Why do people hoard during a pandemic? When is this behavior socially acceptable? Such were the questions that piqued Luke Jain as the COVID-19 outbreak began in March.
Throughout the spring, Jain, then a junior at San Marino High School in Southern California, worked with a research scientist in France to explore these problems. Specifically, they adapted work from the late psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, best known for his theory on moral development, to design surveys to identify factors that might lead people to act in ways that are rational but also selfish.
It’s a kind of project one may find at the college or graduate level—and it was designed that way. The connection between Jain and Gábor Orosz, the researcher in France, was arranged through Polygence, which bills itself as a marketplace that pairs high school students with graduate students, postdocs and professors to design and complete publishable research.
Jain says he hasn’t found anything conclusive yet. But he’s working toward it. The goal, according to the company, is to give high schoolers an opportunity to work with subject experts on a passion project—and to get a taste of the rigorous level of research expected in academia.
And for mentors like Orosz, it’s a way to do something that he misses from his previous job as an assistant professor at a Hungarian university.
“I miss teaching,” he says. “As a postdoc or professor, often you are busy, heads down in your research. There are many of us who miss a little bit of teaching and working with students. Working with them, explaining my work, has helped inform my own thinking.”
A little extra cash doesn’t hurt, either, especially given that salaries for postdocs are notoriously low. Polygence charges parents to sign their kids up, and then passes on the majority of that fee to the mentors. The price varies depending on the subject area (mentors in some fields, like artificial intelligence, command a higher rate) and the length of the project, but is typically less than $2,500 per project. There’s also a small but growing pro-bono program where some mentors offer their services for free.
The company recently received a financial boost itself, in the form of a pre-seed investment from Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund, Reach Capital, Northern Light Venture Capital and SDX Partners/SBXI. It did not disclose the exact amount, though Polygence co-founder and CEO Janos Perczel shared that it was under $1 million.
A Startup Born from Grad School
What Polygence offers is akin to a guided independent-study program. On the platform, students indicate their topical interests and are matched with a mentor with relevant experience and expertise. Together, they design a project and set goals and schedules for checking in. Each engagement usually lasts 10 weeks, which culminates in completing a paper or project that can be submitted to a journal or for a conference. (Students do not contribute to research that their mentors are working on.)
Projects span a wide range of disciplines, from Greek mythology to 19th-century fashion design and the science behind invisibility cloaks. One project, which uses natural language processing to analyze biases in media coverage of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, was accepted for presentation at a conference.
According to Perczel, the idea for the company began at a group dinner at Stanford in early 2019, when the conversation steered to how participants ended up in academia.
“What we realized was that mentors played an extremely important role,” Perczel recalls. He credits a high school teacher with getting him hooked on physics. Throughout college and graduate school, he acknowledges the important role his professors played in guiding his studies in mathematics and quantum physics.
Neither he nor his co-founder, Jin Chow, a Ph.D. student in comparative literature at Stanford, imagined that all their extensive education would lead them to start an education startup. (But that’s not atypical for Stanford students.) “I thought I would stick with scholarship, and be a professor,” says Chow, the chief operating officer of the company.
Chow hasn’t ruled out going back into academia. But she says working on Polygence “reflects what we believe is the direction that education should be headed, which is project-based and collaborative.”
The marketplace launched in April 2019, and since then it has attracted a network of roughly 250 mentors. Each is vetted for their credentials, and has to pass an interview that involves a mock teaching session. So far, more than 200 students have signed up, and there are several hundred projects currently underway.
Since the pandemic, Perczel adds, “we have seen a steep increase in demand among parents for our online research project mentorships.” On the other end, some mentors have increased their caseload. With many college campuses closed, many have put their own research hold. Hiring freezes at many universities have also forced them to look for other kinds of work.
Polygence will never be a substitute for a full-time job, says Perczel. But it can provide an “intellectual and financially rewarding” opportunity for academics who want to give back to younger generations of aspiring researchers.
“As a student, having good access to a network of mentors can be just as valuable as taking good classes,” says Orosz, a social psychologist who has worked with Stanford professor Carol Dweck on growth mindset research.
His mentee would agree. Jain, the San Marino High student who plans to major in biochemistry in college and pursue a career in psychiatry, says the project has introduced him to survey design methods and tools like SPSS, a commonly-used statistics software. “Not only has it given me skills, but it’s also helped me understand and appreciate what it takes to do research,” he says.
And, Jain adds, the experience has given him something to boast about on his college application essays.