Brain Drain Boon for the U.s.

updated 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Each year the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, one of America's oldest and most prestigious high school academic contests, serves as a proving ground for the brightest prodigies in the land. Of the 1,800 former winners, 70 percent have gone on to become Ph.D.s or M.D.s, and five are Nobel laureates. This year the competition was typically stiff. In hope of winning the $20,000 first prize, more than 1,200 students submitted sophisticated research projects in fields as diverse as astrophysics and biomedical engineering. But in a tour de force by a statistically tiny ethnic group, the top five scholarship awards all went to students born in Asia or of Asian parentage.

Though Asian-Americans number less than 2 percent of the population, theirs is the most upwardly mobile ethnic group in the country. The Asian challenge seems to parallel the experience of postwar Jewish immigrants to the U.S. "In the '40s and '50s many of our winners were the sons and daughters of Jewish refugees," says Dorothy Schriver, who has helped administer each of the 45 Westinghouse contests. "Similarly, for the past several years we've had an unusually strong showing from Asian-Americans." Some observers have suggested that the high achievement of this new wave of immigrants is due to genetic advantages. But most experts point to other factors, including a cultural emphasis on education and the immigrants' hungry ambition to win a piece of the American dream. In addition to their shared brilliance, this year's five Westinghouse winners all come from unusually tight-knit families where Confucian tradition and the American work ethic blend in powerful harmony.

Handwritten on a strip of red tissue paper above the desk in Wei-Jing Zhu's tiny bedroom is a Chinese New Year message from his parents that translates, "Continue to rise." For Wei-Jing, 16, a Brooklyn Technical High School senior who shared top honors in the Westinghouse contest, the inspirational words are a reminder both of his potential and his duty. "One of my main goals in life is to make my parents proud," he says.

His award-winning project in algebraic number theory brought a special satisfaction to his parents. Six years ago Tei-Lai Zhu and his wife, Kwan-Yook Tse, gave up privileged jobs as laser-optics engineers in Peking to bring Wei-Jing and his sister, Juliana, now 14, to America. "We wanted our children to have the opportunity for a better education," says Tei-Lai, who now helps out part-time in a relative's New York restaurant while Kwan-Yook works as an insurance examiner. Though he spoke only a few words of English at first, Wei-Jing quickly surpassed his fellow students in math and science and checked out more advanced textbooks from the public library to study on his own. By the time he finished 10th grade, he had already completed college-level studies in calculus, physics and chemistry.

Wei-Jing's biggest problem is knowing when to quit. Though he loves to let loose in a spirited game of basketball with his friends, he sometimes gets so involved in his studies that he forgets to eat and stays up well past midnight. Destined for Harvard next year, he is eager to take a broad range of courses outside the sciences. "Wei-Jing is not satisfied just to do research," says his mother. "He wants to be a boss." "I thought you had to be an absolute genius to win the Westinghouse competition," says Wendy Chung, 17, who shared first-place honors this year. "I never thought they would pick a real live person." Modesty aside, the senior-class valedictorian at Miami Killian High School is capable of matching wits with just about anybody.

The eldest of three children, Wendy inherited the Asian features of her Chinese-born father, Alfred, a research assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Miami, and the homespun good nature of her American-born mother, Marilyn, a secretary for the local Seventh Day Adventists Church. "I have the best of both worlds," Wendy says proudly. "A lot of Chinese culture is about hard work, while American culture is living and doing things for the soul as well as the mind. The combination of the two is better."

For her project, Wendy studied the troublesome behavior of the Caribbean fruit fly, a cousin of the "medfly" that plagues citrus crops in the South. "Coming home with bites wasn't fun," she says. Hoping to go premed at Stanford University next year, she eventually would like to study neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Though she finds time to play piano, organ and clarinet, to read detective novels and to take young kids from her church on camping outings, the real secret to Wendy's academic excellence is dogged perseverance. "It's a polished brilliance," she says. "I work for it. I mold the clay. And no matter what I decide to do, or how impossible it seems, my family has always been beside me."

