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‘In Search of Genius’ - and finding it in pharmacognosy

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Brian J. Wright, a Chatham native, is set to become the first African-American, U.S.-born man to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Illinios at Chicago in pharmacognosy, a science focused on discovering new medicines by isolating compounds from plants, bacteria, fungi and other natural material.

Wright, 31, credits his grandmother with encouraging his love for science by introducing him to the 1960s-era TV show, “Mr. Wizard,” on an oldies TV station.

“She and my mother were my original mentors,” he said.

His grandmother died when Wright was 9.

“Watching her die of cancer, I felt helpless,” he said.

Eight years later, Wright found his purpose when he and his classmates at Hales Franciscan High School were chosen to get mentors through the Omega Project, which sent three successful, multi-cultural men to talk to 15 students each week about success, responsibility and personal development.

The Omega Project happened at a critical time for Wright, who at age 15 lost his best friend when the 19-year-old friend, whom Wright considered a brother, was cut down in gang cross-fire at 81st and Ashland.

“One of the mentors gave me the book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,’ and that changed my life. I came to understand that health starts with our beliefs, in programming our psychology,” Wright said.

Wright’s decision to focus on pharmacognosy and medicinal chemistry despite his love of physical chemistry solidified after he suffered a mysterious fungal infection in college that started after he took antibiotics to get rid of a rash.

“I was 19 years old, and I could not concentrate. I had chronic fatigue, and I got a rash all over my body,” he said.

After enduring the infection for eight months, Wright learned by accident that a natural substance — South American tree bark — offered a cure.

Another serendipitous event — watching an inspirational movie that moved him to be a role model — brought Wright full circle. He is now leading student mentors in a program started by the same man who mentored him in high school.

The new program, “In Search of Genius (,” aims to excite 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in disadvantaged Chicago Public Schools about science by hiring college students as mentors and using an innovative curriculum that emphasizes having fun.

“Our focus is to speak the kids’ language, and that language is fun,” said Wright, who as a science mentor team leader recruits the mentors and strategizes with them about ways to connect with the kids. He ultimately wants to use his education to promote nutritional literacy and research nutritional products, plants and diet programs.

“We are making these children feel good,” he said of the “In Search of Genius” program, now in its second year. “A lot of that comes from people showing up and saying, ‘I care.’ After we test the students on science concepts, they start to realize, ‘I got it.’ That raises their self-esteem in terms of self-competence.”

The program encourages children to compete in teams, rewards them with certificates and “smart money” for attendance, a positive attitude, team winnings and showing extraordinary leadership qualities. The students receive a 20-percent dividend on their “smart money” savings, or they may spend it at the end of the school year on a Lego robot project or other games and kits.

In Search of Genius is operating at 30 public schools in under-served neighborhoods, enabling 600 children to work with mentors once a week for 90 minutes after school. The mentors receive a stipend of $25 per session, and those with perfect attendance get a year-end bonus. The school science teachers who work with the program are paid $1,000 at the end of the school year. The program gets support from individual sponsors as well as corporate sponsors JPMorgan Chase, Abbott Laboratories and Wal-Mart Stores.

A Northwestern University professor says the program fills a gaping hole in science education that is rarely discussed: Many Illinois elementary schools, and in particular those in disadvantaged areas, primarily teach science in the 4th and 7th grades because those are the years when the students are tested in science under the “No Child Left Behind” program. The other years are spent focusing on the main testing areas of reading and math.

“We’re seeing that, by the time these students get to the 9th grade, they are already behind. They have only three years to catch up as well as learn the science they need to know for the junior year exam,” said Steven McGee, research associate professor in the school of education and social policy at Northwestern. “If we want to graduate more scientists from college, we need to increase the amount of time students spend on science in elementary school.”

Research shows that since “No Child Left Behind” was started in January 2002, declines in the amount of science instruction have averaged 1.25 hours per week, and that the United States is the only developed country that spends more than six hours a week on reading instruction.

The man behind In Search of Genius — Chicago entrepreneur Gerry Walanka — set up the program that mentored Wright and his peers at Hales Franciscan. Walanka’s life was changed forever 48 years ago, when he was 20, after he survived an accidental shooting while hunting with a friend.

Walanka, 68, who had his left foot amputated after the shooting, said he believed he survived — just by chance, an ambulance came by the rural, isolated field where the accident happened — to fulfill a purpose.

“I became a lot more assertive and pushed to over-achieve from that day forward,” he said, noting that his father served as his original role model in caring about those less fortunate.

Walanka started a successful legal research firm in Chicago while he attended DePaul University Law School, and grew it into a sizeable business. But he felt a need to continue what he calls “my own inner work,” so he decided to study psychology and psychotherapy. He trained at the Gestalt Institute and the Esalen Institute in Gestalt therapy, which emphasizes mindfulness and interaction between a person and his coach, and spread the word about Gestalt to social service agencies. Walanka returned to business in the late 1970s, creating The Trade Center, which developed a coupon book for banks to give to new depositors. The company pioneered grocery-store partnerships with third-party companies that evolved into today’s loyalty cards. He has also invested in start-up companies, including one that produces Penta Water, a bottled water touting health benefits, and Air Efficient Systems, which produces a system that cuts retailers’ electric costs by making their air-conditioning units run more efficiently.

Walanka decided to start his second student-mentoring program after officials with the NOVA science TV program asked him to help show audiences a movie about the life of Percy Julian, an African-American chemist who became one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, helping design treatments for glaucoma and rheumatoid arthritis. Walanka’s work resulted in the movie’s screening in February 2006 at the Chicago Theater, and the introduction of “In Search of Genius.”

Of the Genius program, Walanka said, “Perhaps this is the first in a systemic change in the education system.”

Wright has seen it work already. A cute little girl who played the role of “the pretty girl” in class was coaxed into being OK with the fact that she is smart. She now helps lead her science team.

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