High-school students doubling as apprentice researchers: that is the achievement of Hungary’s Kutató Diàkok initiative allowing young people fascinated by science to benefit from an à la carte experience at a laboratory of their choice. The essential selection criterion? Motivation.
Group of young ‘apprentice researchers’ at the Kutdiak summer camp on Lake Balaton, Hungary.
"At school I didn’t have any friends I could talk to about what really interests me. Thanks to Kutdiak, I know now a lot of young people who share my passion,” reports Tamás Korcsmáros, 23, a biology student. Kutdiak is the familiar name for Kutató Diàkok, the Hungarian movement for student research. Since its launch in 1996, it has allowed 7 500 young Hungarians and members of Hungarian-speaking minorities from neighbouring countries to discover life in a laboratory. To be selected, the young candidates – aged 17 to 19, with girls present in equal numbers to boys – have to answer just two questions: Why do you want to undertake research? Why do you think you are better than the others? “All answers are acceptable. It is just a matter of testing their motivation,” explains the biochemist Péter Csermely, Professor at Budapest’s Semelweiss University and founder of the scheme. It is this motivation that will enable these high-school students to first of all find a mentor from among the 700 Hungarian researchers who have agreed to welcome a young apprentice to their lab. To help them in their search they have at their disposal the Kutató Diàkok directory that defines in just a few key words the research subjects pursued by each laboratory.
Research at your own rate There are no hard and fast rules for participation in scientific work. Some young people simply want to be present as observers, while others attend seminars without actually participating in experiments. But others become real members of the laboratory team and sometimes even co-sign publications. All disciplines are represented, but the life sciences are a particular favourite (53% of students). “A young person who spends time in a laboratory as an adolescent can be sure of going on to write an excellent thesis. Both the researcher and the student benefit,” believes Tamás Freund, Director of a neurobiology laboratory at the Budapest Institute of Experimental Medicine.
In this hard school of research, Péter Csermely also sees a school of life. "Adolescents ask themselves questions that they think their parents would never be able to answer. Similarly, scientists explore new fields and are forever questioning what is thought to be established knowledge. Research is an extraordinary opportunity for young people to satisfy their thirst for knowledge and to test their intellectual capacities.”
The school of self-management
The movement is managed as an association administered by its members, high-school pupils and young students. Its resources(1) serve to pay the salaries of the permanent staff, publish directories, operate the website, and refund the travelling and accommodation expenses of the apprentice researchers. The association also organises regional conferences at which the young researchers present their work before an audience of their peers and a scientific jury that awards a prize. The top one-third of students are subsequently invited to attend the national conference during which 80 young people are chosen to attend the Kutdiak summer camp on the shores of Lake Balaton, in the presence of the country’s scientific elite. The ‘best high-school researcher’ is then elected and rewarded with a trip to Stockholm to attend the awards ceremony for one of the Nobel Prizes.
Pupils attend from all over the country and more than half of them come from small towns and isolated villages. “Our initiative gives these young people the chance to escape from what is often a closed and economically depressed environment,” says Péter Csermely who, in 2004, won a Descartes prize for scientific communication, awarded by the EU. But his proudest achievement is the number of young participants from the Hungarian-speaking minorities in Slovakia, Serbia, Romania and the Ukraine, in whom he sees his “contribution to Eastern European integration”.
(1) A quarter from the Hungarian Ministry of Education, a fifth from private sponsors and the rest from international institutions, including the European Commission.
About 100 kilometres from Belgrade, the town of Petnica (Serbia and Montenegro) is home to the biggest centre for non-school scientific activities in South-East Europe. Since it opened in 1982, the centre has welcomed over 40 000 young people (aged 17-20) from the former Yugoslavia for summer camps ...
About 100 kilometres from Belgrade, the town of Petnica (Serbia and Montenegro) is home to the biggest centre for non-school scientific activities in South-East Europe. Since it opened in 1982, the centre has welcomed over 40 000 young people (aged 17-20) from the former Yugoslavia for summer camps lasting about ten days and offering a combination of science courses in 15 subjects, practical work and outdoor activities. Recently, Petnica has also hosted the summer activities of the International Youth Research Centre. This offers the same programme, but in English. In 2005, some 15 young Europeans were able to benefit from conferences on astrobiology or quantum cryptology, practical experiments in fractal description and in the preparation of DNA. And they also found time for excursions into the neighbouring Valjevo Mountains.