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Defying odds (and mom), a student wins the right to study science

This is the first in a series of profiles of college-bound student recipients of scholarships administered by New Visions for Public Schools.

All it would take to keep Sharmin Mollick happy for life, it seems, is a good science laboratory.

Mollick’s school, the Marble Hill High School for International Studies, doesn’t have a fully-equipped lab. But for Mollick, even studying science publicly, in the daylight, has been a luxury.

That will change this fall, when 18-year-old Mollick heads to Cornell University to study biochemistry.

Listen to Sharmin Mollick discuss her studies and goals.

Mollick left Bangladesh with her mother and brother at 14, in part to avoid a marriage she said members of her extended family were trying to arrange for her. Like many Bangladeshi girls, Mollick attended primary school but was forced to drop out after seventh grade.

By the time Mollick arrived in New York, she had been out of school for two years. Before she left school, however, a teacher introduced her to basic genetics. “It was fascinating to know something new, because in my country you don’t usually get to talk about science a lot,” she said. “It goes against the beliefs of Islam and it’s a Muslim-dominated culture.”

But Mollick was hooked. “You have questions that you can answer either through experiments or through research, and you still have more questions, and those answers give rise to more questions that you can answer — it just never ends,” Mollick said. “It just never gets boring.”

When she entered Marble Hill as a ninth-grader, she sped through her classes for new English speakers and into classes to prepare her for more advanced science courses. Administrators at Marble Hill, a small school with a focus on international language and cultural studies, let her skip required foreign language coursework to load her schedule with science.

But even with their help, studying what she wanted came with its own set of complications. Mollick’s mother, a devout Muslim now raising Mollick and her brother on her own on a street vendor’s unstable salary, worried that Islam’s tenets sometimes conflicted with what Mollick was learning in school. Mollick wasn’t ready to give up her studies for her mother’s beliefs. “But I couldn’t hurt her either,” she said. “Because I obviously love my mother and in my culture, you are not supposed to go against elderly people.”

So when she enrolled last year in an advanced biology class, she didn’t tell her mother. She stashed textbooks out of sight the way some students hide junk food or diaries. She did her reading late at night, in the bathroom, to avoid her mother’s notice.

But hiding her studies from her family is not a long-term strategy, and recently, Mollick said, her mother has begun to come around to come around to her point of view. (Mollick’s mother was visiting Bangladesh last week when I visited her daughter at school.)

“I have to prove to my mom that studying biology is not like a corruption,” she said. “That it actually can have a good impact on society, for me and for the community.”

Though Marble Hill has served Mollick well in many respects, the school’s small size also has presented challenges. While she was able to personalize her coursework to spend her last two years focused on science and math, the school hasn’t been able to offer all of the classes she wants to take, notably advanced chemistry (physics was a cheaper option for the school).

And then there’s the question of a good science lab. Last week, Mollick sat with David Meek, her energetic biology teacher, in his classroom. Tall experiment tables were spread throughout the room. Meek pointed to the electrical outlets on the side of each table. “Those are new,” he said. “Last year, we had to string extension cords all over the room just to plug anything in.” Mollick pines for something more than a lab whose major technical innovation is easy access to electricity, envisioning a room decked out with fancy microscopes and equipment.

“Even without that, you can see students like me who…get inspired to do science and do well in science,” she said. “If there would actually be a working science lab, I wonder how good those students could actually be.”

Mollick’s high hopes for Cornell are mixed with nerves. She said she needs to teach her brother, a sophomore at DeWitt Clinton High School, how to take care of her mother, who is recovering from cancer. A BlackRock-Schlosstein Scholarship is covering part of her tuition and Cornell is covering the rest, along with room and board. That leaves living expenses, which are still a question mark. And, as her creative writing teacher Julia Knorr reminded her last week, she’ll need to balance her single-minded devotion to schoolwork with other activities.

Knorr has helped Mollick learn to do that already — Mollick said that Knorr’s writing class prompted her to begin keeping a journal (in English, she said, to help her with her language skills).

“She’s very open-minded and creative,” Knorr said. “She doesn’t sit down and say, ‘I can’t write a poem, I give up.’ She says, ‘okay, how can I take this piece of knowledge I have about Bangladesh or about science and make it into a beautiful poem?'”

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