Treating the economy with STEM students

Treating the economy with STEM students

By Shiv Gaglani

I began doing medical research as a freshman. Not in college; in high school. I had the good fortune of being able to find a professional scientist who was willing to take a chance by giving a 14-year old the opportunity to excel and innovate. The excitement of discovery kept me going both in the lab (in spite of the high experiment-failure rate) as well as in the classroom (learning about the digestive enzyme trypsin is more interesting when you have held a vial of it). Research not only taught me about the specific topics I was working on, such as the biology of stem cells, but also helped me develop confidence, perseverance, creativity, and the ability to simplify and present ideas through analogy:

Imagine for a moment that our economy is a human body. Like the body, the economy is made up of countless workers (cells) that compose many essential interdependent systems. The skin, for example, is analogous to the national defense system; the circulatory system corresponds to the transportation sector; the liver to the healthcare system; the bones to infrastructure; and the heart to the energy sector.

The financial sector—Wall Street, the Treasury and the Fed—is the brain behind the economy and, as recent experiences have proven, like its physiological counterpart it too is highly vulnerable to damage resulting from poor decisions. Also of note is the division between controllable and autonomous brain functions, though, lamentably unlike that of the human body, the economy’s involuntary behavior does not always tend towards self-preservation.

As important as each of these systems is, the definitive element responsible for the size and strength of the body is the muscular system; in the case of the economy, this is the science and technology sector. Muscles are the driving force of the body, just as scientific progress and technological innovation are the driving forces of our economy. In fact, though scientists and engineers only comprise four percent of the U.S. workforce their discoveries and inventions add a disproportionate number of jobs for the rest of us. Case in point: two part-time engineers named Orville and Wilbur effectively began the airline industry that now employs about 11 million people and contributes over $700 billion to our GDP.

The crisis now is that our innovative science and technology muscles are increasingly dystrophic, especially in comparison to those of other economies like China’s and India’s. Our colleges graduate more visual and performing arts majors than engineers and, of the engineering Ph.D. students we graduate, over 70 percent are foreign-born. These students are increasingly choosing or being forced to return to their home countries, often due to their inability to renew their visas or obtain green cards. It is no surprise, then, that over half of all patents awarded in the U.S. are now filed by foreign companies. There are countless other indicators foreboding the loss of American dominance in scientific and technological innovation, prompting the critical question:  how can we treat this problem?

One of the most promising emergent therapies for treating damaged or diseased body systems is stem cell technology. Stem cells are unique due to their potential to become many different types of adult cells—skin, bone, liver, brain, muscle, etc.—and ability to renew and replace senescent or atrophying tissue. Hence, our economy’s stem cells would be our students, since they have the capability of pursuing any profession through which they may contribute to the vitality of the entire economic system.

In the same way that the human body relies upon stem cells for its health, our economy desperately needs STEM students (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in order to strengthen and grow. However, the key difference between stem cells and students is that the former choose their fate according to the needs of the entire system, whereas the latter choose their profession in part based upon cultural desires and influences such as reputation, fame, and fortune – all of which can more easily be found on the field or stage than in the lab. As researchers search for ways to increase the number of stem cells and influence their differentiation in order to deliver medical treatments, so should our nation focus on improving the desire among young people to pursue and excel in STEM disciplines.

The Obama Administration’s Educate to Innovate initiative as well as the President’s discourse about our Sputnik Moment and the need to celebrate science fair winners on par with Super Bowl winners are great first steps towards producing and inspiring STEM students. Similarly, the support of major companies like Intel, Google, and Siemens is critical to providing students scholarships and recognition for their inventiveness and initiative. However, it will be as important for the media to celebrate the scientific and technological drivers of our economy at least in equal terms as they cover the entertainers, athletes, and politicians on our television screens.

My early exposure to research set me on the committed path of scientific innovation, and it is my hope that, through the above-mentioned policies and encouragement from fellow students, my younger peers may develop a similar passion for STEM. I believe this will be the most effective treatment for healing our economy in the long-term.

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