Raj Vinnakota '93, Founder of the SEED School of Washington, D.C.
The appeal of science
I have always loved science, especially the challenge of experimental science. Research in the physical sciences forces one to be both a clear thinker as well as a meticulous observer and analyst. First, one must identify a problem and design an appropriate experiment to address the problem. Then one faces the physical challenge of performing that experiment over and over again, all the while modifying a hypothesis based on new experimental data. The discipline of the scientific process and the thrill of new discoveries drew me toward the molecular biology department when I arrived at Princeton.
My decision to major in the department was sealed as soon as I realized the wealth of opportunities Princeton offers to its science majors. Princeton's resources in the sciences -- both faculty and laboratories -- are among the best in the world. And unlike other high-powered research universities, Princeton makes these resources available to undergraduates. I not only took classes with world-renowned professors, I worked alongside them in the laboratory. By my senior year I already had the knowledge and the lab experience to take on a thesis topic on adenovirus DNA regulation during cell infection.
From management consulting to founding a school
Though I spent most of my academic time at Princeton in the lab, I tried a new focus after graduation. I applied for various positions in fields that interested me -- management consulting, advertising, and independent school teaching. In the end I took a job at Mercer Management Consulting. My science background helped me considerably through the interview process and once I joined Mercer. The deliberate, problem-solving orientation that is critical to the experimental sciences is a great basis for working through the case-based interviews that face aspiring business consultants and investment bankers. At Mercer, I also used many of the other skills I learned as a molecular biology major -- an analytical approach to problems, strong numerical skills, and the ability to multitask, not to mention the knowledge of biology itself, which was critical from the beginning, when one of my first cases involved the toxicology and medical testing market in the United States.
However, after four years of fascinating and fast-paced work in the business world, I realized that management consulting was not the sort of profession that would allow me to leave the ''social footprint'' that I wanted to leave on this world. I began discussing the challenges of urban education and, with some friends from Princeton, considered the idea of public, college-prep boarding schools for poor children. After taking a leave of absence to research the idea, I met someone with a similar interest, and we decided to work together. We left our management consulting jobs, and in the summer of 1998 opened the SEED School of Washington, D.C., the nation's first urban public boarding school. In 2004 we graduated our first senior class. All of the graduates are going to college. We now have plans to replicate our model and build similar schools across the country.
Building such a school from the ground up was a massive endeavor, and my science experience was invaluable throughout. The critical thinking and problem-solving perspective that is second nature for those of us who have worked in laboratories, comes in very handy when confronting the countless challenges of creating a new institution. One must understand how the different pieces fit together, where best to focus time and resources, and how to evaluate the results of a project. Finally, being a science major taught me to be meticulous and thorough. These skills are exceedingly useful for all professions.