Because of his age, Nathan Han had difficulty finding a Boston area research lab willing to overlook liability issues and allow a fifteen-year-old to conduct research in its facility.
But that didn’t stop the high school freshman from forging ahead on his own.
Han was determined to study mutations of a gene linked to ovarian cancer, after learning that a family friend had been diagnosed with the disease.
The upside for Han?
The kind of research he wanted to conduct had far more to do with computer technology and data than traditional lab-ware such as test tubes and petri dishes.
So, working from home, Han mined data from publicly available databases and developed a machine learning software tool to study mutations of a gene linked to many kinds of cancer, including ovarian.
The BRCA1 tumor suppressor gene has an important function as it is vital in protecting cells from developing cancer. Han detailed the characteristics of this gene and known mutations in order to “teach” his software to differentiate between mutations that cause disease and those that do not.
In testing, Han’s device exhibited an 81 percent accuracy rate, demonstrating its potential as a breakthrough tool for accurately identifying cancer threats from BRCA1 gene mutations.
Applications for Han’s research are vast, extending to research on other diseases, as well as to advancements in the developing fields of genomics, bioinformatics and big data.
For this work, Han beat out nearly 1,800 other global finalists competing at the 2014 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), a program of Society for Science and the Public, when he won the Gordon E. Moore Award, including a $75,000 scholarship.
Two runners-up, Lennart Kleinwort, 15, of Wurzburg, Germany, and Shannon Lee, 17, of Singapore, each received an Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award and a $50,000 scholarship.
Kleinwort developed a new mathematical tool for smartphones and tablets that enables users to perform more sophisticated math functions with their hand-held devices. Kleinwort believes this will make mathematics instruction more interesting to students and extend the knowledge of mathematics systems.
Lee developed a novel electrocatalyst – made entirely from carbonized Chinese eggplant – which could make rechargeable zinc-air batteries more practical than lithium ion batteries, offering six times the energy density, as well as being safer and lighter in weight. This could significantly improve batteries of the future, including those used in hybrid vehicles.
In addition, more than 500 finalists received a piece of more than $5 million in scholarships and prizes awarded at this year’s Intel ISEF for their innovative research.
“The world needs more scientists, makers and entrepreneurs to create jobs, drive economic growth and solve pressing global challenges,” said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation. “Intel believes that young people are the key to innovation, and we hope that these winners inspire more students to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math, the foundation for creativity.”