|Joshua Meier, 17, in the Bergen Academies stem cell research lab.|
For 17-year-old Joshua Meier of Teaneck, scientific discovery and Talmud study do not represent a clash between new and old. Both pursuits require training the mind to evaluate ideas critically, analytically, and systematically, he said.
“Most people think ancient religion and modern science don’t go together. But one has catalyzed the other,” said Josh, who earlier this month was named a national finalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.
On December 7, he will join other finalists in Washington, D.C., to vie for the $100,000 grand prize in the contest, which is geared to recognizing and fostering talented American high school students. The Bergen Academies senior already won $3,000 for his regional victory, and he will receive another $10,000 for participating in the nationals.
It may be the most impressive prize in his young hands so far, but it is hardly the first.
As a fifth-grader at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Josh took first place in an international middle-school competition about Jerusalem. Three years later, he was back in Israel as a finalist in the 47th International Bible Contest, scoring third among diaspora contestants and sixth overall. His roommate during the weeklong touring portion of the event was Avner Netanyahu, a son of Israel’s prime minister.
In 2012, Josh made the Google Science Fair finals and captured second place for cellular and molecular biology in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He placed in the top 12 high school juniors in the USA Computing Olympiad for 2012-2013.
And yet, he said, “For me, it’s about the experience and not about winning.”
He entered the Siemens competition mainly to publicize his research on how stem cells age, and how to slow that process so the cells can be used for regenerative medicine. He has worked on this project since freshman year, his curiosity piqued by conversations about umbilical cord stem cells with his father, Ronny, and his sister Efrat, both obstetricians.
“Stem-cell research is big in the news, and I started looking at the controversy about induced pluripotent stem cell experiments by Japanese scientists, where you could take any cell and create stem cells with a person’s own geno-fingerprint so the body won’t reject them,” he said. “But they’re not being used, because these cells are found to rapidly age. Nobody knew why. As a naÃ¯ve freshman, I said, ‘let me jump into this.'”
After much research and late nights of lab work, Josh proved a theory that mitochondria – the “battery” of all cells – develop lesions over time. They cannot keep producing enough energy.
Last summer, he continued this research in the lab of geneticist David Sinclair at Harvard Medical School. He had seen Dr. Sinclair discuss the biological mechanisms of aging on a TED Talk, and emailed him to ask if he could stop in while on a college campus tour. Dr. Sinclair ended up inviting Josh to join his lab, considered the best of its kind in the country. There, he redesigned his original experiment and got even better results.
Josh starred in his own TED Talk last year. It was called “Shaping the Mind: Ancient Hebraic Texts.”
In the 14-minute presentation, he explained before a live audience at Microsoft headquarters in Washington State how his Talmud studies with Rabbi Menachem Meier of Teaneck – to whom he is not related – gave him an appreciation for constructively challenging authority, rejecting conventional approaches, and deriving concepts.
“The Talmud approaches a problem the way you approach science: someone may have said something that turns out to be wrong, but you can learn from it,” he said. “That’s how I approached my theory, as a Talmudic analyst.”
Jewish study is not just theoretical for the Sabbath-observant teen. He ran into a practical issue when he found out that the Siemens contest was to take place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on November 2, a Saturday.
“Siemens was extremely accommodating about Shabbat,” Josh said. Speaking with former Orthodox contestants, including Ilana Teicher, a graduate of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, he learned that kosher food would be available. But the organizers also suggested housing him and his parents on a low floor of the hotel – they do not use electricity on Shabbat – and even offered to let Josh present his project on Friday. However, because no writing or microphone usage was required, he chose to present with his peers.
In another melding of the old and the new, Josh developed an iPhone application for the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ 14-volume code of Jewish law. Maimonides was a 12th century physician and astronomer whose religious writings have a rational, scientific basis.
“I’m grateful we have these traditions for tackling problems, for learning how to think and not just learning Jewish law,” Josh said. “What I love is applying ancient wisdom to making a contribution to the world.”
His contributions are multifold. Earlier this year, he founded the nonprofit group called Rescue the Voice (www.rescuethevoice.org), which uses debate strategies to give voices to homeless and abused youth. He got this idea from serving as captain of his school’s debate and mock trial teams, and from being part of its Model U.N. delegation.
“I recognized that debaters use their ‘methodology’ throughout life, sharing their ideas and being active in the classroom,” he said. “Others, such as some homeless and abused kids, don’t have that.
“It’s not only that they’re afraid of sharing about their experiences. Rather, they’ve become closed and inhibited.”
He also founded the BCA Israel Club and has coached fellow students for the English-language division of the National Bible Contest. “They won second and third place in 2012, and we had one national finalist in 2013,” he reported proudly.
Is he nervous about the Siemens finals? “I like to say that my parents should be more stressed than me at this point,” he said.
“The worst I can do now is $10,000, and they’re the ones paying for college.”