motivation and inspiration — each is necessary for success on the playing field. Let’s be sure we are infusing our classrooms with the same passion, that we’re inspiring scientific excellence in our schools and motivating our kids to study science, that we’re encouraging the kind of collaboration among researchers that leads to discovery, and that we are doing all we can to recognize scientists like Douglas Lowy and Harald zur Hausen so our children can look to them as role models. The quality of our lives and that of our children is dependent upon our ability to do just that.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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