Will there be weather for geniuses?

In the final of the competition, she had to answer questions about the brain, its mysteries and its cells at lightning speed. In English, of course, because the challenge was in Washington. A year before her high school graduation, the high school student from Słupsk already has admission to several Polish and foreign universities.

But is the start of the school year really the right time for such an article: about outstanding students with exceptional talents and unusual diligence? After all, there is so much fuss in the schools, so much complaining and even wailing (quite traditional, unfortunately), so many real problems and unfinished renovations and gaping holes in budgets that perhaps it is better to wait?

But for what? After all, there will never be a better time, because every day brings new issues and new problems, and pupils in schools will always be a challenge. And there will always be among them, if not geniuses, then girls and boys who are exceptionally talented, exceptionally hard-working, with extraordinary sharpness and thirst for knowledge. How not to lose them? How do we help them? How not to hinder their development and harm them?

Brilliant examples

Before I talk about the above-mentioned brain scientist from a secondary school in Słupsk, I would like to present other examples of extraordinary talent among Polish young people. One of my colleagues, a journalist, for her weekly national news service, is very fond of finding - either in the PAP news service, or in university or local portals - news about students who build "moon" vehicles, marsian rovers or other such devices. They are competing in international contests, where they are used to build vehicles for the moon, Mars rovers and other such devices, which are controlled electronically or in other, even more sophisticated, ways. They compete with them in international contests and - yes! - they win. And what happens to them afterwards? With the students, of course, not with their vehicles.... SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE

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The extraordinary fates of the various Polish inventors we often write about in our pages, and not just those whose talent was hampered by war or destroyed by communism, are generally depressing or at best nostalgic. Even if these creators live lordly lives, live in palaces and have magnificent laboratories. Of course, we are proud that they graduated from Polish schools and had wonderful teachers - but why did they not have the chance to realise their fantastic ideas? Why did they have to look for ways to develop abroad? Preferably - let's say it straight away - in the United States of America, because these have always been receptive and willing to take in such young people, absorb them and make use of their minds and ideas. Even if, as the bard wrote, these young inventors "had a Soplician taste" - which, let me remind you, means: "this is the Soplicians' malady, that they like nothing but their homeland".

But the unleashed mind demands an outlet for its potential, it wants work and conditions to work, often - really - for the good of humanity. And these are not platitudes, to mention radium and polonium, the miraculous 'nagra' tape recorder, certain vaccines, monocrystals, bulletproof vests, walkie-talkies and so on, to conclude with the K-202 computer. Well, the fates of these outstanding people, the authors of the above discoveries, make us think hard about the enthusiasm that erupts in the heart on hearing about a foreign prize for a familiar or unfamiliar student, about a famous start-up, about a crazy idea that could revolutionise some production, improve a treatment or shorten some technology.

But there were supposed to be brilliant examples. Here you go, here is Janek Kryca, 21, a student at Harvard. I read about him on the Aleteia portal: as a 12-year-old he was already interested in drones, learned to build them and invented a company that would use drones to deliver medicines to inaccessible places. Two years ago, he created a start-up in the form of a company called Arda, which has developed a smartphone app to make rapid deliveries of medicines and small medical tools - and is doing so in The Gambia. But he registered the start-up in the USA, which he talks about in Dr Maciej Kawecki's broadcast linked to the text - about the fantastic opportunities of starting a business in the USA, without bureaucracy, incomprehensible permits and fifteen fees. He tries not to complain about the Polish difficulties, but the context is obvious, and we all know it.

Another example, already familiar to our readers, comes straight from NASA: there, the head of the powerful space mission department is Artur Chmielewski, son of the famous Papa Chmiel, the "father" of the Tytus, Romek and A'Tomek comic strip. He went to the USA after his high school graduation, starting from scratch! Anyway, he is surprised that so few Poles work there and urges young compatriots to apply for this exciting job. Why aren't you there? - he asks quite unpretentiously. Well, exactly - why? After all the successes of the Mars rovers?

Another example is the youngest professor in Poland, Dr Mateusz Hołda, only thirty years old (he has been a professor for a year!), with research successes for ten years, because at that time he founded the international scientific team HEART in the Department of Anatomy of the Faculty of Medicine of the Jagiellonian University's Collegium Medicum. With this team, he presents today the results of his research and discoveries on a new cause of stroke.

And now our main character, Julka Nakoneczna from the I Secondary School of General Education in Słupsk, the same one where I took my baccalaureate exam all those years ago. Julka is just about to turn eighteen, is in her final year of secondary school and talks about herself gracefully on the local radio.

