Young scientists at the state of the union address

Two winners of national science contests invited to attend Jan. 27 speech

Two talented young scientists sat near Michelle Obama as President Barack Obama spoke to Congress in the State of the Union address on January 27.

The students were Li Boynton, a high school senior from Houston, and Gabriela Farfan, a freshman at Stanford University. Each had placed in one of two national science competitions in 2009 and both were invited by the White House to attend a speech in which Obama emphasized his goal to improve math and science education.

Boynton’s project on glowing bacteria that detect contaminants in water was one of the top three winners in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2009. Farfan’s study of the colors of minerals in Oregon Sunstones earned her tenth place at the Intel Science Talent Search 2009. Both science contests are sponsored by the Society for Science & the Public, which also publishes Science News.

Farfan says her presence at the speech sent “a very important message, saying that the president really cares about education, especially science education.”

Farfan nurtured a love of minerals from age 7, and is still studying sunstones, though she’s hoping to start new projects soon. The next project may focus on opals and jades, she says.

Her advice to other aspiring scientists is, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions If [your professors] don’t know, there’s bound to be someone who will know. If no one knows the answer, you’ll have to find out yourself.”

In his speech, President Obama called for education reform that “inspires students to excel in math and science.” He stressed the importance of not falling behind other nations, such as China, Germany and India, in science and technology.

“These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science,” Obama said. “Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America”

“The President is counting on students like Li and Gabriela to help the nation meet the grand challenges of the 21st century,” said Rick Weiss of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “These young women are inspirations to us all, and they are living proof that when the right resources are in place … America’s students can truly excel in science, engineering and math.”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.