Pittsburgh’s new immigrants: Local students symbolize Asian success story

Another in an occasional series

Last month, Rishi and Suvir Mirchandani traveled to sunny Los Angeles.

The Fox Chapel Area High School students weren't taking a vacation. They were there to compete in one of the world's most rigorous science competitions, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Rishi, 17, a junior, ended up with a third-place award in the mathematics section of the fair for his work on the most efficient way for traffic to travel along a network of roadways. Younger brother Suvir, 15, got the $1,500 Web innovator award from GoDaddy for his project to allow paralyzed people to interact with a computer screen using just their eye gaze.

They're the sons of Prakash Mirchandani, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business, and Shabnam Mirchandani, a former literature professor. Both parents grew up in India, and the talented teens are just one more example of a notable trend.

In elite science contests all over the nation, children who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, as Rishi and Suvir are, are grabbing a disproportionate share of the top awards. Many are from families that come from East Asia and South Asia, the two regions that have dominated Pittsburgh's immigration over the past 40 years.

At the Intel Science Talent Search competition in Washington, D.C., in March, at least 27 of the 40 finalists had Asian surnames. And in last month's Scripps National Spelling Bee, two Indian-American boys, Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe, were declared co-winners, marking the seventh year in a row that an Indian-American had captured the spelling title.

About this series
This year, the Post-Gazette is taking a close look at the people who have come to the region from foreign nations and settled here. On average, they are a highly educated group, and local leaders eagerly hope to draw more of these skilled newcomers. This month, the Post-Gazette will launch a parallel project, "Odysseys," in which we plan to showcase one person living here from each of the United Nations' 193 member states.

Over the next three days, we will look at the standout students from immigrant families, a controversial new book on immigrant success and a research lab with scientists from around the world.

Connect with the whole series by visiting, bookmarking and sharing our Pittsburgh's New Immigrants section.

One of the top 10 finishers in the Intel Science Talent Search was Zarin Rahman, who was born in Bangladesh and did her research on the negative physical and psychological effects of too little sleep and too much screen time for teenagers. Zarin, a 17-year-old senior from Brookings, S.D., was the only student from her state or the entire upper Midwest to enter the final round.

"My parents do emphasize education and research heavily," she said in an interview before the judging. "It's worked for them. They've come all the way from Bangladesh to America through education. So they're probably thinking it's going to work for my kids to tell them to emphasize this.

"They want the best for us, and I didn't ever want to rebel against that."

Her father, Shafiqur Rahman, a pharmacology professor at South Dakota State University, said he tried to support his daughter by "helping her with her homework and going to different meetings, but then I say to her -- you should be in the top 5 or 10 in your class, no matter what. We will help you any way we can, but you have to be top 10, because you can then sell yourself wherever you go."

Contest lineups like the Intel finalists raise intriguing questions. Is it the high standards of parents like Shafiqur Rahman that lead to the lopsided presence of Asian-American students? Is it because most of the parents are themselves highly educated? Or could there be a genetic component to their success?

Actually, it is none of these factors, one recent study concluded. The overwhelming reason why Asian-American students outperform their peers, said Amy Hsin of the City University of New York and Yu Xie of the University of Michigan, is that they simply work harder.

"We find that the Asian-American educational advantage over whites is attributable mainly to Asian students exerting greater academic effort and not to advantages in tested cognitive abilities or socio-demographics," the researchers said in an April paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Value of work

The researchers used two long-term surveys of students from kindergarten through high school to measure three things: their grades; teachers' observations of their attention and work ethic; and their standardized test scores, used as a proxy for their cognitive ability.

The only Asian-American group that showed a significant advantage over white students in test scores were East Asians -- from Chinese, South Korean and Japanese backgrounds, for instance. But all the Asian-American children showed better grades and academic effort, and the gap increased over time, except for grades in the last two years of high school, when the difference with whites decreased.

Why do Asian-American students work harder? One explanation, the authors said, is that their families "tend to view cognitive abilities as qualities that can be developed through effort, whereas white Americans tend to view cognitive abilities as qualities that are inborn."

When students encounter challenges in learning something, they wrote, Asian-American parents are likely to see that as "cues to increase effort," where other families may believe that their children simply weren't gifted with the ability that other students have.

Prakash and Shabnam Mirchandani, whose families came from a part of India now in Pakistan, are obviously proud of their sons' achievement, but in a two-hour interview, not once did they cite IQ as a factor in their success.

Rishi, who loves math and is an accomplished pianist who will perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the coming season, said he and his Asian-American school friends often talk about the advantages they have been given by virtue of their parents' hard work and their decision to come to America.

"Because we have that initial advantage," he said, "I think our parents expect, and rightfully so in my opinion, that we take full advantage of that.

