Walking up to receive his Mattituck High School diploma last weekend, 18-year-old Drew Kinsey knew exactly what he wanted to do with his future.
He wants to become a scientist.
And if you ask him today, he’ll say he already is.
Knowledge has always been a strength for Drew. Communicating with others has been his challenge.
“My parents would probably say I can do rocket science, no problem, but coming up with a dinner conversation would be the biggest challenge I’d take on,” he said.
As he says, everyone has something they need to work at.
Drew has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that makes it difficult to communicate and interact with others. But Asperger’s also gave him what researchers who know him call a “mathematical mind,” a gift he said he plans to take full advantage of.
“Maybe you have to work a little on your social skills, but you can work through it and take advantage of your asset,” Drew said while sitting in his family home about two weeks before graduation. “It is not a disability in my opinion. It’s just a trade-off.”
Growing up, Drew didn’t always have this positive attitude. He said he often felt like “the odd one out.”
It wasn’t until he got the opportunity to meet others who enjoyed science and research that he began to feel like he fit in, and began focusing his knowledge.
For the past two years, Drew was part of a select group of high school students chosen to do research at Brookhaven National Laboratory, an experience he called “instrumental.”
About 150 students apply each year for a spot in the lab’s summer research program, and about 40 are accepted, said Scott Bronson, manager of K-12 programs at the lab.
“Just because you did well on a test doesn’t mean you know the subject. The real problem came to applying what I learned,” Drew said. “It was very inspirational to find a group of people who I could communicate with.”
Working with a mentor, Drew studied the lab’s linear accelerator, which produces protons used in a number of research areas, including particle physics, energy and medical applications, like cancer treatment.
Putting it simply, his job was to “troubleshoot” the accelerator, looking at the number of protons the accelerator was producing.
Drew combed through about two years’ worth of data, measuring the number of protons produced at any given time, said his mentor, Omar Gould, a scientist at the lab.
He analyzed the data, which ranged from 6 million points to over 150 million points (depending on data set), and looked at how the number of protons changed, or strayed from the average. He was looking for any patterns that may have developed. He also had to come up with an efficient way of combing through that data in the six weeks the program lasts.
“I learned a lot about how my interest could actually translate into a career,” Drew said. “It taught me that research isn’t just about finding. It’s also about finding the quickest and most effective way to collect that data, finding faster and better ways to get the job done.”
He said it also taught him the importance of communication and working as a team.
“Everyone has to work together to get the job done. My work wasn’t some single project. The reason the work matters so much is because the accelerator is used by everyone else. The lab is a cooperative.”
The scientists he worked with were impressed with Drew’s work.
“Drew has a very mathematical mind, and I would say those things are very rare,” Mr. Bronson said. “He was very focused on solving those problems that maybe somebody else didn’t have that natural gift for. Showing him how to focus that and how to contribute to the group is the good thing that has come out of it.”
Mr. Gould, who has mentored Drew the past two summers, said he made an effort to work with Drew on his communication skills and was impressed with his work ethic.
“In general he just had, fundamentally, a desire to learn and to grow,” Mr. Gould said. “His drive does stand out among other students,”
Mr. Gould also trained Drew to present his scientific findings, helping him to create a poster presentation describing his work to other scientists at the lab. Later, he used those skills to present his findings at a Mattituck-Cutchogue school board meeting in January.
Next year, Drew will attend the University of Illinois, majoring in bioengineering. He hopes to make a career out of chemistry and engineering. “Anything related to science will make me happy, but that will make me happiest,” he said.
His advice for other students with Asperger’s?
“Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something,” he said. “Figure out for yourself what you can and can’t do. A person is what they choose to be, rather than what they are labeled in a medical document.”