Manual Developing a Talent for Science

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But what is talent?

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Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton argues that talent is best thought of as any package of personal characteristics that accelerates the acquisition of expertise, or enhances performance given a certain amount of expertise. In other words, talent allows a person to "get better faster" or "get more bang for the buck" out of a given amount of expertise. Of course, whether a unique package of personal characteristics counts as a talent depends on the domain. But even talent within a single domain can be individualised. | Developing a Talent for Science | | Ritsert C. Jansen | Boeken

People can mix and match their own unique package of characteristics in various ways to express the same talent. For instance, consider that the person with extremely high levels of perseverance and motivation can offset other characteristics that may be less than stellar by comparison, such as a poor memory. What's important is the total package, not the precise mix of personal characteristics. But how does talent develop? Unfortunately, many people have an overly simplistic understanding of talent.

They view talent as innate, ready to spring forth given the right conditions. But this is not how talent operates.

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Gareth Bale wasn't born with the ability to score memorable goals. Talents aren't prepackaged at birth, but take time to develop. Yet it's also well known that none of these personal characteristics — from mathematical ability to courage — are completely determined by genes.

Genetically influenced doesn't mean genetically determined. Although genes code for proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of everything we do, they are far removed from anything we would recognise as talents. One of the most important discoveries in recent years is that the environment triggers gene expression. Every step we take alters the configuration of all the cells in our body.

As Matt Ridley notes: "Genes are the mechanisms of experience. Talent and practice are complementary, not at odds. One key to this mystery is recognising that tiny genetic and environmental advantages multiply over the years. The kid who is slightly taller than the others, or who can read just a bit better than others, will get picked first for the basketball team, or put into a slightly more advanced reading group.


Over time, the ability level of the kid who was selected for advanced instruction and the kid who wasn't will widen. Of course, the other side of the coin is also possible, where a slight genetic or environmental disadvantage can lead a person to avoid situations where that difficulty would be revealed. Yet those are precisely the situations that would allow the person to learn how to compensate, and learn and grow.

Developing Science Talent

These "multiplier effects" have been investigated from a number of vantage points, including Urie Bronfenbrenner and Stephen Ceci's bio-ecological model of abilities and chaos models in which tiny differences can lead to large differences at a later state in development. Also frequently unrecognised, some characteristics may not even appear until a growth spurt in adolescence. So one characteristic, such as extraversion, can develop early, while another characteristic, such as speech production, may lag — which may appear awkward until the two come into harmony.

The uneven development of personal characteristics ca n delay the onset of a talent, making it eventually appear to come out of nowhere. As an analogy, think of genes like players in an orchestra.

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There has to be a lot of syncing for the overall symphony to sound beautiful. The players have to be in sync not only with one another in their own instrumental section, but all the different sections have to coordinate with one another. Not only that, but if the orchestra plays in a totally unresponsive environment — for example, an audience of Justin Bieber fans — the players will be discouraged from further practising and playing.

Finally, the conductor is essential to this syncing up process, helping to nurture, support, and coordinate the various sections so that the overall symphony sounds beautiful. Of course, we aren't just passive recipients of our environment. All of us actively make choices, and these choices add up over the years.

According to "experience producing drive theory", genes indirectly influence the development of talent by motivating us to seek out experiences that in turn will develop the neural brain structures and physiology that supports even higher levels of talent. In Wendy Johnson's formulation of the theory, this applies to all areas of individual differences, including motivation, interest, attentional focus, personality, attitude, values and quirky characteristics unique to each person. Genes indirectly pull our attention in certain directions and take us away from processing other information in the environment.

We all differ in what captivates our attention, and that is determined by a lifetime of mutually reinforcing experiences as nature dances with nurture. This more nuanced understanding of the development of talent has striking implications for our attempts to nurture talent. For one, a much wider range of personal characteristics, including conative and volitional characteristics have to be taken into consideration when judging whether a person will benefit from a particular training regime.

At any moment in time, it's possible for a talent to be absent because the person lacks interest, is feeling uninspired, or is not willing to put in the work necessary to develop the talent. Also, since it takes time for genes to sync with one another and with the environment, some talents will be overlooked at any one moment. The talent a child displays may even transform into another talent as he or she develops and different genes become active.

As Dean Keith Simonton points out, a talented artist may become a talented scientist, as different personal characteristics "kick in" at different times throughout development. Of course, early bloomers do exist, and should be nurtured. Prodigies dazzle us with their virtuoso piano performances, quick and efficient chess moves, and imaginative paintings. While their performance would surely be impressive at the age of 40, prodigies typically reach adult levels of performance before the age of These early bloomers become attracted to a domain early, and learning then accelerates rapidly.

When engaged in their domain of interest, prodigies tend to focus like a laser beam, entering a state of "flow", in which the task is effortless and enjoyable, and time recedes in the background. Take academic prodigy Michael Kearney. Michael started talking at age four months and reading at eight months.

He soaked up the elementary curriculum by the age of four, entered college at the age of six, and graduated at His father, Kevin Kearney, observed that it was as though his son had a "rage to learn". We want people to know, and understand, what we do and how we do it.

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Find out more. Undergraduate Placements. Every year in the UK, we recruit undergraduate degree students onto our 12 month Undergraduate Placement Scheme. Developing Science Talent. At Pfizer, we want to inspire and grow the next generation of British scientists and business leaders. Undergraduate Placements Each year we recruit undergraduate degree students into our paid 12 month undergraduate placement scheme. Apprenticeships We also actively support the National Apprenticeship programme across many disciplines including science, engineering, administration and IT and, at present, have 51 apprentices across our Pfizer UK sites.

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What is talent – and can science spot what we will be best at?

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