"Children should be encouraged to study when they are ready," says Yoshimi Saito, a noted Japanese mathematician who now teaches at the University of Alabama/Birmingham. "And if they are not ready, you have to force them. Sometimes studying is a very hard thing to do."

Luckily, Yoriko Saito, 18, the Westinghouse third-place winner, has needed little prodding from her father to hit the books. Growing up in Kyoto, Japan's fifth most populous city, Yoriko and her brother Naoyuki, now 16, inherited a natural love of learning from their dad and mom, Sachiko, an artist. They also had the advantage of intensive language training in English. By the time the family moved to Birmingham two and a half years ago, Yoriko was far ahead of fellow students at Homewood High School in the sciences. "The adjustment was not hard," says Yoriko. "I just had to switch my brain from Japanese to English."

Yoriko wowed the Westinghouse judges with a project in genetic engineering that aims at producing disease-resistant strains of tomatoes and other plants. Already enrolled in several courses at the University of Alabama/ Birmingham, Yoriko plans to continue her studies there next year with the goal of becoming a research scientist. In the meantime she has only good things to say about American hospitality. "I think it is amazing the way Americans accept foreigners," she says. "They reach out to newcomers and make them feel comfortable."

There are books in every nook and cranny of the Juang household in Queens, N.Y.; on the staircase, under the beds, in closets, in cupboards and stacked to the ceiling in the basement. "When I was a boy in Taiwan, I didn't have so many books," says Kuo-Sheng Juang, a medical doctor who frequents library rummage sales. "But I figure if I'd had more of an opportunity to read, I might have won the Nobel Prize."

Now the father's hopes lie with his sons: George Juang, 17, a Benjamin Cardozo High School senior and Westinghouse fourth-place winner for a project in laser physics, and Richard, 13. Born in Taiwan, George came to the U.S. at age 4 with his father and mother, Amy, a registered nurse. By the time he reached his teens, George was an eager but unsuccessful experimenter. "I collected meal worms and beetles and tried growing plants under lights," he says. "Unfortunately, everything died."

His luck changed in high school, where he has excelled in math, physics and chemistry. "If you walk into some of the advanced science classes at school, you'd think it was a meeting of the Asian club," he says. A member of the school fencing team as well as editor of a student science magazine, George plans to attend Harvard next year. "For a lot of first generation Asian-Americans, the Ivy League is the only way to go," says George. "Other kids whose families have been here for several generations already have a stable niche in society. But for us, education is our ticket into the mainstream of American life."

When Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, Tot Nguyen, a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Army, disappeared. "They just came to the door one day and took him," says Tot's wife, Kieu Huynh. "I never saw him again." With her son, Anh Tuan, then 7, and daughter, Mai, 3, in tow, Kieu Huynh went into hiding at their local church, where a Catholic priest protected them for six years. Then, in 1981, they escaped one night on a 25-foot boat crowded with 42 other people. En route to Thailand they were set upon by pirates. When the pirates collected valuables, Anh balked at handing over a medallion. "They were about to throw me overboard," recalls Anh, who was dangled by his arms over the edge of the boat. "I didn't even know how to swim then." The pirates finally spared the boy. The family spent four months in a refugee camp in Thailand and then were shipped off to another camp in Indonesia, where they were given three weeks of English language training. Going through scores of books on his own, Anh was fluent by the time the family immigrated to the U.S. in 1982.

Now 17, Anh, the Westinghouse fifth-place winner, lives with his mother and sister in a low-income housing complex in Cleveland. The top-ranked scholarship student at University School, Anh did a study of antipsychotic drugs. While Anh, a tennis and chess aficionado, makes plans to study neuro-chemistry at Harvard next year, his mother, Kieu, a full-time student at a local community college, is busy counting her blessings. "I didn't think my family would survive," she says in broken English. "Now we are so happy in this new country."

—Written by David Grogan, with reporting by various bureaus

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