Sigal Tifferet

Senior Lecturer, Ruppin Academic Center


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How can a talented teenager prepare himself for a scientific career? What do you scientists recommend? (Personal experiences, please).

My son is 16 years old and is very interested in science (Physics, Biology, Math). He would like to hear your recommendations on how to prepare for a scientific career. Is this a critical period to learn things that will be difficult to learn later? Are there non-academic experiences he should try? We are especially interested in personal experiences of all of you scientists out there.

Let me add that my son (Alon) is the one who nudged me a few times to post this question. He studies at a democratic school, meaning that he has full freedom to do whatever he pleases with his time at school. A big portion of his choices are science-related, but he does other things as well (basketball, juggling).

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    May 17 2011: He might be interested in philosophy of science?

    Does he like to do experiments to figure out how things work?

    Being skeptical (questioning everything) is also a good skill to fine-tune... maybe even some things about human logical fallacies...
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      May 18 2011: Alon: Thank you for your interesting response. I am not interested in philosophy of science. But figuring out how things work is one of my biggest interests. Being skeptical is interesting.

      Sigal: Alon is skeptical from birth, this is one of the things I do foster in all of my kids, but I do believe much of it is genetic. His grandfather, for instance, specializes in decision making and fallacies (this is a popular area for Israelis, perhaps due to Tversky and Kahaneman).
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        May 18 2011: Alon:
        How come science works?

        Sigal: :-) Tversky and Kahneman... very good psychologists! (I like them both)
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          May 25 2011: Alon: Science works because a law was found that fitted all of the examples that were thought of in that context. Or it was proven that the law would work in any other example.
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        May 25 2011: Alon,
        I think your answer is one way to see it. And I don't think it is wrong.

        I asked this question to myself, and that was what led me to investigate the philosophy of science, or rather to the central question of (what we call) epistemology ("explainology"): "how can we know what we know?" (

        As science, through all the investigating and thinking and experimenting, appears to be a very good way to obtain knowledge.
        So I think science actually follows the the answers to that epistemological question.

        that said, I wanted to tantalize your interest in philosophy a bit... but I can understand that doing actual science (or using it,...) might be a lot more fun to do than philosophizing about it...
        • May 31 2011: In my opinion, working out what science can prove/investigate is just as valuable as investigating/proving, if not more.
  • May 20 2011: I am a PhD student in Engineering. Here are a few things that I have noticed:
    1. There are lots of jobs that require or would benefit from a good technical education
    2. Academia is a tough nut to crack, much more so in science than in engineering. Many students have their sights set on becoming a professor and then realize that the international marketplace for professors is too competitive, requiring years of education and postdoctoral positions that pay very little, leaving many people disheartened.

    My advice for someone in their teens would be to explore career options in science that do not necessarily end in being an academic "scientist." And then that option would still always be there. For example a degree in mathematics from a good university is very useful in fields as diverse as engineering, finances, geology, etc. Engineering is a great career (and I am, of course, biased) and is a great way to actually practice a science (and there are engineers who apply almost every science there is).

    No matter what he chooses, your son will be competing on the international stage for positions. This means that it will not likely be his technical skills that will set him apart, but his soft skills. He needs to learn to write very very well. He needs to learn to lead and manage a team, to deal with stressful and changing situations, and to solve big problems in a multidisciplinary way.

    In a sea of applications with virtually identical technical expertise this is what sets people apart. And you do not get this experience easily. Your son needs to challenge himself. Volunteering, organizing, writing, this is the making a great professional in any field, but stands out particularly in the sciences and leads to the most interesting work. And trust me on the writing.
    • May 22 2011: A comment on jobs: I know very few people who have obtained jobs through a blind application process, and those who do have to work at it for a long, long time. I have never once obtained employment through that process.

      What seems to be the way jobs are actually landed is knowing someone who knows someone who recommends you for a position. It's the people network.

      My first position was through a friend I'd met in high school, who recommended me for a new opening on a project. He and I later started a business. When that failed, he sold the software to a guy who started calling me with technical questions, and then hired me. When I started to do contract software, I got jobs through people I'd met over the years.

      I tend to think this is the "normal" method of finding work.

      This is one very compelling practical reason to stick to doing what you like to do, in places that you like to be. You will tend to meet people with similar interests, likes, and needs, and they will become your "network" of job leads. If you enjoy what you spend time doing, you are much more likely to make a good impression in the first place, and it is more likely to lead to work that you find enjoyable.

