An Unexpected Spotlight

Sandy holding photo of himself as a young boyby ALEXANDER (SANDY) POLLATSEK

On 22 March 1948, Life magazine ran an article titled “Genius school,” about Hunter College Elementary School, then the only special elementary school in New York City for “gifted” children. Accompanying the article was a photograph of a 7-year-old boy with a chemistry book in hand, standing in front of a blackboard covered in chemistry equations. That little boy was me.

I had not thought about my brief moment of childhood fame in decades, when recently I received an e-mail from an elementary school friend, Judith Shulman Weis. From Judith, I learned that my 7-year-old self had earned a second moment of glory: Science magazine had run a version of the Life magazine photograph on the cover of the 23 April 2010 issue on Science, Language, and Literacy.

Upon seeing this snapshot of the past, I couldn't help thinking about my years at Hunter and how the school may have affected the path my life has taken. The photograph seems to imply that I learned those chemical equations at school. This was not the case. The staff at Hunter did not teach me advanced chemistry, but they did provide something even more important: an environment that encouraged independent learning and rewarded interest in science. With support from my teachers, I taught myself the chemistry displayed in the photograph by reading the high-school review book shown in my hand. My father had given me the book; he was a high school graduate but had always been interested in chemistry and was one of the smartest people I have ever known.

Throughout my childhood, I dreamed of being another Beethoven, but when reality set in, I turned back to my interest in chemistry. I majored in chemistry at the University of Michigan and then earned a master's degree in chemistry from Harvard. However, because of the way chemistry was taught at the time, I became frustrated with the subject. Even after my first year of graduate school, I did not understand what a chemist did. I changed course again and returned to the University of Michigan to get a master's in mathematics and a Ph.D. in psychology.

In the years since, my primary research has been measuring eye movements to gain insight into the reading process. I have also been involved in funded research on the understanding and misunderstanding of statistics, and more recently I have studied driving and driving safety, also using eye movements as a primary variable of attention.

I am still active in all three areas at age 70. I like to think that the inquisitive little boy that graced the cover of Science last year is still a part of me.

Article reposted from: Science