From High School Nerds to STEM Celebrities

School Hallway

They were bored and they were nerds. So they did what bored nerds do, they started a website. 

Their college applications were in and Brexton Pham and his friends were looking for something to fun to do during the time they had left in high school. That’s when he had the crazy idea to start a science website. So one Friday night he spent $150 of his own money on a domain name and created The Wannabe Scientist.

The site started out as a fun little hobby for Brexton and his buddies. They thought it would be cool to find new ways to make science fun and accessible to everyone online. It wasn’t long before things took off. Today the site is run by a team of 70 high school and college students, and it has quickly captured the attention of the STEM community.

As he heads off to college [Stanford Class of 2018], Brexton takes some time to answer questions about his personal quest to develop the website into one that he hopes will one day be “the first thing that pops up when you Google science”.

So, what is The Wannabe Scientist?

The Wannabe Scientist is a current events/lifestyle science website made by high school and college students for the masses. It was launched in January 2014, so it’s still a ‘baby’ website. We are devoted to making science a fun and accessible topic for everyone. Why talk about the new “X-men” during a casual breakfast when you can talk about the new element being discovered while fancily drinking your cup of coffee, right? Also, it is a great network for students as any high schooler or college kid who is interested (it doesn’t matter if you are a science prodigy or just a journalist who wishes to delve a bit more into the realm of science) can join the website to gain valuable experience in the realm of STEM.

This seems like a pretty significant undertaking for a group of high school students. How did you come up with the idea and get started?

Honestly, I was just bored! I know – that’s the most inspiring thing you’ve ever heard. I remember it was about a week after college applications were submitted, and I wanted something to do. So, I messaged a couple of my friends asking if they were interested in creating a science website because what’s the one thing that a couple of nerds are good at? Talking about science! Everyone was on board within a few minutes, spitting out crazy ideas and all that. I’m pretty sure they just said “yes” because they thought it was never going to happen or it was some joke. Afterward, I got started on creating the website, had it up by the next day and told everyone to start submitting articles and everything. They were surprised it was actually happening and just went along with it! It was just a fun hobby that all of us had. Little did we know that it would spiral into something bigger. Week after week, more people would display interest. All of the sudden, we had to get editors and writers, create a schedule, assign tasks, etc. Looking back, that was a pretty darn productive Friday night.

Looking at the profiles of all of your contributors  you have students from across the entire US and even other countries participating. How did you build the team?

We have about 70 students on the team right now! It all started with my friends at Kennesaw Mountain High School! Then, I went on Facebook and that’s where most of my original team came from. I had created some connections through various summer and college preparation programs over the past few years in high school, and each one of those had Facebook groups. So I advertised like crazy on a bunch of high school and college groups, which ranged from a group of high schoolers in Georgia to high schoolers all over the United States! Afterward, I would encourage the new members to do the same in any Facebook groups they were in. When the website got bigger, I would then receive emails from people who just read the site or saw it on a social media outlet. These people varied from graduate students at universities or those with their own blogs who wanted more exposure. So, yes, basically I love you, Mark Zuckerberg.

With most of the contributors in HS, what happens when they move on to college and their interests and availability change? How are you planning to keep it alive as staff drops off?

The hope is that most people’s interest will be maintained as they enter college. But, yes, I am even worried for myself regarding whether or not I will be able to devote as much time as I do now towards the website in college. However, I am not really worried about getting more team members. What I have found is that high schoolers are always interested in joining something, and that is what has kept the website alive. The majority of our members are high schoolers, and I have a theory for why that may be. A lot of them are starting to feel the pressure of college admissions so they will do anything to build their resume. So, some high schoolers join our website as a way to fluff up their extracurricular list, which I don’t mind. But they soon become really invested in our website and start spreading the word to their friends about our website. They start getting into the spirit of the science of it all. They “share” the articles that they write on Facebook or Twitter, or maybe show off at school. Eventually, we have a constant stream of little high school laborers. Do I feel bad about exploiting this workforce? No. No, I do not. We’re a little family now!