      This starts as early as grade school, continues through high school, and is especially rich in college. The really nice thing about this is that, if you remain natural about it, it's actually fun in and of itself.
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      May 25 2011: Alon: Thank you. Can you write some more about the connection of engineering and science? These are two fields that interest me.
      Sigal: He didn't like the comment about writing...
      • May 28 2011: Hello Alon. The connection between science and engineering is widely misunderstood, because the word "science" has a high profile in school and elsewhere, while engineering is hardly mentioned (at least not in K-12). Many people think that engineering is a part of science, or a byproduct of science (e.g. "applying science"), or something that's easier and less important than science. Given that the word "science" is on the tip of everyone's tongue, science gets credit for a lot of things that are done by engineering. OK, to get to the point:Science is about analyzing and understanding what exists in nature, driven by curiosity.Engineering is about making things work that don't exist in nature, driven by creativity.Not everyone even realizes that curiosity and creativity are completely different things. Curiosity leads to discovery, while creativity leads to innovation and invention. Of course, science and engineering are closely related.It is often said that engineering is "applying science," because it is very useful to understand the laws of nature when doing engineering. It is equally true that science is "applying engineering," but no one ever says that. Science experiments can't happen without using "things that work," created by engineers. There is a kind of bias in the system, even to the point that scientists enjoy more prestige than engineers in some ways. Many people who do engineering have the job title "scientist," and strangely enough they don't want to be called engineers.Computer engineers have been called "computer scientists," for example, and rocket engineers have been called rocket scientists.In the job market, it is not always easy to be creative as an engineer, if you have to provide a guarantee to customers.The education system and job titles make things complicated. To figure out where you fit in, ask yourself whether you are interested in making things work, or are you interested in studying nature.
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    May 20 2011: The only thing that really counts is for your child to "learn how to learn." The key to science is that it is always changing. Don't forget that, after Einstein presented his findings - the rest of the scientific community had to start studying them. They had to LEARN something new. Learning how to teach oneself (learning how to learn) is the single most important thing in science.
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    May 4 2011: Aside from the coursework in the basic tools of science (physics, math, chemistry ...) it is important to be involved in science clubs, internships, special research projects and outside reading/study.

    I suggest finding a mentor, a scientist you respect that is willing to coach your son and provide cross-disciplinary guidance to keep his learning horizon wide and open until he decides on a specific area of interest to concentrate in.

    Best regards for a long and happy career. The world will be in good hands.
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      May 7 2011: Alon: THank you. THe idea about a mentor is very interesting.
    • May 10 2011: A mentor is a great thing, but it is not like your local plumber or handyman that you can look up in the yellow pages. Your son needs to be just as willing to learn from the mentor as the mentor is to teach. Therefore I think it is less important to find a mentor that you respect, and more important for your son to find someone he respects and wants to learn from.
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    May 3 2011: Hi there, I am a student in my second year of studying toward a bachelor degree in plant biology. I guess I am still kind of early in the process of becoming a scientist. I definitely agree with Cory on never stop exploring your options. Try different things and see if it is something that you are genuinely interested in and can imagine yourself doing for the rest of your life. Explore the different areas by taking possibly some challenging courses and see if that interest is still there. I personally know that I a not a big fan of physics just from courses I have taken. As a biologist, I am require to learn chemistry to a certain depth, and I actually have done pretty well in related chemistry courses, so that was encouraging.
    As for non-academic experiences, maybe visit different laboratories at a university nearby to see what kind of things different people are doing; read up on things that you find interesting, just make sure the literature is a credible one; ask a lot of questions. I wouldn't necessarily think that science is something that there is a critical period of learning, it all really varies with the person.

    Hope this helps and good luck to your son's further studies :)
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    Jun 2 2011: We would like to thank everyone for your interesting and diverse answers. We have already started to implement some of your suggestions.

    Sigal and Alon
  • May 24 2011: Hello to Alon and his mom Sigal! I'm an astrophysicist at NASA; let's see if my two cents are useful.

    I agree with Jennifer Marchen's suggestion to remember that many scientists work outside of Universities; professors tend to encourage students toward academic careers because that's what they know best, but there are a wide variety of careers for scientists in industry, government, and academia.

