Some may have the soul of a poet, but Nelson Totah has the soul of a scientist.

And to call him an overachiever is an understatement.

A junior at Emory College majoring in neurobiology and behavior, with minors in both physics and religion, Totah also is editor of Hybrid Vigor, a scholarly journal of science at Emory; a licensed emergency medical technician and member of the Federal Disaster Medical Strike Team; and a tutor of second graders. But what is perhaps most remarkable about him is the drive with which he pursues his passion–and his desire to share it with others.

At seventeen, as a senior at a public high school in a Houston, Texas, suburb, Totah began to feel his keen interest in science was not being wholly satisfied by the curriculum. So he set out single-handedly to create the Science National Honor Society.

“I just noticed that so much of society is based on technology and progression in science, and the way I look at the world, there is so much beauty to be found if you look at it through science,” Totah says. “I just did not feel I was achieving all I wanted, and I was looking for science resources at my high school. I knew there were English and French national honor societies, but my teachers did not know of a science one.”

Totah researched honor societies on the Internet to see how they worked, wrote a constitution for a similar society of young scientists, and applied for–and received–non-profit status for the organization. Then he began writing and e-mailing figures in the science and business community in Houston to establish leadership for the newly hatched Science National Honor Society (SNHS). He had little luck, however, until he hit on the secret: “I quit saying I was in high school,” he recalls, “and suddenly I was getting resumes from top CEOs.” Totah is now vice chairman of a board of directors that includes members from NASA, Texas Instruments, Lockheed Martin, and Sandia National Laboratories.

“Nelson is an outstanding person and student,” says Emory chemistry professor Raenell Soller. “He is one of the most intellectually gifted students at the University; however, his uniqueness results from his strong commitment to humanity and academics. He is a capable and passionate leader who can motivate others toward a good cause.”

The aim of the SNHS, as Totah defined it, is to “encourage participation in and recognition of scientific and intellectual thought, to advance the students’ knowledge of classical and modern science, to communicate with the scientific community, to aid the civic community with its comprehension of science, and to encourage students to participate in community service and, in turn, encourage a dedication to the pursuit of scientific knowledge that benefits all mankind.”

There are now fifty-four chartered SNHS chapters at high schools in twenty-four states, with another twenty-six chapters pending. One chapter, North Crowley High School in Fort Worth, Texas, is working to construct monitoring equipment for participation in the North American Large-scale Time-coincidence Array (NALTA), with the help of the University of Texas at Arlington and the QuarkNet Program at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. In Atlanta, the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a consortium of which Emory is a part, is developing a partnership that Totah hopes will result in new high school educational programs in neuroscience. The SNHS also has offered college scholarships to science students. Other goals include summer science programs at universities, a science publication for high school students, an internship catalogue for college-bound students, educational brochures and videos, seminars and workshops, and grants for high school science teachers who help educate not just the brightest students but the entire school.

“If you look back five years from now, I’m sure we’ll have a lot accomplished,” he says. “I’m pretty enthusiastic and pretty confident about what we can do.”–P.P.P.




© 2003 Emory University