Long Island teenager Samantha Garvey is one of 300 semifinalists of the Intel Science Talent Search, a program of Society for Science & the Public, selected from among more than 1,800 U.S. high school seniors. Many have dedicated themselves to scientific research for years. They were required to write a 20-page paper, providing data, analysis and insight about their work. Even those who were not named semifinalists are more accomplished and mature than many people who are much older. And most of them have produced significant scientific results. Semifinalist status confers special merit within a very distinguished group of 17- and 18-year-olds.
Samantha achieved this distinction despite the fact that she has no home. She, her mother, her father and her two younger siblings live in a homeless shelter in New York.
How did this impressive young woman, despite her unsettled circumstances, achieve a distinction coveted by students with much greater comfort and resources? Some reasons are immediately evident when she speaks: she is bright, energetic, passionate about her science, upbeat, articulate, practical and self-effacing. She has challenged herself academically and personally with diverse and high-level coursework, from Italian to chemistry to music performance. She has a winning combination of having a can-do attitude and she just can do. Moreover, she has won the devotion of her mentors, who are invested in her success. Her primary mentor, science teacher Rebecca Grella, calls her, "Not just a student but a research collaborator."
But look deeper. All these wonderful qualities can be insufficient to thrive against the gradient of challenges that more typically prevent bright young people even from graduating from high school, much less becoming one of the most talented high school students in the country. Newark mayor Cory Booker, though never homeless, grew up in a similarly challenging environment, on the tough streets of that city. Where most students his age struggled, Booker attended Stanford, thrived there, and went on to become a highly successful mayor of Newark, the same unforgiving place where he was raised. When asked how he managed to achieve this, Booker described his home life as a "conspiracy of love." He explained that his parents, aunts, uncles, teachers and even unrelated adults in his community enveloped him in affection and were emotionally invested in his success. His subsequent achievements suggest a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Though Samantha may not have articulated this advantage, her interviews are revealing. Her father proclaims that Samantha and her siblings are the reason he gets up in the morning and looks for work. Her sister strokes her hair in preparation for filming. Her mother describes gratefully, though broken English, that Samantha understands about the family's financial setbacks. Samantha explains that helping her family achieve greater stability is a major motivation in her work and study. This is a young woman with many disadvantages, but she has an enormous advantage that money can't buy: the same conspiracy of love that lifted Cory Booker out of a hard neighborhood, brought him to Stanford, and back to Newark to help renew that hardscrabble city. Samantha is a bright, ambitious young woman who has achieved remarkable recognition for a scientist her age. She deserves infinite credit for that. She also appears to have benefited from the same "conspiracy of love" that propelled Cory Booker beyond what could have been reasonably expected of him.