Some scientists spend an entire career trying to get published in a prestigious journal.

Nathan Klein, a chemistry and mathematics student at the University of Minnesota, did it before he earned a bachelor’s degree.

Klein, 21, came up with an idea for applying a common imaging technique to analyze indecipherable images of nanoparticles interacting with cells. The work was published last week in Analytical Chemistry, with his name listed as co-first author. “I have a feeling that paper will be cited all the time,” said chemistry Prof. Christy Haynes. “I don’t think I’m likely to see more students like him.”

Yet Klein reflects an emerging strength across Minnesota. He is one of four U students this year — and one of 16 statewide — to win competitive Barry Goldwater Scholarships, a national award reserved for undergraduate juniors and seniors who are expected someday to conduct cutting-edge research in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The scholarships, named for former Sen. Barry Goldwater, cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to $7,500 per year.

Minnesota doesn’t produce that many Goldwater scholars every year, but its students — kindergarten through postgraduate — perform well on STEM competitions and scholarships because the state has invested heavily in programs that cultivate scientists early, according to Doug Paulson, STEM specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education.

In the “Land of 10,000 STEM initiatives,” as Paulson calls it, offerings like Advanced Placement classes and Post Secondary Enrollment Options help convert early childhood interests in magnets, the five senses or the weather into careers in scientific fields and get students like Klein to higher-level courses and lab settings as early as possible.

The effort gets a boost from Minnesota businesses such as Medtronic, Cargill, Cirrus Aircraft, General Mills and St. Jude Medical, which hire lots of scientists. “We’ve got a really strong STEM workforce here,” Paulson said, “and we’ve got a large number of unfilled STEM positions.”

Convection currents

Andrew Senger, a junior at the U and fellow Goldwater scholar, said his mathematical research won’t feed into an industrial or commercial application. As universities increasingly resemble patent and degree incubators, Senger said, the pure pursuit of knowledge deserves to retain a spot in academia’s landscape.

“It’s important to have academic fields whose underlying ethos is not the one of profit or engineering,” he said. “There are possible ultimate goals in life other than being the most efficient or … making the world better in only concrete, technological ways.”

Like Klein, Senger first arrived on campus at age 14, to enroll in a calculus courses. Fast-forward five years and his coursework today is almost exclusively advanced graduate seminars. He’s digging away at a rabbit-hole quandary of how to describe shapes of all dimensions in an algebraic way — “mathematically proving a sphere can’t be stretched into a doughnut.”

It’s doctoral-level work, according to Tyler Lawson, an associate professor of mathematics for whom Senger used to conduct research. Last year, Lawson said, he gave Senger a reference book that takes a typical Ph.D. student about year to master. Senger read it in a matter of months, finding mistakes by the author along the way.

Klein credits his own academic progress to growing up in a household where questions were always answered with more questions and only experimentation offered answers.

When he was 3, he learned about the ocean’s convection currents by mixing together hot and cold colored water. At age 12, Klein and his sister, Ellen, organized physics demonstrations for other kids — replete with Coke and Mentos geysers and homemade polymer slime and bouncy balls. Around the same time, he conducted experiments on radiation in caves by spelunking and collecting dust samples.

By age 14, he was taking calculus and general chemistry courses at the U. His four-year head start on college, Klein said, allowed him to enter a research lab as a freshman with about 90 credits already under his belt.

“[My age] never stood out to me,” Klein said. “There was always something else — a ‘What if we did this?’ Science is a self-perpetuating curiosity.”

 

Marion Renault is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.