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I want to do research, am I young?

  1. Aug 22, 2015 #1
    Hi, thanks for your anwsers. I wanted to be successful since I was born. I'm 15 years old and I can't wait. I know Calculus, a bit of Multivariable C., advanced classical mechanics, and a bit of quantum mechanics (all those in mitOCW). I'm not going to lie, I want to solve the P=NP problem. The problem is that I don't know if I'm younger to do that, what should I do. Maybe research in other fields ( I love Applied Physics, Computational Mathematics and Aerospace engineering). Please help, I'm lost.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 22, 2015 #2
    We are mentoring one 15 year old who already has 4 peer-reviewed papers to his credit.

    We've worked with several students who've had published papers before they graduated from high school and many more who have successfully published work completed before they finished their 1st year of college.

    The tricky part is finding problems that you can work on productively given your available resources. One resource limitation is your knowledge base and skill set. Another resource limitation is likely to be your available funding for experimental work. A third resource limitation may be high quality guidance to point you in some productive directions, keep you on track, and help shepherd your work to completion and publication.

    A lot of excellent research is done by high school students for competition in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS), the International Sustainable World Energy, Engineering, Environment Project Olympiad (I-SWEEEP), and the Google Science Fair. Students working on science projects for these and affiliated events may be more likely to find support from local schools, university labs, and business people. You might start considering a project to enter into a local ISEF affiliated fair, but as you progress, keep your mind and eyes open and discuss with your mentors how to design and execute the project so that it yields a publishable paper.
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2015
  4. Aug 22, 2015 #3
    Well now I just feel plain old inadequate :) Seriously, though, is the student absurdly intelligent, or just decided very early on to go into physics?
  5. Aug 22, 2015 #4
    "Absurdly intelligent" is one way to put it, but this student combines a high level of raw intelligence with a tremendous work ethic, ability to focus, and ability to follow the mentors' instructions while also knowing when they are wrong. This student is still on the fence between physics and mechanical engineering. He does great work and writes good papers so that he is batting 100% on getting them accepted at the first journal they are submitted to.

    We've mentored a ton of high school and freshmen college research. Work ethic, the ability to focus, and the ability to follow mentors' instructions are much more important than raw intelligence. The most successful high school projects are part of a dedicated "science research" course so the student has 180 hours to work on the project during the school day (over the academic year) in addition to time after school and on weekends. Likewise, the most successful college projects empower the students to make a consistent effort over a semester or two rather than falling into the habit of spurts of effort right before deadlines. After we figured out how to provide publication quality research opportunities for the weakest 10% of cadets at the Air Force Academy, it seemed easy by comparison to provide opportunities for high school students who are pretty good at math and science. But the challenges of work ethic, the ability to focus, and the ability to follow mentors' instructions are visited with each new student, regardless of intelligence.

    Teenagers desiring to do research need to consider the question, "How many hundreds of hours are you willing to put in to succeed in a research project?" Weekend warriors need not apply.
  6. Aug 22, 2015 #5


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    One of the issues that comes up with exceptional cases like a 15 year old with four publications is that some 16 year old will inevitably read about that and feel like he or she is somehow "behind" and can never catch up and therefore shouldn't even enter the field.

    I think it's important to realize that such situations are a combination of exceptional intelligence, exceptional work ethic, exceptional mentorship, exceptional opportunity, and a sacrifice of other opportunities. If any one of those aspects doesn't fall into place that kind of result isn't going to happen, but it's not because the student is not good enough or didn't try hard enough, and certainly not a sign that a STEM career shouldn't be explored.

    From the point of view of a researcher who has mentored students, I think the kind of work that Dr. Courtney is doing is extremely commendable. There are a lot of high school teachers out there that would love to engage their more motivated students, but I think a lot of them really don't know where to start. And finding a researcher who is willing to mentor young students is like stumbling on gold.

    For Willelm, at this stage the key would be to really find a good mentor and a project to start working on that you're interested in. Start with your teachers. Sometimes they know about opportunities that they don't openly advertise because they don't think anyone will be interested, or because they don't have time to explore or endorse them. Other places to look for mentorship might be local universities or colleges. Your teachers might be able to help you in contacting them, or you could try on your own. And finally, even if you can't find anything right away, don't let that stop you from reading as much as you can about the problems and topics that interest you. You can always pick a simple project and start working on that just to see where it takes you. It might not lead to ground-breaking research right away, but it could help you to develop skills that you'll draw on later in your life.
  7. Aug 22, 2015 #6
    Ok, I know, I must write papers. But the question now is about what write. In other discussions, some people, like Dr.Courtney, told me that I shouldn't be focused in an specific area, so what must I do? I like Applied Physics, Mathematical computing and Aerospace Engineering. I'm specially good at logic. What should I do?
  8. Aug 22, 2015 #7


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    At 15 your focus should not be writing papers. That's something that you can do if you have a mentor to guide you through the process. Instead, you should focus on learning and skill development. If you like those different areas, read more about them and come up with little projects for yourself.
  9. Aug 22, 2015 #8
    Most like minded high school students think of a good science or engineering project that is within their abilities, and they design and execute a project to compete in a local science fair. Most find the experience very encouraging and the feedback valuable and rewarding. Competitions like JSHS also require you to write up your research in a paper, which can be valuable experience, but only a small number of these papers are really publication quality.

    Finding a mentor and aiming for these kinds of events is the next logical step. You may want to put together a resume or something to give to professionals as you are looking for a mentor.

    Just like Homer Hickam of Rocket Boys fame, we've had a few students do solid work with rocket engines. There are some good ideas that can be tested with little more than a force plate of humble size and some hobby-sized rocket motors. Here are some of our papers:




    (See page 50 ff).

    There is tremendous potential to learn and do well in science fairs with rocketry projects: sugar based fuels, bio fuels, testing whether manufacturers meet impulse and force specifications, improved nozzle designs, reduced weight pressure vessels, reduced cost motors, etc. We've made reduced cost motors from everything from aluminum flashlight cases (reusable) to brass from rifle cartridges (single use).

    Mentoring these projects is also within the abilities of many high school physics and chemistry teachers, most mechanical engineers, and many rocketry hobbyists.

    Once you get some basics down with a simple solid fuel project or two, you may be ready to tackle some ideas in hybrid rocket design.
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