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World-class research … in the 10th grade

High school students spend a year investigating advanced research topics with MIT faculty.
Christina Chen presents her project at the PRIMES conference at MIT in May 2011.
Christina Chen presents her project at the PRIMES conference at MIT in May 2011.

The title of the project is “Modular representations of Cherednik algebras associated to symmetric groups,” and this sounds just about right for research coming out of MIT. This time, however, there are two high school students working on the problem.

This advanced research project is part of MIT PRIMES, the MIT Program for Research in Mathematics, Engineering and Science for High School Students. Now in its second year, PRIMES is a year-long program run by faculty in the Department of Mathematics who pair 20 gifted high school students with graduate student mentors to work on a research project with an MIT professor.

The application process requires completing highly challenging problem sets that show students’ knowledge of advanced mathematics and specific skills, such as programming. Once students are selected, their projects are tailored to fit their strengths. After being given his or her assignment, a student will do extensive research in a topic in math or science, learning the background information needed to handle such an advanced topic.

As the project progresses, the students meet weekly with their graduate student mentors and occasionally with the head mentor. Students come to MIT once a week from February through May, and they may come more frequently as needed to complete their research. At MIT, students work individually or in teams, supervised by faculty. In the fall, students write up their research reports, often submitting them to top tier science competitions such as Siemens and Intel.

“The main philosophy of PRIMES is to do original research; cutting-edge, adult-level research. This is something that at first sight you would think is impossible to do with a high school student,” says math Professor and Chief Research Advisor Pavel Etingof, on the nature of the program. The high level of research requires extraordinary attention to detail, and dedication from all members of the team. Within a few months, PRIMES students progress from novices in a research field to full-fledged researchers, producing new, exciting results. The PRIMES conference at MIT in May showcased a wide range of students’ achievements — from new theorems to sophisticated computer simulations that facilitate cancer research. “It’s basically impossible,” Etingof says. “It’s a miracle.”

In August, the first research paper, co-authored by PRIMES student Christina Chen, her mentor and her faculty supervisor, was posted on and submitted to an academic journal.

Creating this type of research program for high school students requires genuine dedication, for mentors receive very modest compensation. Etingof explained that despite the hard work, the PRIMES staff and MIT feel an obligation and desire to provide this rare opportunity to talented teenagers, and that MIT is the best place to have this program: “We leverage our extensive experience in supervising high school research under the RSI [Research Science Institute] summer program to create an efficient model of year-long research. It’s safe to say PRIMES is the best year-long high school research program in mathematics in the U.S.”

In its first year, the PRIMES projects were divided into two sections: mathematics and computational biology. This year, the program has expanded to include computer science. In the future, Etingof hopes to include even more fields, so as to benefit the greatest number of students with diverse interests and skills.

After securing initial funding, the program is seeking support from other MIT departments and corporate and private sponsors. Participation in PRIMES brings many benefits to MIT faculty, Etingof argues. Student projects directly contribute to faculty research programs and lead to joint publications; graduate students gain valuable mentoring experience; PRIMES students may return to MIT as undergraduates and continue their research under UROP; and the program adds broader impact to faculty research.

Etingof envisions that other institutions might create similar programs in other parts of the country. “I hope our example inspires others,” he says.

The new PRIMES admissions cycle started on Oct. 1. To learn more about this program, apply or learn about how to contribute, please visit the PRIMES website.

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