Top young scientists are immigrants’ kids

The Intel Science Talent Search is considered the Nobel Prize of high school science: 70 percent of 2011 finalists are children of recent immigrants, concludes a study by the pro-immigrant National Foundation for American Policy. The Math Olympiad also is dominated by children of immigrants, the study found.

Of 40 Intel finalists — the brightest science students in the U.S. — 16 have parents born in China, 10 in India, one in South Korea and one in Iran, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Only 12 had U.S.-born parents, including winner Evan O’Dorney.

“You see it here in Silicon Valley. It’s like planting a vigorous sapling and giving it Miracle-Gro,” said Menlo Park father Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and a native of India.

“Here you take the cream of the crop,” from their birthplace abroad, “then put them in some of the best schools in the world “… these students are really, really competitive and work very hard, inspired by their parents, and represent all the American ideals.”

Almost all of the finalists’ immigrant parents came to the United States on H-1B visas, which require exceptional job skills.

The Indian-born parents of finalist Nikhil Parthasarathy of Mountain View both have PhDs.  Dad works at Microsoft; mom teaches chemistry at a private school.

Finalist Rohan Mahajan, whose Indian father works for Cisco, researched methods of improving the efficiency of photo-electro-chemical cells, which could improve solar energy. Something much more simple also motivated him.

“I got interested in energy production,” he said, “because whenever we went to India the power always went out.”

These kids are very smart — and they work very hard.

About Joanne


  1. Alternative headline: Top Young Scientists are Scientists’ Kids.

  2. Um–exceptional job skills? It’s an H1B visa.

  3. In other news, 30% of the winners were drawn from the ~5% of the world’s population which had parents who were born in the USA.

    Beware of sample bias.

  4. Devilbunny says:

    Mike’s right; the winners overwhelmingly come from very privileged backgrounds where they get introductions to science that the average 14-year-old would never see.

  5. superdestroyer says:

    The problem with so many Asians focusing on science and technology is that white Americans have abandon the field. Trying to compete with Asians in science and technology means giving up many of the things that Americans associate with being a high school student and it means focusing on just a few things such as math and science class.

  6. tim-10-ber says:

    Watching the CNN program don’t fail me: education in america the message from the indian family (income of $200K or better) was asian see math and science as a way to a good career and a good living…

    so…i take it this is generational…which would make sense…yet, kids from all races need to be encouraged to pursue these fields and given the support to do so…

  7. Tom West says:

    Or to put it another way, the understanding that in Western countries you can be middle of the road and still have a reasonably decent living hasn’t filtered down to the children of first generation immigrants.

    It will almost certainly to do so by the next generation.

    The whole point of wealth is to provide security to your descendents. And the whole point of security is that you don’t have to worry about failure – there are no dire consequences. But of course, without that intense fear of those dire consequences, those willing to sacrifice much and put in exceptional effort are going to be vanishingly few and far between.

    We haven’t lost are moral fiber – we’re just human beings.

  8. We are family friends with la previous winner, and her family has been involved in national science fairs of various kinds for years. I’ve also judged local fairs. While these kids are truly smart, they also come from backgrounds where they have access to all sorts of unusual things (fancy computers, lab equipment, etc). Many university researchers might allow a high school kid into their lab, but without an ‘in’ most kids wouldn’t know that. Most high school kids also don’t have enough exposure to know to ask the kinds of questions that winners do. My husband and I, both PhDs (engineering and science), never did anything like this because, while our parents were involved and encouraged education, we weren’t exposed to these sorts of things until college.

  9. The last sentence of this article says it all…..

    “These kids are very smart and they work very hard.”

    It’s the hard work, the practice, the support, the stick-to-it-ive-ness that does it. Again, I’m reminded of Carol Dweck’s wonderful book, Mindset.

  10. The culture in the US no longer values learning, particularly in math and science. One of our top-20 television shows is dedicated to making fun of scientists and engineers, after all. It’s obvious that only those recently introduced to US culture will tend to excel at math and science.

    The idea that these kids do well because their parent’s are well-to-do is silly. They are vastly outnumbered by non-asian kids whose parents are well-to-do.

    Societies get more of what they reward and less of what they denigrate; there is nothing mysterious about it.

  11. Roger Sweeny says:

    Which top-20 show is that?

  12. I was thinking of Big Bang Theory, but there may be others, too (I’m not very fond of network television, obviously). The show is very funny, but the underlying message is certainly not encouraging anyone to become a scientist or engineer, quite the opposite.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    I don’t know. I’m a high school physics teacher and I like it. In fact, a lot of science and engineeering majors do. It certainly pokes fun, but comedies poke fun at lots of things. Half the comedies poke fun at parents but does anyone accuse them of discouraging people from having kids?