    As far as school goes, a solid grounding in Calculus, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics will serve a person well in a wide variety of Engineering & Science majors. High school doesn't need to be special/elite (I went to a rural high school), but a future scientist should take the hardest science & math courses available. That goes for the first two years of college, too.

    My last bit of advice is to take advantage of summer jobs, internships, and research experiences in college, as many as possible and starting as early as possible, to find out what it's like to DO science, as opposed to learning science. The one is very different from the other! The only way to find out whether you like DOING science is to do science! I know scientists who fell in love with research during a summer project; I know students who fell out of love with science after the same sort of experience. Get in a lab, get a summer internship, and see what it's like!

    Good luck, Alon!
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      May 25 2011: Sigal: Great input, thanks. I did an internship in a genetics lab, and although I enjoyed it, it made me realize that as much as I like the field, I don't want to work in a lab.
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    May 21 2011: Well I don't know if theres something specific that he might be interested in, but if he is, something that was really helpful for me was to join some relevant associations and society networks. They keep me up to date with whats going on in my field as well as events I might be interested in, and it helps me get inspired and think of new things.
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    May 16 2011: I am a teacher at a non-traditional public school that sees many self motivated students. I am also a curriculum writer for a new biology program that hopes to get international use (just added a school in Brazil). At 16 there is still plenty of time to explore all sorts of options like the ones mentioned in other postings, but ultimately a good science career depends on specialization. It is good that he is exploring and the school you describe sounds fantastic (would love to read more) because it will allow him to discover where he would like to focus.

    At some point he will have to decide on a college program. My most successful past students are the ones that decided early what direction they were going to take and specifically went after a certain college program. They wound up being part of research teams or working on cutting edge projects a couple of years into post secondary.

    In direct answer to your questions: Is this a critical period to learn things that will be difficult to learn later? Just get a strong traditional science knowledge base (physics, chem, bio, in that order please) so there is a good starting point to learn the more complex stuff later; Are there non-academic experiences he should try? Science is art, artistic expression and thinking expands his science ability, his ability to see more than one solution to a problem, his ability to ask unusual questions, keep up with the juggling!

    Good luck with your education Alon, sounds like you have a great start and a mom who's lookin out for you.
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      May 18 2011: Alon: Thank you for letting me know about the order of importance of the science areas, or did you mean a chronological order?
      Sigal: Very nice answer, thanks!

      Let me tell you a bit more about Alon's school. It is indeed very special. It is called the Democratic School in Hedera

      The school has about 400 children ages 4-18. They are organized in three age groups: 4-8, 9-13, 14-18. They have to come to school every day as is the law in Israel, but in that time period they are free to do whatever interests them, in accordance with the state and school laws (you can't hit anyone...)
      This allows a very wide range of possibilities. Some kids invest most of their time playing soccer, others play with their friends, and others spend most of their time studying. Most find a mixture that fits their needs and age.

      The school is a humanistic school. Every person has the right for honor and self actualization. There is no difference between the students and the teachers in their rights. The school is governed by committees which are elected at the beginning of each year and comprise students, teachers and parents. Committees include: Trips, disciplinary, curriculum, events, student acceptance, teacher evaluation, budget, sports, music, library. Important questions are decided on in the Parliament which is open to all kids, parents and teachers, and each has one voice.

      Any disciplinary problem is brought to the committee which judges if the person is to blame, and the punishment they deserve, if any. kids can bring a teacher to the committee, if they think she misbehaved. Judges sit in groups of 3, and change. They are mostly kids, as is with most committees.

      Let me know if you have any questions, I find this a fascinating topic...
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        May 24 2011: Hi Alon and Sigal,
        Sorry it took so long to respond. I meant chronologically... Physics is the basis of chemistry and biology is the chemistry of life. Learning biology before the others, as an example, would be like building a house and putting up the roof before pouring the foundation. In biology you would have no idea why DNA is double helix, or the important chemical interactions would have no context and it would seem more unbelievable, vague.

        Love your description of the school. As a teacher it is a little scary to let go of that much control, but in reality students are only going to learn what they want to anyway so let them discover why and what they need to learn.

