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Originally published January 25, 2011 at 3:39 PM | Page modified January 25, 2011 at 8:11 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

The secret is there is no secret

When are we going to tell students struggling to answer this generation's Sputnik II call to excellence in science, technology, engineering and math that there's no secret, only hard work.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

I'm convinced that when our leaders invoke public schools in the American call to arms on global competitiveness, our students hear what the Peanuts gang hears when adults speak: bwah bwah bwah.

President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday night alluded to America's "Sputnik moment" and outlined a broad plan to improve public-school achievement in science, technology, engineering and math. Education will be the route upward for the American economy and our global competitiveness.

Obama's rhetorical flourishes are likely meaningless to a generation whose parents were barely toddlers in the 1950s and 1960s when Americans responded to the space race by flocking toward science and engineering educations.

Rhetoric matters. It is important to tell children to aim for building the next Boeing or being the next Bill Gates. (And to kindly do it before the kid in Shanghai or Mumbai does.)

But that's all at a 30,000-foot level. A better narrative comes from the ground by people telling students how they can build a better airplane or the next generation's software. That would take at least some of us to Dr. Michelle Williams, the University of Washington's latest rock star and professor of epidemiology and global health.

Williams is one of 11 people nationwide to win this year's Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. I caught her just as she headed to the nation's capital to enjoy a White House ceremony and collect a $10,000 check.

Williams runs a UW program that mentors college students from disadvantaged backgrounds and steers them toward research and leadership roles in public health.

I see a connection between Obama's call for more scientists and engineers and Williams' life.

She grew up the eldest daughter of Jamaican immigrants living in a basement apartment in Queens, N.Y. Her father, a tailor, was mentored by his bosses, European immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island a generation before. They passed on the sage advice that the key to success in America was aiming for the best public schools, the ones where teachers went the extra mile.

Williams recalls the day one of her teachers inquired about her post-graduation plans. She recalls speaking of a few schools and her hopes of a volleyball scholarship. Her teacher told her to reach higher and handed her a college application from Princeton.

Williams ended up earning a bachelor's degree in genetics from Princeton, a masters in engineering from Tufts University and at Harvard University, a master's in demography and a doctorate in epidemiology.

How did she, decades before our president issued the call for excellence, achieve excellence? She worked for it.

"Take that vacation or break later," she advises. "It feels better when you've earned it."

She advises the students she mentors to know their limits. To ask, "What would happen if I worked a little bit outside of my comfort zone?"

Or to see a B-plus in a class as a signal to move up to the accelerated class, or on the flip side, acknowledge a failing grade as a sign to take it down a notch and reinforce the fundamentals.

The secret is that there is no secret, only hours of hard work and gratification delayed until the work was done.

We ought to be telling students what Williams learned. Otherwise, they see the great chasm between their lives and our nation's lofty ambitions and their feet dare not leave the ground.

Williams does this with her UW program, the Multidisciplinary International Research Training program. She and other mentors engage bright students early about careers in science and global health.

Projects in Ethiopia, Thailand and other countries provide students with a global perspective but also inducement to stay on their path, whether it's medical or graduate school or simply finishing up their undergraduate degree.

Moving from an average educational system to the best isn't a great leap but a culmination of hundreds of small steps. The president lays out the visions, people like Williams show us the building blocks.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

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