- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2000

There was plenty of time to talk on the hourlong ride to school each day. Not about the Backstreet Boys or designer tank tops or where the next party was, as is the discussion for many high school girls.
The conversation in this car was about black band disease, an ecological disease that kills coral tissue. Sara Jones and Lizzie Blair, both 18, talked of their science project, about polymerase chain reactions, about DNA, about comparing the DNA sequences to those in a national database.
The hours spent talking about and researching the project paid off for the girls. They won local science fair honors as well as national recognition.
Sara and Lizzie are seniors at Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Annandale, a school where nearly perfect SAT scores are as common as newly minted driver's licenses. It is a place where freshmen exercise their minds through inter-disciplinary courses that combine English with biology and technology and where seniors create photogeologic maps of Mars and computer-generated holographs for their mandatory technology lab project.
In between, of course, there are Advanced Placement courses, college-level calculus and classes in technology and engineering. All of this will prepare Thomas Jefferson students to compete in the fast-growing high-tech world, even if it is not their eventual career choice, says Principal Geoffrey Jones.
"We want kids to step back and think in terms of systems," says Mr. Jones, principal of the school since it began in 1985. "We want them to think scientifically, to speak, write and develop networks of information and find new ways to share information.
"We want to show how science and technology is connected to the humanities and how people live their life," he says. "It is important to connect these two. We are preparing students to take over lead-ership in science and industry."
The school, which leads the nation in National Merit semifinalists (142 in 1999-2000), is highly selective when it comes to choosing those future leaders. About 2,700 eighth-graders from Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington and Prince William counties apply to be part of the 400-member freshman class, Mr. Jones says.
Prospective students are chosen based on an entrance exam, teacher recommendation, prior academic record and level of interest in science and math.
Once they are in, the competition is intense. Students must take five math courses, four years of lab science, complete a senior research project through one of the 13 technology labs and a mentorship research program at an outside facility such as a hospital or the Smithsonian Institution.
The school day runs until 3:50 p.m., longer than most area high schools by about an hour. During the last period of the day, students take part in a plethora of activities, from the "It's Academic" team to the marching band to sports teams to a course called "Learn to Relax."
"We try to be a well-rounded school," Mr. Jones says. "The activities are required participation of all students. That is part of the purpose of the longer day."
For Lizzie and Sara, who commute from Haymarket and Gainesville, respectively, in Prince William County, that makes for a very long day, and long, homework-filled evening.
"I think everyone at school is really proud of being smart and good at what they do," Lizzie says. "My parents think college will be less work than Jefferson."
That's a generous prediction, considering Lizzie whose grade-point average is above a 4.0 thanks to good grades in weighted post-Advanced Placement courses such as linear algebra scored a 1460 (out of 1600) on her SAT. She has applied to, among others, Harvard, Yale, Williams College, Amherst and the University of Virginia.
Sara, also a straight-A student, scored a 1500 on the SATs and is waiting on word from UVa., Princeton and Wellesley. She plans to study molecular biology in college and is thinking about a career as a psychiatrist.
"I think teachers know we are here to work," she says. "I love being around people who are intelligent. Teachers respect us. It is great."
But it is not easy.
Although she has been able to ease up a bit at this point in her senior year, Sara estimates she usually does four or five hours of homework most nights.
"I get home at 5:30," Sara says. "I study, then break for dinner, then study until bedtime. Junior year was the worst. I don't think I watched TV ever. Ever. People would talk about movies or the show 'Friends,' things I never saw. I think it's been worth it, though."
There is still some time left over to be a teen-ager. Lizzie rides horses and tutors elementary school students. Sara plays piano and used to volunteer at Fauquier Hospital. Both girls plan on attending the prom.
Still, school has always come first.
Lizzie and Sara's black band disease project began through Thomas Jefferson's mentorship program, which places students in an internship at an area laboratory or research center. The girls were working at George Mason University's biotechnology/mo-lecular biology lab when they began studying the DNA fingerprint of the organisms on coral. They eventually discovered a new form of Vibrio bacteria.
"We were in the lab until 1 a.m. sometimes," Sara says. "Last fall, we would go in on Saturdays and Sundays. We worked on Thanks-giving. Time is key to a science experiment."
This school year, the project earned the girls first place in the environmental science division at Thomas Jefferson's science fair and third place at the Fairfax County science fair.
The girls were also semifinalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search, the nationwide contests formerly known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. They each won a $1,000 scholarship in that competition.
They have also been hired as paid lab assistants at George Mason this summer.
Both Lizzie, who would like to be a research scientist, and Sara began showing aptitude for math and science as early as elementary school. While many girls show early ability in those areas, they often lose interest, Mr. Jones says.
"A survey by the American Association of University Women shows that as early as third grade, girls' interest starts to fall off in science and math," he says. "By eighth grade, we see the same kind of falloff in boys, however. That's why we still struggle to get students involved in Advanced Placement physics and math. And while the number of girls at Jefferson has risen from 34 percent to 44 percent, it is still something we struggle with."
The number of women receiving bachelor's degrees in math, science or engineering grew from 22 percent to 35 percent nationwide from 1975 to 1995, according to the most recent data from the National Research Council.
However, the sciences are "still very much a male-dominated field," says Jong-on Hahm, director of the National Research Council's Committee on Science and Engineering.
"People tend to focus on the gender issue in the U.S.," she says. "But the U.S. is not the world. The way things are taught in this country may have an effect on interest. Or it could be the way boys and girls are socialized. I guess it depends on the school, but you can still be called a 'geek' if you are into math and science, and that is not flattering."
Even within science, the gender gap is evident. Nearly 50 percent of bachelor's degrees in the life sciences such as microbiology are awarded to women, while disciplines such as physics, engineering and computer science remain dominated by men, Ms. Hahm says.
"There is no study that says this, but I believe girls and women who go into science are interested in fields in which they can help people," she says. "Men and boys are more interested in machines."
The student body at Thomas Jefferson reflects that trend. The upper-level physics and computer courses are primarily boys, Mr. Jones says.
Says Sara: "I think, in general, girls think it is not cool to be good at math and science. But I think at Jefferson, things are a little more equal than they are at most schools."



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