        My motto... Education is not filling a bucket, it is lighting a fire.
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    May 10 2011: Try MIT Open CourseWare.
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    May 7 2011: No matter which specific field he chooses, I'd suggest continue learning as much math as he can at the university level. Understanding math is the key understanding almost all higher scientific concepts and provides training in logical thought and problem solving. That being said, keep in mind also that the brain has both a right and a left side, so don't become so consumed with science and math that creative expression is no longer part of your life.
    • May 7 2011: Self-expression via the fine, performing, or other arts, can certainly be creative, but I wouldn’t call mathematics uncreative or unexpressive. Mathematics is a language, just like writing. Just as writing can span a range from literature to driving directions, so can math. I wouldn’t call what Einstein, Maxwell, or Newton gave us, via math, uncreative or unexpressive.
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        May 8 2011: I would agree with you and have said the same myself. I did not say that the fine, performing, or other arts are the only way to be creatively expressive. My point was that there are many sides to human beings and that acheiving in academic subjects must be balanced with expressing that knowledge and experience in creative ways.
        • May 8 2011: Ah! So. I miss understood.

          If you allow me the presumption, what you actually meant in your last line was, “. . . so don't become so consumed with science and math THAT IT BECOMES THE ONLY creative expression in your life.”

          I find that when I explain to people that they do artists and often themselves, a disservice when they define as ‘Artists’ only those traditionally associated with dancing, painting, etc. I maintain that people who at the top of ‘their game’, often have more in common with each other, regardless of what it is they do, than others who are in the same discipline.

          I find when I have an opportunity to explain to people who consider themselves in an uncreative discipline, that artistry is independent of discipline, it challenges their self-perception. They reconsider how they do their jobs and perhaps remove some of their self-imposed limitations. They begin to see how they can use BOTH sides of their brains. It allows them to pursue a higher level performance, a higher level of satisfaction, and thus feel that they can make more of a difference, both to themselves and the rest of the world.

          Which then we all benefit from.
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      May 18 2011: Alon: Thank you, Nick. I thought about starting to learn a university level math course. I agree with your idea that math is helpful in any scientific area.
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    May 7 2011: Any teenager with a curiosity for science these days couldn't have been born at a better time. The internet has much accessible information for just about anything. If you give your son scientific journals and magazines I think that is the best way to kick start his interest. If he doesn't know the terminology or concepts he can always look them up online that is the beauty of the internet.

    Give him a few topics to read about if he seems interested. Encourage him to come up with his own hypothesis evdery once in a while if he is feeling up to it. See if there are any programs in research for high school students. I showed interest in science much later in my 20s and I did great, so I don't think there is a age limit for learning, but I think that the earlier you show interest in the subject the more you will benefit from it.
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    May 7 2011: Start out small.
  • May 6 2011: This is an interesting question and one which is very difficult to answer (but that is probably the reason why you put that question here).

    The only thing I can do is share some life experience. I am 52 and have been a community pharmacist for most of my working life. In that time I have learned two things.

    What parents want and what a child wants are often two different things.
    If your child is as you say very talented, the child must be given the chance to develop those talents because, in my opinion, that is what a parent should wish for their child, it is probably most likely to make the child happy.

    There are no garantuees. If your child is (exceptionally) intelligent, the child might decide at some point in the future that the chosen path is not the one and will want change. This is the responsability of the child and not the parent (in my opinion).

    What a child probably wants (I am not an educator) is the unconditional love and support of those who are probably the most important people in his life.

    If the child wants to go into the scientific arena, this is not easy, because it is now a vast area. Even in the fields you mention there is an enormous variety of choices. I am a polymath. But I have chosen something to focus on. The rest I do when I have time.

    Also I have had the chance to travel and do things beside my work as a scientist. Those are fond memories.

    I am not always happy (sometimes I feel I could do more with my talents), but generally I am content.

