Opening the Doors of Scientific Discovery

“Science is not about learning facts with a number 2 pencil,” Dr. Seung Kim, a distinguished developmental biologist and professor from Stanford University, told the Upper School students on December 7. “It’s about discovery.”

With Class 12 gathered in the Assembly Room and Classes 8-11 watching remotely from their homerooms, Dr. Kim gave an absorbing and inspirational talk – the first in-person Upper School News in nearly two years – that centered on his twin passions: helping to better understand diabetes, cancer and other diseases through insulin-related research on fruit flies (Drosophila) and broadening scientific opportunities for young people through Stan-X, the innovative educational partnership he founded and directs of which Chapin is a member.

“It’s an honor to speak with you today,” said Dr. Kim after a warm introduction by a Class 12 student, who described him as “one of the greatest scientists and a true Renaissance man.”

Settling behind the podium, Dr. Kim began by characterizing some powerful feelings that often accompany scientific discoveries.

Along with “exhilaration, joy, humility, and responsibility,” Dr. Kim said, “There are beautiful moments that make your heart race, your eyes shine, your hands sweat, and give you cutis anserina, better known as goosebumps,” eliciting chuckles from the students. “With luck and persistence, these feelings can be sustaining.” He continued, “Scientists are human and emotional, not robotic.”

As rewarding as Dr. Kim found his work in his Stanford lab, it wasn’t until he became a parent that he began to see the need to reimagine science pedagogy. “K-12 science teaching was not experience-based discovery,” he explained. Thus, 12 years ago, he decided to “close the distance between teachers and students” by creating Stan-X, a groundbreaking partnership that introduces a wide range of students to actual experiments and research using the fruit fly.

“Students are thrilled to have a connection to the real-life scientific community,” he said of Bio 670, the genetics course he engineered and which paved the way for Chapin’s Upper School Fly Lab class taught by Elaine Pan, as well as courses for other Stan-X partner schools, including public schools in Long Island, San Francisco, California and Illinois, and independent schools in New Jersey, New York, Illinois, New Mexico, Connecticut, the United Kingdom and Japan.

With this interscholastic partnership, learning experiences are “democratized by the fruit fly and the universal search for knowledge,” Dr. Kim remarked, adding that participating students will have the opportunity to publish their research findings with the Stan-X consortium and can also take part in a summer program.

Looking out at the rapt audience, Dr. Kim paused for a moment before offering thoughtful and practical advice about finding one’s vocation. “I consider teaching my calling. I love what I do,” he told them. “How do you find what gives you goosebumps, makes your heart pound and your eyes shine?”

The first step, he stressed, is for each person to figure out who they are as unique individuals. On the screen behind him he clicked to a slide displaying the Latin phrase, “nosce te ipsum” or “know thyself.” He then asked the students to say the phrase loud enough so they could be heard along East End Avenue and all the way to Wall Street. “That was lovely,” he remarked after several tries.

Dr. Kim also spoke about the importance of taking calculated risks, making time for self-reflection, and the value of working on a team. Also, “find a good mentor and emulate them. You only need one.”

“What if you don’t find a calling?” Dr. Kim continued, sharing an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” that now appeared on the screen. “This is a manual for me on how to live,” he remarked, “but don’t write long run-on sentences like this,” he said with a laugh.

Following his talk, the students asked Dr. Kim a range of questions from if being Asian has impacted his work to what his upbringing in upstate New York was like to what he would say to his younger self. One student wondered when his passion for science education developed.

“Not until later in life,” he said. “I noticed a disparity and felt like I could do something about it,” adding that his primary goal with Stan-X is to make it possible for more scholars from underrepresented populations to experience the excitement of science.

As Class 12 streamed out of the Assembly Room, a handful of students stayed behind to ask more questions, which Dr. Kim answered with the same attentiveness and care he brought to his excellent Upper School News presentation.