Second place in science, first in ethics—a Long Island winner

In this month of March Madness, where there much anticipation about the NCAA basketball championship, Long Island already has a second-place winner, not in athletics but in science.

Last week Michelle Hackman, from Great Neck, took next-to-best in the 70th anniversary of the nationally prestigious Intel science competition, formerly known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

Hackman walks away with $75,000 for her research project, the results of which I’ve already cited in one of my classes this semester. Hackman knew from market research that people separated from their cell phones experienced increased anxiety. She wanted to know if teenagers experienced the same effect.

In Hackman’s study 150 teens were separated into two groups, one that kept their cell phones, the other that did without. The teenagers were then left alone in a room. Based on the results from adults, Hackman expected to find increased anxiety in those that had to surrender their cell phones.

But that wasn’t the case. Rather than becoming agitated, the opposite happened. Without their phones, many teens fell asleep and their anxiety level remained about steady.

Without their cell phones, Hackman concluded, teenagers are under-stimulated. Receiving text messages and calls, she concluded, is much like hits from cocaine. It is a stimulant. Cell phoneless teenagers experienced withdrawal symptoms, not anxiety.

Hackman had help in carrying out her study, using 10 trained assistants to administer and record her results. This seems a bit much for relatively straightforward study and a bit unfair for a high school student who is supposed to do the study by herself. But her approach was fair enough, for Hackman has been blind since she was eight-years-old.

As if winning second place wasn’t a big enough deal (and I remember how big this really is from my days as a high school student where many of my classmates at Stuyvesant competed for the honor) and as if being blind on top of that isn’t enough to leave you impressed, for the last couple of years Hackman and a friend, Daniel Cohanapour, have been responsible for funding the construction of a school for poor girls in Cambodia. She and Cohanapour were moved to action after reading an article by columnist Nicolas Kristof in the NY Times about the atrocious conditions of girls in that country.

Of all the things that made the deepest impression upon me about Hackman was response to a question posed to her during the two-day judging in Washington. While this is a science competition and the judges are themselves scientists, some of the questions were random in nature. One question was: If you were sent back in time a million years, what would you bring with you? She said, “I’d probably bring somebody else along because I’d be lonely.”

For that answer alone, I’d give her my first-place ethics prize.


2 thoughts on “Second place in science, first in ethics—a Long Island winner

  1. It’s funny. When I read Hackman’s response to the million-year question, the first thought that came to mind was “Arthur would appreciate this.”

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