    This I wish for your son. And of course yourself.
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      May 7 2011: I definitely agree that the choices should be those of my son, and not mine. I am trying to assist him in finding his path in life. Of course, that path can change and wind, and go through different shortcuts or detours. I believe that when you do what you love, things add up nicely. When I was learning my BA in Psychology I was interested in Behavioral Genetics, so I went to talk to the Genetics Professor in the Biology Department, which had no relation to my academic program. I ended up becoming a research assistant in genetics. Later I moved to Health Psychology for my PhD, and now I am interested in Evolutionary Psychology. I see today how my earlier interests and choices are all related to what I currently do, since they were all related to me.
  • May 4 2011: Hi,
    free enquiry is important for our point in development as a planet, species and civilisation. Overspecialisation is not the key to creative success in any field.
    Imagine yourself a seed with growth potential in every direction growing shoots to break the surface way above so you can absorb the light...if you choose one route, only a small shaft of light will penetrate to the core of your being, yet if you choose to diversify then you weaken the general tensegrity of the ignorance that holds you and when it crumbles, then your being and all those you come in contact with can be bathed in that light.
    I wish you the best.
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    May 3 2011: Hello Sigal, say hi to your son. I guess you said it all, "talented teenager", because when it comes to sciences (maths, physics, biology...etc) you need motivation and love. You should love it. You should have it all as a technique. You should be talented, as you said. Usually scientific students are curious, they have a will to learn, and when there's a will, there's a way.
    Never let him fall in those silly acts that come from ignorant students not willing to learn, but to have fun. And those are "grades", everyone is aiming to have good grades, don't let him fall in such things. His teachers know him well enough, they know what he is and what he can be.
    Let love play the game. I know a lot of clever and intelligent students in sciences, but they prefer economics, history, arts... Let him choose, give him the right of choice, let him act.
    Studies are indeed interesting, but too bad schools remove and delete creativity. They have a mission to add and add and add rubbish into students' brains. They oblige them to learn. They want them to succeed and this is bad.
    Here's an example that keeps on scaring the students/kids/children: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I mean, come-on, why asking this when the child is only ten years old, or let me say 15 years old.
    Subjects change, some appear to be more "interesting" for students, some more "boring". Time will guide the student.
    Let your son choose, let him research about universities and colleges, give him the choice to answer, and then finally you can react and take control of the situation, give your opinion, let him know what you think, guide him, help him and suggest.
    I am following a French system, I am in a French school, and once the student arrives to the 10th grade, the school asks the student to continue his studies in Sciences OR Economics OR Literature (in grade 11 and 12).
    What I've noticed (being one of the students' council) is that the parents CHOOSE for their children, which is really bad!
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    Jun 1 2011: My best advice would be to encourage his curiosity and have him ask questions about the things around him. For example, you mentioned that he juggles. Start a conversation with him about the forces at play when he juggles. This will lead to exploring gravity, balance, eye-hand coordination and various other scientific factors.

    The most functional science stems from curiousity and real-life questions that people ask to make their lives better.
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    May 28 2011: Material Sciences(focused on nanotech), genetics, computer engineering, IT, cybernetics if he wants to see the results of his hardwork, though he can go through with core science branches to pursue an academic career. Still i would recommend material science or nuclear physics.
  • Or Sagy

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    May 24 2011: Hi Sigal & Alon,
    I'm just a bit older than Alon (and also from Emek Hefer), so I wouldn't say I fit in the description of a scientist (yet?). Nevertheless, I think I have a similar background to Alon, and I think I might be able to help a bit with my experience. At the moment, I'm a student at the Tel Aviv University (besides my high school studies at "Ben Gurion High School").
    I read that Alon is also somewhat interested in robotics, so I would recommend he join (or found) a robotics team. I myself was a member of my high school team, founded and was head of my middle school team, and now teach excelling 2nd-3rd graders robotics. I would also advise you check about science-oriented summer camps and the like (I could refer you to a few, depending on which grade Alon sees himself as part of).
    If any of this sounds appealing, I'd be glad to introduce myself, give you more info and refer you to the right people. Feel free to contact me at
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    May 22 2011: Sigal, when I speak to first-year university students, I tell them that keeping an open mind is so important. I certainly didn't ever say "I want to be an anti-financial crimes consultant" when I was 16. Be open to where opportunities guide you. Take those opportunities even if you are not sure they're "perfect" for you.

    My second piece of advice is to constantly remind yourself that every job ... even deep science ... is about people. Connect with people. Share with people. Learn from them. Work with them. Learn how to "sell" your ideas to them. Collaboration and consensus-building skills are often more important contributors to success than innovation or hard work.

    Thirdly, and more tactically, no matter what career or job you find, technology plays a large part ... and will only play a larger part in the future.
  • May 16 2011: I'm not a scientist. I am an engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania, but I did not come to this through the usual (American) path. I have attended two Waldorf ('antroposofy') schools, in the US and in Israel, was a founding member of a democratic school, and attended three college-prep schools in the US, always searching for real learning. I took a 'gap year' between high school and college to spend six months working in a robotics lab at the Technion in Haifa, and this - lab experience - is what I would like to recommend.

