Introducing Our Scientist-in-Residence: Dr. Jacob Wickham
Science and Technology has been one of the Yew Chung International School of Beijing’s core tenets since its inception back in 1995. To expand upon the scientific resources given to all of the students at school, we’ve invited Jacob Wickham to an extended stay on campus to share his wide breadth of knowledge and scientific prowess. A practicing chemical ecologist with numerous projects in the United States and China, Dr. Wickham’s enthusiasm and expertise will serve as both inspiration and insight for learners from ECE through Year 13.
Below, Dr. Wickham explains his professional background and the benefit that studying science offers students.
Please introduce yourself and your professional background.
My name is Jacob Wickham. I have a PhD in Entomology and Chemical Ecology from the State University of New York at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry. I’m an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, meaning I’m an unpaid professor but in a position to accept Masters and PhD students, the first of which I started advising recently. My home base in China is the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I’ve been here for seven years; I originally came here as soon as I finished my PhD after receiving a post-doc with the National Science Foundation to do research on the longhorn beetle.
When I completed my postdoc, I became an assistant professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences President’s International Fellowship Initiative. This is a program to invite scientists to China.
I’m also the Managing Editor of the Integrative Zoology Journal at the Institute of Zoology. I’m also part of the International Society of Zoological Sciences, a non-profit organization of zoologists that unites together the zoological societies of many countries.
Finally, I’m a member of Adirondack Research, an environmental consulting company based in the United States.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
As I told my recent Year 1 class visitors, I knew what I wanted to be when I was four years old when I found my first caterpillar! My mom, a biology professor, encouraged my interest as well. I remember when it spun itself into a cocoon as well as my mom waking me up at three o’clock in the morning saying it had hatched. That experience ignited my passion for insects.
From 13 years old, I was leading nature programmes on butterflies, beetles, chemical defenses in nature, and much more in my local state park. In university, I had the freedom to really pursue this passion, choosing biology as a major and chemistry as a minor. For my masters, I did a project on biodiversity, and for my PhD I studied chemical ecology. From there, I ended up in China!
How do you hope to enhance the science programme (and other programmes) during your time at YCIS Beijing?
First, I’d like to applaud the school for expanding the original Artist in Residence Programme to include a Scientist in Residence. I think it’s very useful for the kids to see a real life scientist at the school.
My role here is to be a resource to all of the students. I want to get students excited about science and to understand how science touches their lives: the food they eat, the air they breathe, the parks they visit. I want them to also understand the scientific process. This can apply from Year 2 in ECE learning about trapping beetles to a Year 13 chemistry student who wants to know about how I take a chemical from a beetle and analyze it using gas chromatography, then take the product of my research and see a pest management company turn it into something a farmer can use. I think if just one student in the entire school wants to be a scientist as a result of interactions with me and seeing science in progress, then I’ll say my time here has been a success!
I also want to be a person that is accessible to classes that are teaching science as part of their curriculum and hopefully bring a real-life science perspective into their lesson plans. I’ve already had several Year 1 classes visit me as well as a Year 7 class. I want to see this evolve as it goes to become more involved, but currently there’s really no set plan. Even though it’s only the second week, I’ve already seen so many science classes together, so I’m very happy with the way things are going!
Most of all, I want to be a scientist in action, so people can see me work, humanizing the profession of being a scientist.
Beyond academic knowledge, what benefits do you think studying scientific subjects in school offers students?
I think the biggest benefit is analytical thinking and writing. Scientists have to write; when people ask me what it takes to be a scientist, I ask them back “so you want to be a writer?” you need really strong writing and communication skills. Just take a look at the journal I edit for and you’ll see that it’s no easy task!
I also think the ability to ask questions and do an experiment to receive an answer, and the analytical mind that that process creates, is very valuable. The questions being explored can be simple or complex, but I want students to be able to ask questions and look at things from a scientific point of view. It encompasses fact gathering, research, seeing what’s been done on your topic before, if your question is a new question, and how you’re expanding knowledge. It’s far from just learning scientific principles!
How can parents pique or encourage their children’s interest in science?
I think Beijing is a wonderful place to live for scientific exploration. There’s a lot of museums, resources, and books; I would encourage parents to utilize their local libraries, especially their schools’ (YCIS Beijing has a really nice library to that end).
Essentially, take your kids to museums and get them outside exploring as much as possible when the AQI is low!
What are some easy science projects or experiments that parents can conduct with their kids at home?
I would use household chemicals. Anyone can make a volcano, for instance, using baking soda and vinegar alone. There’s a lot of science stuff in the shopping malls around Beijing actually, with tons of prepared science experiments you can do, like growing crystals, mini-archaeology projects, and so on. Smartphones are another frontier to explore. I’m a big proponent of hands-on projects. Try getting your local parks and backyards involved, too; fill up your aquariums with local critters from your own backyard!
What tips or points of insight do you have to offer secondary school students looking to pursue a career in science?
I think the most important thing is having a passion for what you want to do. If you really like science, try and take an advanced placement course in it. You need to choose a good university with a strong science program. Don’t underestimate the power of your education, especially at a great place like YCIS Beijing. The class sizes are wonderfully small here and conducive to student learning. I’ve seen students here conduct little research projects and write extended essays on really in-depth topics, which was very impressive.
Also be sure to find a good mentor teacher; it’s also one of the most valuable things you can have in the world. They can help to foster your interest and creativity and help you to push any project to its limit. Finally, I would encourage students to do their own research, because at some point you’ll have to do it on your own if you’re serious about becoming a scientist!