How many Nobel Laureates have you met?

Dr. Edward Shapiro, a retired inventor living in Massachusetts, is turning the answer into “at least one” for a growing number of middle and high school students. Like other programs that bring scientists into classrooms, this one wants to inspire high school students to think about a career in science. The difference? Dr Shapiro is bringing in the big guns.

The program he started, Nobel Laureates School Visits, spun out of an idea hatched back in 2009. Shapiro was struck by the dearth of academic role models. With so many actors and athletes to emulate, he feared that teenagers wouldn’t be inspired to choose science as a career. In fact, the thought might never cross their minds.

He enlisted the help of a friend, Dr. Dan Fenn, to get the program off the ground. Dr. Fenn has spent considerable time involved in government and education, as a professor at Harvard and in service to president John F. Kennedy. He was enthusiastic about the idea, and was instrumental in linking Shapiro to Nobel Laureates. He introduced Shapiro to a former MIT classmate and Nobel Laureate, Robert Solow. Solow reached out to fellow Nobel Laureates, asking for volunteers to go out to high schools.

The result is the Nobel Laureates School Visits program, a non-profit organization run on a shoestring budget out of a Boston suburb. Since the 2009, the program has brought Nobel Laureates into 31 middle and high schools. According to Shapiro, approximately 200 Nobel Laureates currently live in the United States. About a sixth of them live in Massachusetts.

Shapiro is tapping into that local resource. “We have a vision to utilize this unique resource, and develop a Nobel Laureate role model for the young,” Shaprio says. He and his small team bring Nobel Laureates to underserved public schools around the Boston area, which have a higher proportion of low-income and immigrant families. He’s picking these schools for a reason, and he is targeting a specific subset of the student population in his visit. He wants their best and brightest.

As an immigrant from Russia, Shapiro knows firsthand the motivation that kids from immigrant families feel to work hard and study hard. If hard work correlates with scientific success, then this fact is also reflected in the statistics of Nobel Prize winners. More than a third of American Nobel Laureates who won the prize for Medicine and Physiology in the last 100+ years were foreign-born. The schools that serve less affluent and immigrant families may be incubators of future innovators and inventers. Maybe even Nobel Prize winners.

Strangely, school can be harsh for exceptional students. Shapiro is worried about that relatively small group of exceptional students who are not accepted by their peers. “They tend to eat and think and study better than anything else, because this is their real talent. As a rule, society rejects them, and they never develop.”

So how do we, as a society, make sure these kids realize their full potential? Shapiro’s answer is to show them the end game. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture with a backpack full of books and night after night of homework assignments. But students have to slog through that ritual, and excel, if they want to get to interesting and rewarding careers in adulthood. Shapiro’s idea is to provide students with a role model that has been there, done that, and gone on to do truly great things.

Of course, few (if any) of these students will go on to win a Nobel Prize. But they walk away with two very important pieces of information. One, science is cool. They learn that being a scientist is an awesome adventure into the great unknown, that scientists make meaningful contributions to society, and that being a scientist is a pretty fun job. Two, scientists are people, too. They played hooky from school. They had illicit basement chemistry labs. They thought some classes were boring. They like going on hikes and spending time with friends and family. They are at once regular and great, inspiring their audience to pursue life with a passion.

The group has grown from its initial cadre of three. It now includes an organizational base of two former educators. Van Seasholes, a former high school principal, and Phil Flaherty, the Associate Director of the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association. Together, they provide a reality check on program development. They’re also helping to spread word about the program and get new schools signed up for visits.

While the program has gained traction in the Boston area, it’s not yet nationally recognized. That’s something that Shapiro and his team would like to change. Since the inception of the Nobel Prize, 48% of the winners in science, medicine, and economics have hailed from the United States. These prize winners are something of an untapped national resource.

With a disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners living within our borders, high school students across the country could have the opportunity to meet Nobel Laureates and hear their stories. Shapiro wants to make that happen by broadening the scope of his program. If Phase 1 was Boston, then Phase 2 is a national extension into other cities with a concentration of resident Nobel Laureates. The ultimate goal is to develop a program with worldwide reach.

Expansion takes money, and that’s the biggest hurdle to moving forward. The Nobel Laureates School Visits program was started with seed money from the IBM Corporation. Right now, most of the manpower that keeps the organization going comes from volunteers. Even with its largely volunteer base, money is needed for travel and operating costs. Shapiro invests a significant amount of time traveling to schools before the speaker arrives. His prep work ensures that the visits go off without a hitch and that the speaker’s time is well spent. His respect for the Nobel Laureates ensures that they want to come back, which is critical to his program’s success.

Shapiro is nothing if not resourceful. In his drive to expand, he has talked his way into scientific conferences, where he tries to spread the word about his program among the scientific community (and to scope out the next crop of Nobel Prize winners). He also spends time networking with vendors, looking for new sponsors.

His efforts have paid off. At a recent conference, he hooked up with BioCision, which agreed to provide financial support to help him reach that next step. He’s already considering a trip to tap into the pool of Nobel Laureates living in Northern California, where BioCision is located. To become a national program, he’s going to need all the help he can get, both from the Nobel Laureates, and from society at large. So far, the Nobel Laureates seem happy to donate their time. It seems to be up to the rest of us to make sure we capitalize on that donation.