    It is my experience that academia tends to shun practical knowledge. Throughout my life I have tinkered, designed, and built things, and now in university this experience puts me leagues ahead of many of my classmates when it comes to making things. At UPenn one may graduate electrical engineering without knowing even how to solder. My own experience, however, allowed me to work in a robotics lab already in my first year. I would recommend that Alon look into getting involved in real research or development related to the things he loves. It is always possible to learn formulas and techniques; what is essential to learn now is the intuition behind everything. This is learned best, I believe, through hands-on experience and experimentation.

    Being an engineer, I would also like to raise the idea of engineering. I, too, loved science, and it wasn't until I learned some electronics, programming, and mechanical design that I realized engineering was what I loved - applying science to create solutions.
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      May 18 2011: Alon: Thank you for your answer. I do some work on electrical circuits and robotics. I am very interested in your tip about doing real work. Because I do have some experience with electricity, I think the path i am going on will lead to a field that will use both science and technology, but science will be the major part.
  • May 12 2011: OK, from a man who has worked in Science for the past 15 years.
    Your son needs one thing: To keep his eye on a career in science. Dont quit and he will get there.

    Thats it.

    Your still asking for more? OK.. He should take classes in fields that interest him, he should go do internships at labs and company's that sound "cool". He should keep his grades up enough to be taken seriously, but he should not give up the rest of his life for one single topic.

    My colleagues dance, play music, or are passionate about surfing, or bicycles. Or about their kids. We are not all driven single topic workaholics.

    As an example, when we get our flood of summer intern applications, we look for someone that "fits" much more than the one who graduated at the top of the class. We hire people we can work with.

    Now, if he wants to be the chief scientist, the project manager, or the department head... well yes, the type AA personality that is driven is necessary. But at my institute, there are about 20 of them, and about 200 of the rest of us, all working, all in science.
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    May 11 2011: We have in Poland SLOT ART FESTIWAL, it's one of the place where young people must know more about themselves.
    And trying to find way for them.
  • May 9 2011: Hi Sigal,

    I went with my son (when he was 14-15 year old) to hear professor Eilam Gross from the Weizmann institute giving a series of popular lectures about physics to the general public.
    His lectures were fascinating and inspirational. The lectures were given in the last 2 years in Mishkenot Shaananim which is a lovely place , I hope they continue to give it there.

  • May 6 2011: I have done many, many different things. I have learned there is a difference between what you learn studying something, and what you learn doing something. As he has many years of study ahead of him before he becomes proficient enough to be trusted with other people’s money for experimentation, he will likely not get the chance to do science unless he does it himself.

    I would suggest he design and execute experiments. I would suggest he apply the scientific method to something that intrigues him. He may not be able to investigate cold fusion, but there are many things that are accessible. It could be something concerning cooking, growing, engineering (balsa wood?) something sociological involving his friends or schoolmates, etc.

    A collection of experiments: with analyzation, hypothesis, plan, execution, and review; thoroughly documented, will give him experience DOING science, something studying ABOUT science will never do. I’m not talking about re-creating an experiment with an already known answer, as he is likely to get doing lab work in school, but an experiment to obtain an answer that is actually unknown, at least to him.

    Besides learning whether he does, in fact, like science, I would expect a portfolio of this work would not fail to impress gatekeepers charged to select candidates for any college or university, above and beyond whatever grades and scores he may achieve.
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      May 7 2011: Sigal: Great advice! As a person who is a gatekeeper in selecting BA students in Social Sciences, I would definitely be impressed by anyone with a portfolio.

      Alon: Thank you for the advice. I am surely going to try this. We have a place in school which is designed for this kind of experiments (It is a special - democratic school). I did experiments in the past, but I never thought about writing them down.
  • May 6 2011: I think that the most important thing is to let him enjoy the things he likes without pushing him into too much.Try to nurture his curiosity but don't go over limits. None of my family is in science, in fact none of them really knows what I am doing.My parents actually did not take me seriously for some time, I was this "day dreaming" kid.Up to day I don't take too seriously the building career thing, I just enjoy what I do and it kind of works for me so far.
  • May 5 2011: Cont'd.... Things that are difficult to learn later in life would include music and languages. If your son already has talent and training in any music, I would encourage him to continue. Violin and piano were my sanity-savers. I now do software architecture and development, and over the years I've noticed that musicians make better programmers. I personally think music exercises a broad mental activity that applies to any kind of intellectual activity. A second language functions much the same way. He should take advantage of any kind of speaking or theatre activities in school -- the lecture hall and the conference talk are all pure theatre, and the more comfortable he is on stage, the better he will do.

