Wednesday, March 21, 2007

WWII-era Westinghouse Science Talent Search Winners

Modern Mechanix has posted an article from the December 1951 issue of Popular Science titled Wanted: Science Talent. It describes the development of the Westinghouse Talent Search (predecessor to the Intel Talent Search) from the Science Clubs for America, jointly sponsored by Westinghouse and the Science Service.

The article leads off with the first winner of the scholarship, Marina Prajmovsky, whose winning essay was on "osmosis in living tissues".

MARINA PRAJMOVSKY came to this country from Finland when she was four. Her father was a Russian-born machinist, her mother a seamstress. While in high school at Farmingdale, N. Y., in 1942 she entered the first Science Talent Search, a competition held by the Science Clubs of America. Out of some 15,000 entrants Marina tied for first place.

The Search’s $2,400 scholarship got her started at Radcliffe. She graduated as the only summa cum laude in biology in the history of the college. In four years more she had a medical doctorate from Yale and now at 27 is doing research on eye diseases at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. Along the way she did highly secret work for the Navy and carried out outstanding research on DDT.

Without the help and inspiration of the Talent Search, this brilliant immigrant girl might have been lost to the world of science.

According to a New York Times article on contest winners, Prajmovsky had a passion for science:

''In high school there was little room to work and only the crudest equipment, but here with the luxury of a lab of my own and almost anything I want to work with I feel my own limitations,'' she wrote from Harvard University, two years after she won. ''There just isn't any excuse for what I do wrong or leave undone. But as discouraging as this is now and then, it's such a wonderful feeling to begin to understand a little bit of something that seemed just about impenetrable only a little while ago.''

Prajmovsky married, becoming Dr. Marina Meyers, and continued her career as an ophthalmologist. She died in 1974.

The Popular Science article also points to a couple of other notable female contest participants:
Nancy Durant, a 15-year-old Negro girl from a Washington high school, handed in an essay proposing the use of sodium tungstate for fireproofing fabrics—a valuable new method.

Besides the remarkable Marina Prajinovsky, there is Carol Pike, who has become a chemical engineer and a founder of the world’s first Society of Woman Engineers.
I haven't found any additional information about what happened to either Durant or Pike*.

What is, I think, particularly noteworthy, is the point that the winners were typically middle class, and came from schools with "good school equipment and teachers of high skill". I believe that supportive and talented elementary and high school science teachers are essential for brining more girls (and boys) into science and engineering.

* The first president of the American Society of Women Engineers was Dr. Beatrice Hicks, who served from 1950-1952. Pike may have been the founder of one of the regional groups folded into the national organization.