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High School Research Student Nathan Writes a Children's Book to Make Neuroscience More Accessible
Nathan is a high school junior from Pearland, Texas who researched the hypothalamic regulation of appetite with the help of his Polygence mentor, Staci. During his time with Polygence, he was able to publish his own children’s book out of a desire to make neuroscience more accessible to middle school students, as well as take the freedom to write a 22-page research article at a more collegiate-level on the biochemistry of satiety that he is planning on getting published. He collaborated with school administrators across his district and toured middle schools to share the book with students and encourage them to follow their own passions. You can read more about Nathan’s Polygence experience in the interview below.
What attracted you to the Polygence research program?
I’ve had an affinity for neuroscience since middle school and I’ve decided that this is most likely what I’ll want to commit to for the rest of my life. So, when I had a couple of friends talking about pursuing some passion projects last summer, since we were going into the 11th grade, I naturally took some time to look around for different research programs. I think Polygence was one of the first mentorship programs that I looked into and it immediately felt like a perfect match. From the beginning, Polygence seemed like an exceptional way to focus my energy and facilitate my passions into a project that I can proudly present to others.
Yet, what changed my mind was the decision to focus on the impact that I wanted to make. My goal was to make children more interested in science.
That’s really nice to hear! What led you to choosing to write a children's book specifically, rather than doing/writing something else for your project?
I decided that I really wanted to challenge myself and combine my passions for writing and biology. I enjoy both writing and STEM, but I think people often believe that these two areas don't really go together. Even though I figured this could be a difficult ambition, I still wanted to really push myself. This is especially so because there’s a strong chance that I would want to continue incorporating writing into my career, such as through writing research papers. So, I think Polygence gave me a really good starting point for this by helping me publish my own book and writing my own collegiate-level article.
I also considered writing a more formal book geared towards people my age or even older. Yet, what changed my mind was the decision to focus on the impact that I wanted to make. My goal was to make children more interested in science nowadays, because so many young children and students are intimidated and even discouraged by science. I was disheartened to learn this, so it was my goal to encourage interest in the sciences. People at the graduate level are pretty much set on what they want to do already, so I chose to go for a younger audience because I remember being intimidated by science as a kid as well. Through my children’s book, I hope to encourage young students to explore their interests fearlessly.
What was your initial inspiration for Brandon and Gigabit?
I started with the name and idea for a robot because my mentor, Staci, recommended looking at the Magic School Bus for inspiration when we were coming up with a plan for the book. I was inspired by Ms. Frizzle’s yellow bus that transforms into so many things, including ships that can go into the human body. I took a great deal of inspiration from that to model Gigabit, especially since the Magic School Bus does a phenomenal job of appealing to its younger audience. As for Brandon and Charlie, their blueprints were a lot easier to come by since the main focus of the story was the scientific content. All I really needed were some protagonists to carry the story along, so I simply looked into some cool guy names for them and went from there.
Within neuroscience, what led you to focusing your research and story on appetite regulation?
I was researching the everyday applications of our brain and how it affects us on a day-to-day basis. The three major processes that piqued my interest, since they occur all the time, are eating, sleeping, and exercising. And so, as I looked deeper into each topic, I thought that eating or sleeping would probably be the most appealing to a younger audience. And since everyone loves to eat, I figured eating would lead to the most engaging story.
In high school, we’re not exposed to those sorts of ideas and information, so we have to invest our own time, outside of the classroom, studying and understanding these papers published by professors, doctors, and so on. It's just a new level of understanding that you have to get accustomed to when you're pursuing a project like this.
What would you say is the most challenging part of doing this high school research project?
The first thing I would say is that working with mentors like Staci, who are PhD candidates or professors from top schools, the projects that you will pursue require a robust understanding of undergraduate and potentially even graduate-level research. In high school, we’re not exposed to those sorts of ideas and information, so we have to invest our own time, outside of the classroom, studying and understanding these papers published by professors, doctors, and so on. It's just a new level of understanding that you have to get accustomed to when you're pursuing a project like this. I would also say that for my project specifically, I found it difficult to adhere to the guidelines of Amazon when publishing.
Yet, Staci has been a huge help with both of these struggles. She’s helped me dissect information and understand what’s going on in the articles I read, while also putting me in contact with people who could help me in the publication process. In the end, even though there are many challenges posed by pursuing a rigorous passion project, your mentor will always be there to help.