    He should get the most that he can out of his math classes, but if high school mathematics in Israel is anything like it is here in the US, he'll see very little of what he needs prior to entering college. Taking calculus before he gets to college is a good edge, but it's only an edge, and two years into his undergraduate degree it won't be relevant any more: he'll be doing multivariable calculus in multiple coordinate systems and struggling with differential equations. The same holds for high-school physics and chemistry and biology. It's an edge during the first year of college.

    Any extra-curricular activity in the sciences will be a wonderful experience -- science fairs, competitions, projects.
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      May 7 2011: Alon: Thank you for the advice about math. I am considering taking a college level math course in the summer. Do you think this is a good idea? I don't play an instrument, but I do juggle in many different tools (contact ball. staff, balls, diabolo), do you think this is similar?
      • May 8 2011: I don't know about the course. Do you think it would a good way to spend your summer?

        If the thought of taking it thrills you, do it!

        If you are simply accumulating "credentials" and you aren't very enthusiastic about the course, do something else that does enthuse you.
      • May 10 2011: Regarding juggling: my college roommate took up sleight-of-hand as a hobby (prestidigitation). He's continued to develop his skills over the years, and it has become a lucrative, fun, and very refreshing side-business for him as he's pursued his career in electrical engineering.

        So yes, definitely keep up the juggling!
  • May 5 2011: Cont'd.... One story I heard numerous times in graduate school was of a brilliant student who wanted to be a nuclear physicist, back the 60's and 70's. His father was a bricklayer with some money set aside for his son's education, but he thought the physics thing was impractical. So he told his son that if the son would learn a trade -- any trade -- to the journeyman level, he'd pay for all his schooling. The son chose bricklaying, like his father, and then went on to get his PhD in nuclear physics. He graduated just as they started building nuclear reactors, and the combination of nuclear physics and bricklaying put him at the front of the line as a highly-paid consultant.

    The point of all this is that the educational path is very, very, very focused, as it should be. However, that path should never be mistaken for living a life.
  • May 5 2011: There are lots of levels to a "career in science." I started a PhD program in physics and discovered I wanted to do other things when I reached the age of twenty-five. My wife's son and daughter-in-law have just finished their interview cycle for tenure-track positions in genetics -- they're in their mid-thirties.

    Since your son is only sixteen, he's a very long way from some of the critical decisions he needs to make, so my first comment would be, don't worry too much. He has a lot of basic self-development and self-discovery to do over the next decade or two, and all of that will happen at its own pace.

    The academic coursework will take care of itself. The whole system is geared around that. For instance, if he decides to do physics (you asked for personal experience), he'll get the same courses three times before he takes his PhD qualifier. The first two years of any undergrad course will take him on a whirlwind course through every branch of physics, with lots of hand-waving and pictures. The next two years will take him through everything all over again, but this time with the heavy-duty mathematics. That will end with a B.S. in physics. If he goes on to graduate school, he'll start over again -- only this time, the gloves come off and he'll discover mathematics that will freak him out. He'll have the experience of waking up at 3:00 a.m. with the solution to a problem he's been working on for three days floating in his head. That sort of thing.

    At every point in this process, he's going to be in an implicit competition with the system and with his classmates, and he will reach a point where he will find himself outclassed. I stayed in the top couple percent of all my classes until I hit graduate school, and then I met students who were solving intractable problems in physics at the blackboard during oral exams, almost without thinking about it. He needs to have more in his life than being the "best."
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      May 7 2011: Alon: Thank you for the advice. It is good advice not to think too much about being the best. Do you think that a BA in physics is good if I want to transfer later to biology?
      • May 8 2011: The modern university experience has multiple layers.

        It is first and foremost a vision quest. By this, I mean it is a formal process -- a rite, if you will -- through which you learn about life apart from your parents, your relatives, and well-meaning individuals like myself. When my sons went off to college, I encouraged them to sample many different courses -- to "waste time" trying things that had nothing to do with their major. I would encourage you to do the same. Take a course in Children's Literature. Take an art class. Take a philosophy course or two. By all means, take physics courses. Enjoy them -- or despise them and drop the class.

