Out of the Mouths of Babes

detail of the Official White House Photo by Pete Souza An undergraduate spokesman for increased research funding gets through to the President

Imagine being in yet another meeting…Your mind drifts to fantasy and you find yourself whisked away on a secret mission of global importance.

Well, the meeting Minh-Tri Nguyen was in was not exactly boring – and he was leading it, as President of the Undergraduate Student Government at Case Western Reserve University. And he wasn't exactly dreaming his way out of the mundane, as his energetic, proactive, A-type-personality life is nowhere near monotonous… Still, when the meeting was interrupted by his advisor whispering in his ear, "You need to come with me. This is very serious. I have the White House on the phone," suddenly his agenda became less urgent.

Quickly delegating his role to someone else, he went to meet his fate. Thoughts of "What have I done?" surged through his head, all to find out he had been given the opportunity to participate in the Youth Engagement Roundtable hosted by Cleveland State University. Oh yes, and to meet the President – of the United States.

His interactions would also involve Kalpen Modi, Associate Director, Office of Public Engagement, Liaison to Young Americans. Mr. Modi is better known as Kal Penn, who played Dr. Lawrence Kutner on the television show House.

"Is this for real?!!" Minh-Tri kept saying.

The roundtable, where youth community leaders discuss issues facing their generation, was part of the "Winning the Future Forum on Small Business" initiative engaging area business leaders.

Following the President's State of the Union address, the administration planned for over 100 youth roundtable meetings by June. This one was in February – just a few days after the phonecall to Minh-Tri. And right during midterm exams.

Admittedly not having heard of the program before, Minh-Tri immediately supercharged his already high-gear life that juggles school, campus activities, and research in the laboratory of Damir Janigro, PhD, Cell Biology. He cloistered himself away and set out to learn all he could about the roundtable discussions and how he could participate in something so centered on business innovation, which is far from his domain.

By 3:30 in the morning, he was satisfied with the six or seven questions he had composed.

The morning of the event, he took the RTA to the Wolstein Center, passed the security check, and was escorted to a room with about a dozen other area youth leaders. Mr. Modi was the first official to interact with the group. During a discussion on small business, entrepreneurship, and sustainability, suddenly the doors began to rattle. People with a commanding presence entered, photographers dashed about, and President Obama appeared. "Immediately we were all on our feet," recounted Minh-Tri. Everyone shook hands with the President and sat down.

Minh-Tri found the President to be true to his image – very personable and conversational. After a brief address, he asked for questions. Two came concerning entrepreneurship. Minh-Tri looked intently at his notepad, thinking, "After all the work I've done for this, I have to ask something!" Then he saw the President's eyes also fall to Minh-Tri's notepad. "Oh gosh, he looked at it!" And with that, Minh-Tri asked:

"In World War II, the US put a lot of money into creative, innovative investments for the war effort. After the war, this pushed our economy forward and made the US a good business partner with other countries. Our economy is similar to that during WW II, and research still helps our economy in a similar fashion. However, researchers are spending more time finding research grants, making less time for teaching or getting the research done. Do you see investing in research as a priority?"

The question is a valid one, with awarded grants from several institutes within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) falling below 10%. The President responded in the affirmative, that it is one of his top priorities and that he is always interested in investing in innovation.

Later that day, the President spoke at the forum's closing session. Before Minh-Tri knew it, he found himself in the third row, amidst a staggering array of local and national leaders. The Forum had drawn not only the President, but also several members of Congress and the President's Cabinet, including the Secretaries of the Treasury, Commerce, Labor, and Energy, as well as the chairman of the Economic Council and the director of the National Economic Council.

After the bulk of his speech had summarized the results from the forum's five panels concerning small businesses, President Obama stated:

"I was just with a group of young people, and one young man who is in the sciences pointed out that he's concerned that his professors are having more and more trouble getting grants because our R&D budgets in this country had been declining as a relative share to GDP. We've decided we've got to increase that back up. And that's part of our budget -- investing in innovation.To facilitate your success, we've got to invest in cutting-edge research and technology." (www.whitehouse.gov)

Knowing that the President was referring to him, that the President had specifically acknowledged his question, let Minh-Tri know that he had made his point.

So what's next? Minh-Tri loves research and is enthusiastic about the research environment at Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute. He would like to take a year off to finish his research project in Dr. Janigro's lab studying the biology of seizures, and then go to medical school to become a researcher-physician.