Science Fair, a refreshing new documentary from National Geographic, follows nine high school students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, religions and nationalities as they compete at the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The film celebrates the scientific spirit even as it gently probes the racism and ignorance undermining it today. Judy Gelman Myers spoke with co-director Cristina Costantini as well as two women featured in the film—Kashfia Rahman, a Muslim high school student whose science teachers refused to serve as her research advisors, and Serena McCalla, a first-generation woman of color who’s devoted her life to helping young immigrants compete on the international science stage.
In addition to running the New York State Science Fair, McCalla heads the iResearch Institute a summer science research program for underprivileged teens. She has recently created the nonprofit iResearch Foundation for interested donors. Information on the campaign to find a new sponsor for ISEF is available at the Society for Science & the Public.
As science nerds who went to sports-obsessed high schools, what did ISEF mean to you?
Kashfia Rahman: Science fair gave me a way to prove to my high school there’s a lot more to kids than sports, and science is a brilliant way to communicate and find yourself. Kids need the opportunity for self-discovery and introspection at this age, because that’s when they start figuring themselves out. Not all kids are wired the same or think the same or have the same interests and talents, so it’s crucial to give them the opportunity to do what they’re interested in and not just what the school thinks is in their best interest.
Cristina Costantini: At my school, athletes were celebrated much more than science fair nerds. ISEF validated my passion and taught me that I could do a lot more as a young woman than I thought I could. It made me feel there were people who cared and would support me.
Dr. McCalla, you’ve essentially given up your private life to coach these kids. Why?
Serena McCalla: Because they’ll do something great. These kids were ignored in high school because they did things differently, but I’m seeing great physicians coming from my program. One student started a business in high school that just hit the $25 million mark. He’s 23 years old! The high school principal was going to put him on probation because he was absent a lot. He was absent because he was staying up at night calling business associates in China. I told him, “You need an assistant. Hire somebody,” and he did. All he wanted was a little bit of guidance.
It sounds as if all three of you view science as a way to express yourself.
Costantini: Science was my outlet in high school. I was in behavioral sciences, because I’m interested in people and the things they do. I eventually became a filmmaker, but I use the skills science taught me every day. Scientific training is good for anybody, whether they become a scientist or not.
Rahman: I was a quiet and anxious kid in elementary and middle school, so science fair became an outlet to channel my passions and interest in science. It also gave me the ability to speak confidently and to communicate with the fervor I lacked as a shy kid.
McCalla: People look at scientists like we’re quirky or weird, but I think it’s because we spend so much time observing everything around us that sometimes we forget what’s going on with ourselves. We live in a society that’s focused on self. What’s weird to people is that we’re focusing on the larger scope, the larger goal. That’s what makes us the outsiders.
I want to address the current social atmosphere of anti-science, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-Muslim bias in this country. Kashfia, as a Muslim who wears a hijab, you are inherently threatening to some people. Dr. McCalla, as a brilliant, driven woman of color, you’re threatening to other people. How does the current climate affect you?
McCalla: It’s empowering me. It’s making me want to fight harder. Let me be that voice you don’t want me to be, because now you’re showing me I have no other options but to be the person you’re telling me I can’t be.
Rahman: Science is an awesome platform, especially for minorities, because it gives you a means to prove to those who are hostile to you that they’re wrong. You can show them you’re not threatening, you’re just here to make a mark on the world, just like everybody else. It’s a great platform for marginalized people especially.
Costantini: This project was supposed to be a happy movie about kids doing amazing, inspiring things, but in the middle of it we found ourselves in this political environment, and we knew we couldn’t ignore it. [NB: Work on the film began before the 2016 election.] We were going to tell the story of America through science fair, but from something that didn’t seem political at all it became something political as the politics of our country shifted. That’s given the movie a new meaning.
Intel is no longer sponsoring the science fair. What would the loss of it mean?
McCalla: I’m afraid for where we see science going. I don’t think that’s going to happen; somebody smart is going to pick up sponsorship.
Costantini: They’d be crazy not to. Five hundred patents came out of the 2017 fair alone. Every year there are dozens of ISEF alum on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez placed second place in the science fair. When I heard that, I thought, “She’s a confident woman. Of course she did science fair.”
Rahman: Science connects people from different backgrounds, whether it’s race, religion, socioceconomic status or educational background, and it gives them opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. If ISEF didn’t exist anymore, then kids like me, who don’t have a support system at their high school, would lose the ability to participate. That’s really sad, because there are lots of kids like me who need science fair to realize their dreams.