        As general preparation for life or career, your academic knowledge may or may not be useful. Odd things have proven useful to me. I wrote software that needed to compute the area of various closed 2D shapes. The fact that I understood contour integrals and Green's Theorem allowed me to write software that was exact, elegant, and fast. I recently needed to solve a probability problem with a very large number of states. My smattering of German has been useful. A degree in physics may or may not be useful to you as specific knowledge.

        A university degree is also a certificate that allows you to pass the gatekeepers of various professions. In this regard, you need the degree that matches the profession, or you need to be determined to bypass the gatekeeper more creatively. In this regard, a physics degree will be completely useless for a career in biology.

        With regard to the technical issues of course credit, your academic adviser will have the answers you need. It varies from school to school.
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          May 18 2011: Thanks. In Israel undergraduate school is different. You cannot sample too many courses, you need to choose either one or two disciplines, with no general knowledge courses. For instance Psychology and Statistics, or Biology and Chemistry.
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    May 5 2011: These comments so far are really good, I hope you are saving them on a document, they are good tips for free. I am no where near studying those 3 subjects however my biggest interest is education and I have found remarkable websites on education that are relative to these subjects. Science/math is almost entirely academic, it is difficult to find hands on work. And to add on to Gerry's list: join an academic fraternity, partake in science fairs (enter or network), find friends doing the exact/close to the same fields, and again never stop being curious. Try to add some art to your work!

    The following is for anyone curious:

    Science/Free online lectures in all subjects:


    A suggestion to peak curiosity: figure out what you have to do to start studying Dark Matter.
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    May 3 2011: Hi Sigal (and son), I'm a student completing my final year in a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts (conjoint degree). And though I probably wouldn't be considered a fully fledged scientist (yet :P) the best advice I can give is to never stop exploring your options. If something sparks your interest read and watch everything you can about it. Love learning, don't think of it as a chore. Be creative with it, don't just read what you are given by school, search for stuff that is related to what you are studying. If there is a university that is near by you go to open lectures about stuff that you are interested in.

    I hope my little two cents helps. Never stop learning :D
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    Jun 1 2011: Unfortunately, there is a lot of politics involved in the modern science world. Much butt kissing is required if one wishes to succeed in one's chosen field. My advice is to urge your son to volunteer in an organization whose mission is to serve the needs of the poor, homeless, hungry, or abandoned. As a teen/young adult, this taught me to respect all people, and to treat all people the way I like to be treated.
    Believe it or not, this skill will serve him extremely well in the contentious world of science. It is good for society as well. No down side!
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    May 31 2011: The only real advice to prepare him for a scientific career is to find an area that he is deeply interested in and cares about on a personal level. There is no way of knowing what research and investigation in a given area will uncover, and often the returns are underwhelming. Being passionate about something inspires persistence, and brings its own rewards.
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    May 31 2011: As Christophe Cop said philosophy of science, history of science are two important subjects. In order to understand a scientific concept and/or come up with new ones, you should understand what was before this concept, ask why people adopted this new concept, what are its limitations, how can I improve it.
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    May 26 2011: Always remind them that the graduate system only teaches the paradigm of their lecturers,what is accepted is'nt always truth.always remember the brain is for thinking not just absorbing,never feel scared to question what you've been taught.
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    May 26 2011: Always, always, always follow your curiousity, and never give up on a theory until it is proven or disproven.

    The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2010 was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov "for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.

    In 2000, Andre Geim was awarded the "Ignobel Prize" for his improbable research into the same subject!

    People are so uncertain of what is not possible that they do not follow they work through to a conclusion!!!!!
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      May 26 2011: 25 years and we still have'nt found dark matter,what a waste of money.
      • May 27 2011: Actually, we have found some forms of dark matter. There are other types that haven't been discovered yet. Dark matter is several types of matter and is actually more of a category.
    • May 27 2011: Actually the Ig Nobel was specifically for his diamagnetic levitation of a frog, and didn't involve graphene. Graphene does exhibit similar diamagnetic properties.
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    May 18 2011: Carl Djerassi's Cantor's Dilemma is a novel that talks about how scientists and researchers can promote and further their work. It does have some adult content--I don't remember it describing sex but sex is implied. However, someone looking to go into the scientific field may find this book useful for understanding the politics that do happen.
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    May 12 2011: Take a look at the Cabo Verde Tenth Island Project. This is an enhanced STEM Program. STEM is about studying science, technology,engineering and mathematics. This is a fantastic project that can be done over the Internet. You can find more information on Google and at