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Friday, November 03, 2006

Glue that holds family together -- science

The Naik family -- Ulhas (from left), Meghna, Kushal and Tejal -- spends time in the parents' lab at the University of Delaware.

When a family bonds, other good things sometimes stick.

The Naik family probably would refer to that process by some scientific name -- after all, it is a family of scientists. It starts with parents Ulhas and Meghna Naik, who work in the same Wolf Hall lab at the University of Delaware. And it trickles down like a solution into a test tube to their children, Tejal and Kushal, both science fair veterans who are making names for themselves through their own discoveries.

In the family's spacious basement in Hockessin, rows of framed plaques line the walls, and a bookcase is filled with science fair trophies. The accomplishments spring from exposure to science from a very young age.

The Naik children could have easily excelled in reading or math instead. Or this could have been some other diligent family, anywhere else. Anywhere, like the Naik home, where parents fulfill the crucial role they play in their children's early development, providing them with the springboard they need to succeed.

"I think it's in their blood or genes," Ulhas Naik said of his children's love of science. "But I think it's more than that. It's the exposure."

Sharon Bryant, a guidance counselor at the Charter School of Wilmington, agrees.

"I think, in most cases, it is of the utmost importance that the parents instill a love of learning early on. It creates a thirst for knowledge," she said.

In the Naik family's case, exposing their children to science included some on-the-job training.

"We didn't leave them with a baby sitter, but we took them to the lab when we were working," Ulhas Naik said. "And they were playing with the computer sometimes, and once they were big enough, they began to help out."

Known on international circuit

Naik, 51, and his wife, Meghna, 42, are on a team of 17 scientists studying blood-clot formations in relation to strokes. He heads the team. Their sons are often at the Wolf Hall lab, cleaning out beakers and helping in other small ways. Tejal also comes to the lab to work on his science fair projects.

"I feel very proud," Meghna Naik said. "They are very hardworking, good kids."

Younger brother Kushal, 14, a freshman at Charter School, participated in the four-day Young Scientist Challenge near Washington last week. Although he didn't win, qualifying as one of the 40 finalists from 1,900 applicants nationwide was noteworthy. The discovery that earned his spot also involved bonding: He worked with a compound of glue and Borax to create a rubbery polymer that resembles Silly Putty.

Tejal, 17, a senior at the same school, won third place last year in the medical category of the International Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis. He credited his father for providing the building blocks for his ambitious project: Discovery of a Gene That Blocks Breast Cancer Cell Metastasis.

For his experiment, he used the principles of a gluelike substance called JAM-A, which was discovered a dozen years ago by his dad during his work with cardiovascular diseases.

Two decades in the making

Today, education and industry leaders worry the United States doesn't crank out as many engineers and scientists as countries like China and France. In 1987, when the Naiks immigrated here from Goa, India, the United States was known for its better facilities and cutting-edge research. That reputation brought the couple here from Bombay University, where Ulhas Naik had just received his doctorate in microbiology and Meghna Naik got her master's in chemistry.

They worked together even before they had children. They started at Cornell University in New York in 1987 and moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1994, before coming to UD in 1998.

Despite their professional credentials, they say they offer only encouragement and an occasional suggestion when it comes to their children's science fair projects, including the one that recently earned Kushal a chance to become a top young scientist.

"Since they're scientific themselves, you might think they would've done it for me and tell me what to do," Kushal said of his parents. "But because they're scientific, they wanted me to try to do this by myself."

A holistic approach to education

Attending a school that nurtures young scientists also helps the Naik children. Charter School is focused on math, science and technology, and recognized statewide for student achievement.

"They're both exceptional students," said guidance counselor Bryant. "But they already came to us excited about science, and that came from home."

Family is important. But the formula for high achievement also includes other key components. And the Naik children have an advantage there as well.

"They have the resources to do so: the lab, the funding, the opportunity to travel," said Mary Maslar, college counselor at the school. "There are other kids who love science, but they don't have the opportunities."

The Naiks do bring their children when they travel to foreign countries for International Society of Thrombosis and Hemostasis conferences.

"They went around and talked to other scientists and exhibitionists about science," Ulhas Naik said. "They would solve trivia questions that were actually meant for the scientists, and they'd win prizes."

The culture at school is another factor, said Maslar, who has counseled Tejal. He is interested in going to Harvard University and would like to be a surgeon, perhaps a heart surgeon.

"He's within this peer group that just nurtures each other," she said. "I'm talking about the students at Charter. There's so much brainpower there that they feed each other, they push each other to learn and achieve. And then he has that home environment. That helps. Tejal's got the best of both worlds."

Entire universe to explore

Another important component both boys possess is the love of scientific discovery.

"The thing I like the most is how everything works together, how everything is complementary to each other," Tejal said. "That whole problem-solving thing in science, that's another thing I like."

Kushal, who is leaning toward astronomy as a vocation, likes that science is everywhere.

"You learn in school why a light bulb works, and you look up, and I know how it works, and I never knew it before," he said, gazing at the ceiling light in his dining room. "I can look around and see it all around me in life."

The best advice Ulhas Naik could give his sons is to be patient, because science requires lots of patience.

"You ask a question, and you try to find an answer," he said. "And instead of getting an answer, you find a few more questions, and it sucks you like a [black] hole. You think you're getting closer. Maybe if I solve the next question ... but you never get closer.

"There are small milestones," he said. "But the big picture is far away from you, and that's what drives you to do more research."

Fortunately, the young Naiks have time on their side, and a thirst to know.

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