Big Sky graduate an emerging star in science field

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian

The back halls of Big Sky High School are a breeding ground for curiosity.

Senior Samantha Lidstrom is blasting tiny sailboards across a lake of ball bearings in a blue wind tunnel. Classmate Amy Smith is unraveling the genetic codes of phycobilisome, which sounds like a hillbilly bar band but is really a cyanobacteria strain found in hot springs. Science teacher Jim Harkins wanders among the work stations, inspecting vector equations and rocket engines.

“I try to tell the kids that what we're doing here is not really science,” Harkins said. “I'm doing my best to stimulate their curiosity. Science is not learned in books while sitting at desks.”

Half a continent away, a former student of Harkins' is sitting at a desk at the University of Toronto, where he's a visiting research scientist in number theory. His name is Jayce Getz, and last week he was awarded one of 30 National Science Foundation mathematical sciences postdoctoral research fellowships. The trail of his success leads back through Harvard University to Big Sky's back hallways and the science rooms at Target Range Elementary School.

“Kids in Missoula, Montana, can and do get involved with important research in the sciences,” Getz said in a phone interview. “The trick is to get started early on.”

Getz, for one, did just that and Harkins played a part in it.

Harkins is in his 24th year teaching science in Missoula. Most of that time, he's offered an Advanced Problems in Science class, which guides students through independent study projects. Its goal is to produce research papers. But its real target is training students how to explain and demonstrate their discoveries in public - particularly in science fairs and competitions.

Moving science and math outside the classroom and into a social world was a major motivator for Getz.

“The science fair experience is incredibly important,” Getz said. “The sooner you get involved with something close to real research, the better. And making contacts with professionals is absolutely crucial.”

In his case, one of his Big Sky teachers was Robin Anderson, who had a son-in-law named Ken Ono. Ono is the Manasse Professor of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and Getz's doctoral thesis adviser. He has mentored several other Big Sky students whose scientific ambitions were fired by science fair experience.

What Getz is doing these days even his own mother is at a loss to explain. It's a branch of number theory called “intersection theory and modular forms.” Getz suggested it's kind of like finding a dinosaur's foot and being able to understand what its whole body looks like. Or put more practically, it's the science that underpins how the sound of your voice can be digitally deconstructed and reconstituted between one cell phone and another.

And at the moment, it's the basis of what Ono called “the most important Ph.D. thesis in number theory this year” out of more than 1,000 such research efforts. It has already earned Getz the Veblen assistant professorship from Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study. He'll start that three-year position next fall.

“I was really lucky that things worked out the way they did, and that my parents were really supportive,” Getz said. “At the same time, these opportunities do exist, and kids should take advantage of them. If a teacher says, ‘I don't know how to do it,' keep asking.”

In the Advanced Problems in Science lab, Lidstrom and Smith are preparing to take their own steps into the scientific research world. Lidstrom is using that blue wind tunnel to test sail designs. She's found that traditional triangular models tend to be the most efficient, but newer curvy shapes give better lift for jumps.

“I'm actually not a windsurfer, so this is kind of new for me,” Lidstrom said. “But it's really interesting. I like to figure out how things work.”

Smith is already a veteran of four science fairs with her phycobilisome, which she pronounced “psyco-billy-some.”

“I love saying that word,” she laughed. “The science fairs really revive your spirit. You get to see what opportunities are out there, and who's doing what.”

For Harkins, the trick is matching the student to the discipline. The back hallway is a corridor linking several of Big Sky's science labs. Teachers love it, he said, because they can set up shared work stations and see what their colleagues are up to.

“We strive to keep a large number of electives here, so kids can have lots of options,” Harkins said. “If we just offered biology and chemistry and physics like some schools do, many kids might never open that door. My philosophy is to have fun. If it isn't fun, what are we doing here?”

Copyright 2007 Missoulian