How much time do you spend working on the site?

I tend to devote about 1 to 2 hours each day to the website. We are always growing so there are constantly more responsibilities to take care of. But, our team is also always growing so everything gets dispersed pretty efficiently. I have a killer team too so that helps (which is an understatement because of my Writing Director, Corey Fogg, helps keep me sane). Also, I often feel bad about this, but, because I have the computer science knowledge of a three-year-old, I usually dump all of my website design and the actual technological side of things to my web administrators, Anurag Banerjee and Robert Vaivodiss.

How do you decide what stories to share on the site?

My main philosophy for picking stories is “would it be something you would actually click?” We live in a society where even scrolling a mouse across the page to a link may be too tedious. Either that or I’m just an incredibly lazy person. Regardless, whatever gets published, it has to be something interesting enough that I would be willing to actually click. Beyond that, as long as it’s in the realm of STEM, it makes its way onto the website!

How do you ensure you are spreading good science and not getting fooled by some of the more sensational stories based on questionable research?

We always try to have at least 3 sources for each of our articles so we seem (a little bit) more legitimate. Then, we check where those sources got their information! Our editors usually have excellent judgment for the quality of the sources.

Does the site currently have any sponsors? Where does the funding come from to host it, maintain the domain, etc.?

The site doesn’t have any sponsors at the moment. It’s all just run by us – the students! Well, we are starting to form a “faculty advisory board” made of various educators/professionals because we will need some help in deciding what our future plans should be, but, beyond that, no. As for the funding, I just paid about $150 dollars up front that first Friday night and the website will be up for the next three years!

Has anything really cool happened as a result of this site being launched?

The coolest part of the website being launched is all of the crazy connections that we make. For example, one of the nicest people I have ever talked to randomly discovered our website one day and showed it to her father who happened to be a well-connected university professor in the STEM community. He then introduced us to someone who worked for The Society for Science & the Public. Subsequently, we were featured on their website and so many other doors were opened for us! Being featured on various websites all over the Internet is pretty awesome too. Also, at a random college reception, someone recognized me from the website! (Although it’s only happened once, I will never forget it.)

I also remember about 3 months after our website launched, I received an email in my inbox. The subject head was “Intel.” So, I opened up the email, confused, and much to my surprise it was from someone connected to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair! She told us about how impressed she was with our website and that we were invited to cover the 2014 Intel ISEF. What? This was absolutely insane to me. Soon after, we received media passes and there we were in Los Angeles covering one of the largest STEM events of the year! Crazy.

What partnerships do you have with other organizations? What kind of partnerships are you still looking for?

So far, we have partnerships with NeoStudentsthe QuadHer Culture, and the Prospect. Essentially, they are all student-run publications. It’s great to be part of a network where we are all in the game together. However, I am still looking for bigger partnerships. It would be fantastic to have partnerships with larger STEM organizations and even universities, partnerships that would expand our horizons and allow us to not be restricted by just journalism!

In the end, what do you hope to accomplish with the site?

I don’t really know. It comforts me a bit to know that Vince Gilligan didn’t really know where he wanted to go with Breaking Bad most of the time either (because it’s a completely fair comparison). I do know, however, that I want it to be more than just a journalism website. I feel that with all the networking opportunities it offers, there are so many possibilities! What if we could connect students all across the world with professors for research opportunities? Or offer internships? What if we could create great big events such as TED Talks so that people can participate in interactive conferences? There is so much to do in the STEM sector that people don’t realize. My expectation is that it will become something bigger than just a science blog. I want it to become a household name (alright, maybe not that drastic, but you get the idea). I want it to be the new Buzzfeed or TED Talks. I want it to be a resource. I want it to be a website where people can gain connections and open doors for research. I want it to be the first thing that pops up when you Google “science.”


Brexton Pham, Editor-in-Chief @ The Wannabe Scientist (Email)

(This piece was originally posted to my LinkedIn blog July 24, 2014)

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