No America, no go

Julia Nakoneczna from Słupsk already won first place in the 4th All-Polish Brain Knowledge Competition in Szczecin last year, when she was still a second-year high school student. She also became a winner in the Brain Bee 2022 International Neurobiological Knowledge Competition in Warsaw, where she had to diagnose a patient in front of an international committee based on a description using strict medical terms. And in 2023, she has already competed in Washington DC! Neuroanatomy, neurobiology, neuropathology or neurophysiology are her bread and butter!

" She knows everything about the human brain" - the local media outdid themselves with the titles, and it is hardly surprising. You can find Julia's meeting with journalists on the web and listen to her talk about the details of her latest battle - admittedly online, but nevertheless in Washington, D.C. - with ease and without any pretense.

"The best fourteen of us in the world took part in a session that involved us getting questions from world-renowned professors and having 30 seconds to answer. After giving the second wrong answer we were eliminated to determine the winner. There were 20 questions, I got to 17, achieving fourth place in the world," she says on the GP24 (Głos Pomorza) portal.

And she points out with fascination that behind every mystery discovered by science about the functioning of the human brain, there are others that continue to reveal more great mysteries. The school does not hide its pride in such a student - and that is very good news. In a photo in the local media, the class teacher shows the diploma with satisfaction and emphasises that Julia is an inspiration to her classmates.

And why is this good news? Because it is not at all obvious that schools are happy with such students! Just today, as I write this article, I met for coffee with a former student from the journalism department, after a good high school in a town - not a province - very far from the capital. There were two of them in that group from that high school, and they were surprisingly well-read, cultured, erudite, and stood out from the group, which, by the way, did not lack young Varsovians.

"At our school there was no emphasis on seeking new challenges, no pressure to broaden one's horizons, although yes, there were Olympiads, but everything was standard, with no support for crazy ideas," she says today, when I tell her about an 18-year-old from Słupsk. Even her teachers at the time were surprised that she was going to Warsaw to study, so far away, while she had several very good universities nearby, two or three hours by train. And that was only six years ago, not some distant era.

What do we not know?

A Harvard boy who uses drones to deliver medicine to remote areas of The Gambia, Jan Kryca bluntly says that gifted students from Poland need to learn to present their achievements, their ideas and their intentions, because they can't do that:

"When you apply to a foreign university," he says in the aforementioned programme, "you need to find a good mentor in high school who will write a super letter of recommendation. But a real one, not that you write it and he signs everything for you because he can't or doesn't want to do it himself. He needs to write why this university will benefit from you. Secondly, you need to show your successes in context: if you won a maths competition, describe it, because in the US nobody knows what a 'kangaroo' is - so write where it was, how many people competed, the size of the competition and the scale of the tasks to be solved. Because we have super impressive high school students, but we don't have ones who can write about themselves and apply to Harvard. You have to make yourself interesting, describe the story of your interests, passions and successes in a way that makes it interesting to the reader, i.e. the one who decides on the invitation to the university. You need to write clearly about the value of your idea and why you are the one to invest in.

Jan Kryca goes on to tell the story of a seminar he got into at Harvard where, for a whole semester, students, under the guidance of a professor, exchange their experiences of the companies they are trying to run. The seminar is besieged, and the professor picks twenty-thirty and they come together for a semester to talk. The twenty-something from Harvard thinks this is his most important experience from the university!

But our students - in the basic majority - are still afraid of such international challenges. In fact, they don't even take the domestic ones to study for a semester in Krakow and not just for three years in Warsaw as part of the Most programmes. Our graduates do not respond at all in great numbers to invitations from American universities to continue their studies there and to do their PhDs - even though young people from all over the world, not just the Chinese, still come to American universities in large numbers. In spite of Erasmus programmes, which nevertheless force them to confront their knowledge and language skills, our students still prefer to sit down at a well-known university and do not want to check out what it was like at Purdue University or Yale. Will the new generations of high school students and graduates go there with a bigger number? Will teachers, including academics, those of the new generation, themselves after foreign scholarships and grants, begin to encourage young people to take on unknown challenges ? There are certainly no fewer talents and outstanding minds than there used to be; after all, they now have more opportunities. Will there finally be weather for geniuses?

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: High school graduates in the sports and entertainment hall of the I. Łukasiewicz school complex in Police, 28 April 2023. Photo PAP/Marcin Bielecki
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