Generations of scientists inspired by a simple spark
I was born into a family who had come to America from war-torn Greece in the 1950s. My grandfather was always a hero to me – he was born in 1883, when his part of Greece was still under Ottoman rule, and he was a freedom fighter who was caught and sentenced to death, but somehow escaped to Vienna, Austria. Once there, he saw electric lights for the first time, and his scientific curiosity was ignited. Without a formal education, these lights might as well have been magic, and he decided that he was going to devote himself to understanding this magic. And he did – ultimately becoming a trained electrical engineer and returning to Greece to bring the power of electricity to his homeland. I remember being a young boy and listening to my grandfather’s remarkable story, about his fascination with the “magic of electricity,” and deciding then and there that I wanted to be just like him.
This is just one example of the power of science to change lives. From a young age, inspired by my grandfather’s story of passion and persistence, I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I have spent my entire life trying to learn all I can about science, and I chose the biological sciences as my specialty, with the goal of trying to use the power of science to help the world by trying to cure disease. My long-time partner, Len Schleifer, has his own story of being inspired by science at an early age. By going on to found and build our company, Regeneron, we have contributed to the discovery and development of seven FDA-approved medicines that fight serious conditions like blindness, asthma, atopic dermatitis, high cholesterol and heart disease, and cancer.
The next great scientist can come from anywhere
The moral of this story? Bright young minds can be inspired by the magic and power of science, and if inspired and engaged, they can go on to make a difference in the world. And right now, with all the challenges our world faces – from climate change to increasing burden of disease – we need our best and brightest minds engaged in helping address these challenges. It doesn’t matter where these young minds are or come from – the world needs to embrace talent and curiosity, no matter the origin. Bright, talented people are born all over the world, but unfortunately not everyone is born with equivalent access to resources, education and support to foster that gift.
As the child of immigrants, I understand these challenges first-hand, and have made it my mission to ensure more young people are inspired to have careers in science and gain access to the tools they need to help themselves, but more importantly, to help improve the world.
Immigrants have made huge, essential contributions to the advancement of our society – think of Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Hedy Lamarr, to name a few. More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 firms were founded or co-founded by immigrants or children of immigrants.1 The leading scientists and innovators of tomorrow will continue to be drawn to America, thanks to our premier academic institutions, publicly-funded research programs and opportunity for free market rewards. But we have to protect these incentives and ensure that promising young minds are celebrated and rewarded.
That’s one reason we have committed over $100 million dollars to support the Regeneron Science Talent Search (formerly sponsored by iconic companies Westinghouse and Intel), the long-standing (since 1942!) premier science competition for high school students. The 2019 Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) finalists are a diverse group of 40 high school students who will possibly solve some of the most pressing issues facing our society like climate change, world hunger and chronic disease. Remarkably, over 80 percent of this year’s finalists come from immigrant families, demonstrating that genius knows no borders.
This year’s finalists’ projects explore a variety of STEM-related topics, including new models to predict refugee migration in Burundi, novel therapeutic approaches to potentially improve precision care for leukemia, and an automated 3D printed Internet of Things sensor to detect arsenic in groundwater. These bright young minds from diverse backgrounds are pursuing research that could have major global impact. In fact, when the finalists were asked what they saw as the biggest problem facing youth today, they replied with big picture issues like “climate change,” “educational inequity” and “lack of access to resources or education.”
Bringing together the brightest minds for good
This March, the finalists will be in Washington, D.C. to undergo a rigorous judging process, interact with industry leaders, meet members of Congress and display their research at the National Geographic Society. As a Science Talent Search competition alumnus, it’s an honor to welcome these amazing students into the ranks alongside Len and some of the world’s most esteemed scientists.
When Len and I started Regeneron, our dream was to build a company that would dramatically improve human life by championing scientists as the heroes. That is why STEM education is at the heart of our corporate citizenship efforts, representing more than 90 percent of our citizenship investments. We focus on programs that support, challenge and reward the best and brightest minds in science research; increase the effectiveness of teachers in STEM; and bridge STEM skills gaps and career awareness among students historically underrepresented in the sciences.
As global challenges grow more complex, it is pivotal to cultivate diverse talent by providing opportunities and resources to future visionaries, wherever they are and wherever they came from. Competitions like the Regeneron Science Talent Search are increasingly important in fueling students’ passion for science, encouraging courageous entrepreneurs and rewarding curiosity and hard work. These finalists will not only solve some of the most pertinent problems facing our society, but they will inspire other students to follow in their footsteps, as I followed in my grandfather’s.
Watch George’s journey to becoming Regeneron’s chief scientist.