At a time when a global pandemic has forced students to go online to learn, the International Science and Engineering Fair is using the internet to bring together some of the most brilliant and innovative students from all over the world. Collectively, they represent the kind of talent that will be needed to solve humanity's most pressing challenges.
When you're a student, anything seems possible. You are filled with fresh ideas, and you're not yet jaded with the attitude that "this is too hard a problem, and I can't solve it." That's critical, because approaching problems with a fresh perspective and positive outlook makes all the difference when it comes to innovation and discovery.
I remember attending the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (a sister event to ISEF) when I was in high school. There, we heard from Glenn Seaborg, one of the world's leading authorities on nuclear energy and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The advice he gave us then still applies today. He said that you never know what's going to happen in your life, the many twists and turns it will take, and the challenges and opportunities you will encounter along the way. The key is to keep your eyes open, your ears open, and your brain turned on. If you do that, you'll be in a position to capitalize on the opportunities, and to solve the hardest challenges. And that can make a great difference to humanity.
That's a great message for today's students, because they are the ones who will define our future and make the breakthroughs needed for humanity: for example, stopping future pandemics before they become pandemics, finding cures to diseases that impact very large numbers of people, combatting global warming, and solving nutritional issues for the world.
Of course, when you're a student at the ISEF, you probably don't think of yourself as being the person who is going to make such dramatic breakthroughs as curing disease or solving world hunger. You are that person -- you just don't realize it yet.
To be sure, it won't be easy and you probably won't solve every challenge you encounter. I still remember when I attended ISEF in 1972 and 1973, my project involved trying to prove two famous math conjectures: one was Goldbach's conjecture that every even number can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers (for example, 10 is the sum of 3 and 7), and the other was the conjecture that there are an infinite number of twin primes (a pair of prime numbers that differ by two, like the numbers 11 and 13). Both conjectures had eluded mathematicians for over a century, but somehow that didn't bother me at the time -- I spent a lot of time trying to prove them and developed what I thought was "evidence" that they were true. My effort (and that of many other more qualified mathematicians) notwithstanding, I must report that both conjectures are still unresolved today, nearly 50 years later.
A student attending ISEF this year asked me what skills she should learn while she can't get access to her biology lab or conduct field research during the pandemic. Should she study math? Physics? Coding? I replied, all of the above! Math, physics, and computer science -- and especially algorithms -- are very important in biology today. The lab work is central, of course, but the future breakthroughs may well be made by people who work across disciplines to bring the different perspectives and capabilities of multiple fields to bear on the hardest problems.
These are some of the reasons that the Akamai Foundation is proud to help support the ISEF, and STEM education in general, with a focus on the pursuit of excellence in mathematics in grades K-12. The foundation bestows direct grants to local charities and nongovernment organizations around the world, with a special desire to help develop STEM-related skills in populations that are underrepresented in today's technology workforce. Please visit the Akamai Foundation page to learn more.