By Matt Ellsworth
Since choosing the Flinn Scholarship in 2005 over enticing offers from out-of-state universities, Ben Strauber has assembled an eye-popping record of scientific discovery and service, and last month received an offer from Stanford for full funding of a doctoral program of his own design in neuroscience and linguistics. He has just one thing to do first: complete a fully-funded master’s degree at England’s Cambridge University.
Each year’s class of Gates Cambridge Scholars looks a bit like a meeting of the United Nations. In 2009, the all-expenses-paid prize for graduate study at Cambridge was won by 81 students representing 31 different countries. Since 2001, more than 85 nations have produced winners. It’s the sort of diverse, polyglottal community where Strauber will likely feel right at home.
Along the way to becoming one of this year’s 29 winners from the United States, Strauber has learned to speak Spanish, Hindi, and Punjabi. He picked up elementary Hungarian after his first year of college during the Flinn Scholars Program’s three-week Eastern European seminar. And he added basic Japanese to his repertoire while completing a three-month internship in Mishima, Japan.
How has he done it? Actually, that’s the sort of question that Strauber is setting out to answer.
In the fall at Cambridge, Strauber will begin a one-year M.Phil program in education. There he will conduct research at the Center for Neuroscience in Education, studying what is happening in the brain as someone tries to learn a new language–or, more specifically, he will be investigating “the neural correlates of literacy and language acquisition with relevance to education.”
Strauber’s research will bring together the two fields in which he has majored at Arizona State University: linguistics and neuroscience. If you hook someone up to an EEG machine, he explains, you can discern variations in brainwave activity as the person encounters different types of words–articles and prepositions, for instance, versus concrete nouns. When someone is struggling to learn a language, then, you may be able to trace the cause to specific electrical responses in the brain, potentially opening new avenues for effective educational interventions.
Some such applications of his research may be far down the road–after the Gates Cambridge experience, Strauber will begin the PhD program at Stanford, and then will pursue pursue a research career–but he says they will be at the heart of his work.
“Throughout my career as a professor,” he wrote in a statement for the Gates Cambridge award, “I plan to study the neural basis of language and learning, particularly examining how information about these processes can be used to inform improvements to educational practice.”
Strauber’s inclination to apply research discoveries to social challenges closely matches the goals established for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. The program advises would be applicants, “Gates Scholars will be driven by the values of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which include a commitment to reducing inequities and improving lives around the world.”
Much of Strauber’s record as an undergraduate demonstrates that commitment. The semester he spent studying at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur–as a National Security Education Program Boren Scholar–was devoted in part to language study and research in a molecular neuroscience lab. But simultaneously, he was teaching English to children through a nongovernmental organization associated with the institute, Shiksha Sopan, and he returned later for part of a summer to research how learning English affected Indians’ socioeconomic status and their social status in the workplace.
The capacity for language acquisition to change people’s circumstances has drawn Strauber’s attention since high school, when some of his most meaningful activities were tutoring English-language learners and helping Spanish-speaking families increase their English literacy by introducing them to resources at the public library. After arriving at ASU, Strauber continued working with English-language learners at his old high-school and recruited additional students to serve as tutors. And within the Flinn Scholars community, he led establishment of the “Flinn Pals” program, which provides mentorship to at-risk elementary-school students, enriching their education and encouraging them to aim for college.
As critical as those activities have been to Strauber, he has devoted even more energy to training as a scientist, with experience under his belt in laboratories at the Biodesign Institute at ASU, Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, IIT, and the National Institute of Genetics (NIG) in Mishima, Japan. At each stop, he has picked up new tools for his future research.
“Though I had done lab-based research in the past, I had never been given the combination of responsibility, freedom, and support afforded me at NIG,” he wrote of his experience there. “My three months at NIG both furthered my development as a scientist and increased my understanding of the world.”
Most recently, Strauber has been conducting research in Carsten Duch’s developmental neuroscience laboratory in the College of Life Sciences at ASU. Strauber was working under Dr. Duch last spring when he learned that he had won the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s top undergraduate award for students in science, mathematics, and engineering.
“Within a few weeks of starting his own research project in my lab, he has produced exciting data,” Dr. Duch said at the time. “His work has the potential for a publication in a high-ranked peer-review international journal. He is also a great pleasure to work with. I anticipate a great scientific future for him.”