"My parents have never told me that B is a failure. But when I have gotten a B, they would often say, you can do better. If they were getting a B, they would have put in more effort and tried to get an A, so I feel I have the obligation to do the same thing. I've felt that being in high school and getting A's is the way I'm going to build a solid foundation for my future."

Shabnam Mirchandani, whose own background is in the arts, said she supports her sons' award-winning science projects because "I think there is a fun element and excitement in pursuing science. It's not just that we're aspiring that they ace the tests. That kind of high-achieving mentality is certainly there, but I think the attitude is fueled more by the idea that we look at it is a fun exercise."

Getting extra support

In many elite school districts around the nation, high-achieving Asian-American students are also getting extra support from special school staff.

At Jericho High School on Long Island in New York, teacher Serena McCalla said that while she has some limited teaching duties, her main job is to work one-on-one with students who are carrying out scientific research.

In her seven years at the high school there, she has helped four students become finalists at the Intel Science Talent Search. This year, two of her students were in that group.

Kaitlyn Shin, whose parents were born in Korea, presented her work on emissions from primordial black hole clusters. Preeti Kakani, whose physician parents grew up in India, displayed her research on the brain pathways involved in vision, a project inspired partly because she has limited vision in one eye from amblyopia.

Ms. McCalla worked with Kaitlyn and Preeti on their projects, but each of them also had a university professor as a research mentor -- Kaitlyn at Columbia, and Preeti at Yale. In fact, Preeti sublet an apartment in New Haven, Conn., for the past two summers to do research during the week and commute home on the weekends.

"To me," Ms. McCalla said, "they're not giving up their summers -- this is broadening them for the rest of their lives. At Jericho, we're often at the school until 9 or 10 at night, and the parents are bringing food in for me, the students and everyone. They're encouraging this unprecedented work ethic."

Her school is not the only one providing specialized support for student research work. Long Island as a whole produced almost 50 Intel talent semifinalists this year, she said, and parents have begun moving into her district to take advantage of the school's award-winning reputation.

"I've been told our real estate values have increased since I've come to Jericho," she laughed. "They're driven students, driven parents, there's a strong administration supporting us. It's a group effort."

An altruistic attitude

For many of the science contest competitors, it's not just a chance to pull down honors and increase their odds of getting into a top university -- it's also a chance to give something back to society.

One of this year's Intel finalists, 18-year-old Thabit Pulak of Richardson, Texas, has developed a low-cost arsenic filter for water supplies in his parents' native country, Bangladesh.

Thabit, who will attend Duke University on a full scholarship in the fall, said he was inspired to work on the project because many of the poorest people in Bangladesh rely on well water contaminated with arsenic, and commercially available water filters now cost $60 to $70, "which is really expensive in country where many make $1-2 a day. It's almost like a middle-class person buying a car here."

His much cheaper version uses a PVC pipe filled with sand, which filters out most of the dirt and bacteria in the water, and then uses a layer of iron nanoparticles on top that captures most of the arsenic. To create the iron nanoparticles, he knocked rust off the sides of dumpsters near his Texas neighborhood and then heated it with fat he extracted from lye soap, which broke the rust down into the fine iron particles.

Once he goes to college, Thabit said, he would like to start a company to make the arsenic filters. He's also working on a cheap arsenic detection strip that people could use to test their well water.

Suvir Mirchandani has a similar goal with his computer eye-tracking project.

The high school freshman uses the camera on the front of an iPad and measures EEG brain waves to determine where someone is looking on a computer screen and how hard they are concentrating on that spot. In his initial tests, volunteers have been able to activate Internet links with more than 90 percent accuracy.

His goal is to create a system that would allow disabled people to use the Internet more easily, and to "provide a system of communication for less than $100."

Suvir recently got national publicity for another research project he started in middle school, showing that if the federal government switched to a lighter font for its printed documents, it potentially could save millions of dollars in ink and toner costs.

Besides their science studies, both Mirchandani teens spend hours practicing the piano that takes up a prominent position in the family's cozy living room. They have entered international competitions, Shabnam Mirchandani said, and Rishi won his chance to perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony by getting first place in this year's Duquesne University National Concerto Competition. Suvir said he eventually would like to go into software engineering, while Rishi said he would like to "do some sort of combination of applied mathematics and music."

Prakash Mirchandani said he and his wife have never told their sons that they have to pursue a scientific career, but "whatever they are doing, we want them to do well."

For many immigrant families, that goal is not just so their children can achieve success, but so they can repay their adopted nation.

"We are very grateful to this country," said Shafiqur Rahman, the Intel finalist's father, "so we want to give back, with our knowledge and our hard work."

Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1130 and on Twitter: @markomar

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