Can you also tell us a bit more about what the publication process was like for you?
Staci played a big part in all of this. She was able to help me first get started by finding a student that had published a book through Amazon KDP before. Not only did this student tell me about the publishing process he went through, but he also introduced me to a few freelance markets where I could hire an artist to work with. So, I first began the process by collaborating with an artist from Indonesia. I sent him very rudimentary pictures, which he would color in and add faces to. Then, after about a couple months of that, we finally had a finished product in terms of the illustrations. So, I took about two weeks to put together all the images and convert the Word file to a PDF format before I finally submitted the completed version to Amazon.
I thought that I had met all the requirements, but they ended up rejecting me five times before approving my book, which I found to be a bit funny. Amazon’s program has both a manual review and an automatic review. I passed the auto review each time I submitted, but was consistently rejected by the manual review due to minor formatting issues. So, my advice for people who would want to self-publish through Amazon KDP is to be very meticulous in your work because they have really strict guidelines.
What occurs in the typical classroom is almost the reverse of Polygence. During this research program, I was really able to lead the discussion. Staci provided supplements for me, which included graduate-level articles and her personal opinions on what I should be doing, but everything revolved around where I wanted to go with the project.
You mentioned earlier how in Polygence, you're exposed to scholarly work and articles that you normally wouldn't be exposed to in school. Is there any other way that Polygence is different from a typical classroom setting?
The biggest and most unique aspect is that Polygence is tailored and custom made for you. You lead what you want to do, so it's not like a typical classroom curriculum where a teacher gives you an assignment and a goal, which you then study for and are tested on.
What occurs in the typical classroom is almost the reverse of Polygence. During this research program, I was really able to lead the discussion. Staci provided supplements for me, which included graduate-level articles and her personal opinions on what I should be doing, but everything revolved around where I wanted to go with the project. I find so much value in something like Polygence because there aren’t many opportunities like this where you can conduct research with professional expertise to back you up. Further, it was through Polygence that I found that the most effective way of learning is one where you initiate the learning process yourself.
Could you walk me through what a typical session looks like between you and Staci?
As with any book you’re working on, you need a robust understanding of what you're writing about. So, I would say that during the first couple of lessons, we would walk through what I wanted to research and narrow down my options. We’d discuss the hormone, leptin, as I was choosing between focusing on sleeping, eating, or exercising. Then, I would write down some homework for myself and Staci would give me some sources to look into. Once I had made my topic decision and had conducted a bit of research, we would talk about how to go about writing the actual book .
Starting in my fourth or fifth session, we would spend the first 10-15 minutes discussing the previous research that I had done. Then, we’d brainstorm about how this information could fit into a book. Finally, at the end of the session, we’d talk about what I had in plan for the future, such as how I would market the book. In the last few lessons, with the book being published, we’ve really focused our energy towards how to get my book out there and what I should revise in the article I’m working on now.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to write a children's book?
I would say that to write anything, you need a thorough understanding of what you're writing about, even if it’s a children book. Once you feel that you've gained a good, solid understanding, put these ideas onto paper. I can’t emphasize this aspect enough, because people can put forth many lofty goals, but never actually get them done. So, get your ideas onto paper, so that you can work with something tangible. After that, get some feedback from other people as you progress and keep revising. This is another important idea because it's ultimately other people who are going to be reading your book.
And when it comes to publishing, it’s a difficult process. However, once you feel you’re in a good place, you should be able to do it. I encourage a lot of young authors to check out Amazon's KDP publishing program because signing with a big-name corporation, such as Penguin House, can be quite expensive. Self-publishing gives you a platform to start off small.
Lastly, do you have any advice for other high schoolers thinking of signing up for Polygence?
Definitely sign up if you have a passion for something! You need to be thoroughly interested in something as it’ll be a catalyst for the rest of your journey throughout college and your career. Having a deep passion for your project is important because you’ll need to be prepared to devote much of your free time to your project. So, join because you’re genuinely interested, not because your parents forced you to. And while Polygence will help you with college applications, it will also help with future life skills as well since it teaches you time management and how to maintain commitment to your goals.
You can purchase Nathan's book here