Parul Pubbi looks in the mirror in the morning and sees science.
“If you get up in the morning, splash water on your face, and then put on makeup, that’s two minutes of your day, but already you’ve used science,” said the high school sophomore.
Leave it to a teenage girl to think of makeup as science. But Pubbi’s curiosities are not frivolous — she wants to learn about the chemicals in her foundation and eye shadow and understand how they affect her skin. As Pubbi researches these questions, she’ll be able to do more than write up a school report. At Torrey Pines High, she can conduct a study and try to get it published in a scientific journal.
The school publishes Falconium, one of the first scientific research journals for public high school students. Its faculty advisor, chemistry teacher Brinn Belyea, said there are a few other high school science journals in the country (including the National High School Journal of Science, a bi-annual journal that publishes student work), but he believes Falconium is the first at an individual public school.
In its third year, Falconium has more than 90 student writers and editors on its staff and an advisory board of 15 professional scientists who review its studies. The student staff at Falconium — named after Torrey Pines’s mascot with an elemental-sounding “ium” added to the end — runs their own website, publishes 1,000 copies of each issue and receives submissions from students in other states and Mexico.
As educators across the country fret over students’ lack of interest in science, Falconium’s popularity points to one possible remedy. Falconium promotes curiosity and encourages students to think about science by allowing students to pick the topics they’re interested in, including why MSG makes ramen noodles taste so good, the physics of break dancing and whether human pollution actually causes global warming.
Students work together to hash out their writing, pick which articles will run in each year’s three issues and lay out and illustrate stories. In past issues, students compared the sounds of expensive and cheap violins and found the more expensive instruments produced purer sounds. Another student used an iodine test to determine the amount of unsaturated fats — including trans fats — in Crisco, Country Crock, butter and a variety of oils. The findings: Corn oil has more fats than coconut oil, vegetable oil has more than olive oil, and Country Crock and Crisco have about the same amount.
Students have also reported on whether a good night’s rest is important for health (it is) and if a “dose of dirt,” meaning a reprieve from the modern obsession with sanitizing, is the best medicine for allergies (it might be).
Every story is illustrated with photos or drawings — also made by students — and includes graphs, charts and lists of references. The journal covers are decorated with student illustrations and catchy headlines like “Stress: The Silent Killer” and “The Secret of the Secret Ingredient: MSG.”
These polished issues grew from behind-the-scenes work by Alice Fang, a Torrey Pines senior who launched the journal during her sophomore year. When Fang first presented the idea for Falconium to her friends, she said they were skeptical.
“They basically told me that nothing’s going to happen, and I can’t just make people write science articles,” she said.
But she talked them into it by promising the journal would become something cool while bringing in students who were already interested in science. The incentives offered by Falconium — an extracurricular activity on college applications and a chance for students to see their names in print — probably didn’t hurt either.
“Science and math are not always the most popular subjects, but having excitement around Falconium gets other students interested,” Fang said. “When people see their peers are excited about science, then they want to explore the subject more.”
Fang and other early-joiners recruited their parents and other scientists they knew for the journal’s scientific advisory board, which includes professors from the University of California, San Diego and universities in Italy, Austria, Spain, Norway and India.
The daughter of Sushil Mahata, a professor of medicine at UCSD, asked him to help. He, in turn, helped her bring in some of his European colleagues. So far, Mahata has reviewed articles on the benefits of aspirin and the air pollution caused by San Diego wildfires.
Mahata said he was impressed with “the quality of the writings and the maturity reflected on several articles” and added that students were also receptive to his suggestions.
Other local high schools might find it more of a challenge to create a journal like Falconium. For one thing, Torrey Pines may have more professor parents to call upon for assistance. Its students tend to come from highly educated families with high incomes. Just 5 percent of its students receive free or reduced lunches because they’re poor, compared to almost half of students countywide.
The science test scores at Torrey Pines are also much better than the county averages. Last year, 63 percent of Torrey Pines 10th graders scored at the highest level on the state’s life sciences test, compared with 23 percent of students countywide.
Torrey Pines might have more resources than other schools, but Falconium doesn’t rely entirely on parents. Fang devotes a big chunk of her time to soliciting donated supplies and reduced price printing services for the journal, and its production is student-run. This suggests other schools could follow Falconium’s model.
And even without Fang’s leadership it looks like Falconium will continue at Torrey Pines. She said younger students are now excited enough about the project to carry on without her.
When Fang heads to college, she will take all of the knowledge she’s picked up from running her journal. “Falconium allowed me to see what my peers are studying and what things in science they are interested in,” she said. “Through them, I hope to discover more things.”
At the very least, she’ll know more about ramen noodles — which use MSG to boost the sensitivity of taste buds — than the typical college student. And that’s saying a lot.