National science fair whiz kids use technology to tackle real-world needs.
When the H1N1 pandemic struck in 2009, with many of the first U.S. cases occurring in his hometown of San Diego, Eric Chen decided to fight the flu with a novel approach: supercomputing. Like other digital natives of his generation, Chen instinctively knew that technology could be instrumental in finding a life-saving solution.
At the time, Chen had been surprised to discover, first, that the flu – an illness he’d seen as fairly benign in his 13 years –could, in fact, take thousands or even millions of lives on a global scale if a strain was particularly virulent.
Second, he learned that existing vaccines and antivirals were losing their effectiveness, creating an urgent need for new medications.
Aware of the snail’s pace of laboratory research and determined to help prevent future pandemics, Chen came up with a game changer to speed up the pace of research by using powerful supercomputers to analyze massive amounts of data in order to identify potential new drug treatments.
Specifically, Chen combined computer modeling with structure-activity relationships (the relationships between the chemical or 3D structure of molecules and their biological activity) and biological validation to identify potent endonuclease inhibitors.
Endonuclease is an enzyme essential for viral propagation. By inhibiting the enzyme, the flu is prevented from replicating or spreading.
This approach may lead to a new class of drugs to control outbreaks during a pandemic, allowing time for a vaccine to be developed.
This research earned Chen First Place and $100,000 last March at the 2014 Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), the country’s most prestigious science competition, an event designed to inspire innovation and support the development of the next generation of scientific leaders.
Not only did he win Intel STS last year, Chen took a First Place Grand Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), where he competed with 1,800 winners of scientific showdowns around the globe.
Lest you think him an underachiever, Chen also earned a spot on the U.S. Physics Team (for the second time), became a Davidson Fellow and participated in multiple TEDx events, including presenting a TEDMED talk in which discussed how technology is democratizing science.
No wonder he was accepted at Harvard.
For a change of pace, the California boy chose Harvard, where he is now studying math and computer science, and exploring a range of career possibilities, from academic research to launching a startup.
As for his “taming of the flu” research, Chen has filed a patent through the University of California, San Diego, and has provided his team there with data and reagents for the project, so they can continue the work despite him being a continent away.
“The group has been making great progress,” he reports, “and I hope that they will continue to make exciting discoveries. If the work continues to go well, I may someday jump back into it.”
Meanwhile, he’s planning to jump into new research at Harvard: “I’m hoping to explore some completely new fields, perhaps materials science or engineering.”
Using tech to solve big issues
Other prize winners from Intel STS 2014 have made similar strides, solving big issues with the aid of computer technology.
Kevin Lee, 18, of Irvine, California, was honored with Second Place and $75,000 at Intel STS for bioengineering research in which he developed a computational model of a beating heart using the principles of fluid mechanics.
This work can provide new insights into the mechanisms responsible for arrhythmia – the leading cause of death in the industrialized world – and result in better treatments for the disease. Lee later presented this research at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where he won a Third Place Grand Award, and at the California State Science Fair, where he won Student of the Year.
Also a Davidson Fellow, Lee is preparing his work for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Today, Lee is at Cambridge with his buddy Chen attending Harvard, where he is considering a major in physics. He’s laying the groundwork for a new research project in physics – optics, perhaps – which he will work on this summer in Cambridge.
William Henry Kuszmaul, 18, of Lexington, Massachusetts, took Third Place and a $50,000 prize at Intel STS last March for combining math and computer programming in the study of modular enumeration, which has applications in computer science, bioinformatics and computational biology.
Kuszmaul, yet another Davidson Fellow, is preparing his research for publication, while studying math and computer science as a freshman at Stanford. He has embarked on a research project regarding high-performance cuckoo hash tables at HP Labs.
“Hash tables are ubiquitous to computing,” explained Kuszmaul. “They show up commercially in massive databases – for example, Walmart customer information.”
He said that a cuckoo hash table is a data structure which allows the user both look up and store data.
“The cool thing about them is that they guarantee fast look-ups under any conditions,” he said. “The problem with them is that inserting data to be stored can sometimes be slow. Consequently, it can be rewarding to find ways to make has table implementations faster than they currently are.”
Setting the stage
Imagine the intellectual exchanges that take place between these three young Einsteins, who hang together whenever opportunities arise, as well as between the 37 other brainiacs that made the finals at last year’s Intel STS.
“Being exposed to other finalists for a week at Intel STS was incredibly inspiring and intellectually stimulating,” says Lee.
“Meeting people with diverse, yet ambitious, dreams to change the world made me think about how I could make some contribution as well. I felt very energized in my academic pursuits.”
Chen said Intel STS brought him a community of like-minded peers who could remain in contact for their entire life.
“The event as a whole really changes perspectives and broadens minds, and I believe the experience will help talented finalists make incredible discoveries in the future.”
To date, Intel STS has launched eight Nobel Prize winners, 12 recipients of MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grants and seven who have been honored with the National Medal of Science or the National Medal of Technology.
This year, Intel STS prizes have been boosted dramatically. Top awards of $150,000 will be awarded to young innovators in three categories – basic research, global good and innovation – and overall prizes will top $1.6 million. To see who will win top honors at this year’s competition, check out the 2015 Intel STS finalists.
Awards will be announced on March 10 at a black tie gala at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.