Anyone who attends scientific conferences is likely to discover that a number of these meetings set up poster sections that display the research of highly talented high school kids. If one didn’t know better, the work carried out and described by these young science scholars seems more like the stuff of dreams of graduate students and post-docs.

Indeed, a number of organizations recognize the scientific contributions of these young folks every year with award programs. These include, among others, the Siemens Foundation, Intel, the Davidson Institute, Sanofi’s International BioGENEius Challenge, the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, Google, DuPont, and ExploraVision.

After looking through dozens and dozens of high school student science award winners, six, in particular, caught our attention.


Making Biofuel from Algae

For example, Sara Volz, 17, of Colorado Springs, CO, won the top award of $100,000 in March from the Intel Foundation, which sponsors the Intel Science Talent Search, for her research on algae biofuels. Algae produce oil that can be converted into a sustainable, renewable fuel. However, the fuel can be costly. Sara used artificial selection to establish populations of algae cells with high oil content, which are essential for an economically feasible biofuel. Sara, a student at Cheyenne Mountain High School, built a home lab under her loft bed. She sleeps on the same light cycle as her algae.

Other researchers looking to produce the oil inexpensively and efficiently have relied on altering the algal genome or by focusing on improving growth conditions of the algae. Sara’s approach comes right out of Darwinian theory.

Sara Volz, with the home lab she built to research algae biofuels.

She grows the algae in a medium that contains sethoxydim, a herbicide that kills algal cells with low levels of acetyl-CoA carboxylase. This enzyme plays a key role in lipid synthesis. “What you are left with is a population of cells with very high oil production,” she told an NBC News interviewer.

Sara’s goal, using artificial selection, is to keep these algal cells going to further increase the oil yields from the algae so that useful algal biofuels are the result. She is headed off to MIT this fall.


Global Neural Network

Last year, Brittany Wenger, then a 17-year-old high school student from Lakewood Ranch, FL, was the recipient of a $50,000 Google Grand prize for developing a global neural network for detecting breast cancer. Combining her knowledge of biology and computer science, and using data from needle aspirates from patients, Brittany wrote a program that taught a computer how to diagnose breast cancer by making it think like the brain to detect patterns “that were far too complex for humans to recognize.” The goal was to determine if a breast mass was malignant or benign.

“The least invasive test for breast cancer is also the least conclusive,” she explained. “Most doctors refuse to use these biopsies. If they could be used it could lead to earlier detection and a better [prognosis] for the patients.”

Brittany became interested in the breast cancer project after her cousin was diagnosed with the disease.

Brittany Wenger won a $50,000 Google Grand prize for developing a global neural network to aid in detecting breast cancer.

“I spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours researching over two years creating a neural network tool for doctors to use when analyzing results,” she continued. “It diagnoses over 99% of cancer patients correctly. And since it has been deployed as a cloud service it has the potential to be accessed by any hospital in the world.”

As a senior high school student in 2013, Brittany, who enjoys playing soccer, developed a computer algorithm to diagnose leukemia. She has set her sights on becoming a pediatric oncologist and has enrolled at Duke University.


Linking a Gene Mutation to Parkinson’s

In 2012, Michael Yan, an 18-year-old senior at Orange High School in Pepper Pike, OH, was named a Davidson Fellow Laureate by the Davidson Institute for his project: “Genetic Mutation of LRRK2 Causes Autosomal Parkinson’s Disease by Disrupting Mitochondrial Dynamics.” His fellowship carried a $50,000 scholarship.

Despite abundant research implicating various risk factors, the underlying mechanisms involved in Parkinson’s disease (PD) pathogenesis have remained elusive. Michael’s work reconciles mutations in LRRK2, which constitute the single most common cause of autosomal dominant PD, with PD pathophysiological features, but it also comprehensively identifies the underlying biomechanism by which LRRK2 mutations cause PD.

Michael Yan identified the underlying biomechanism by which LRRK2 mutations cause Parkinson’s.

The results of Michael’s study indicate that LRRK2 PD-associated mutations increase recruitment of DLP1 to mitochondria through a physical interaction involving kinase activity, thus increasing mitochondrial fission. This event results in mitochondrial dysfunction in terms of excessive mitochondrial fragmentation. Thus, his research explains how mutations in LRRK2 causes PD pathophysiological features like increased oxidative stress, cellular hypometabolism, and severely elevated neuronal loss.

After graduating from high school, Michael enrolled at MIT where he is aiming to complete a double major in biology and chemistry. He hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and/or become a biology professor at MIT.


Cellular Automaton Model

Jiayi Peng, a senior last December at the Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, NY, won a $50,000 second-place Siemens Foundation 2012 prize for her project titled, “A Cellular Automaton Model for Critical Dynamics in Neuronal Networks.”

At 17, Jiayi built a cellular automaton model that combined short-term synaptic plasticity with long-term metaplasticity to investigate how these two mechanisms contribute to attaining and maintaining operation at a critical point. Jiayi’s research could help determine how distinct neurological mechanisms can differentiate a healthy brain from one with a devastating neurological disorder such as epilepsy, autism, or Alzheimer’s disease.

“I like how interdisciplinary mathematical modeling can be,” she said. “Its basis may be in mathematics and/or physics, yet it can be used to solve real-world problems.”

A pianist, Jiayi won an award in the Golden Key Piano competition. She plans to major in physics or mathematics and aspires to be a researcher or professor in one of these fields.

Jiayi Peng built a cellular automaton model to help determine how distinct neurological mechanisms can differentiate a healthy brain from one with a devastating neurological disorder.

Her mentor was John M. Beggs, Ph.D, an associate professor of biophysics at Indiana University.

When asked why there seem to be so many high school whiz kids winning prizes for extraordinary research projects, Dr. Beggs replied that he was not so sure that “so many” students were highly talented.

“But one thing that is different today as compared to the past is that high school students have familiarity with computers and they have access to knowledge like current research papers through the internet,” explained Dr. Beggs.

He added that many of the students who win such grand scientific prizes are characterized by an intense drive, high levels of energy, and usually a burning curiosity.

“The most promising students, in my experience, are the ones who chomp things up when they get to an interesting project. It is like a fun feeding frenzy. They are always working, getting new and interesting results and this leads to new questions that they can’t wait to get answered,” continued Dr. Beggs. “Instead of a burp at the end, there is this satisfying feeling that something deep has been understood a little better than before.”


Firing Nanobullets at Cancer

Arjun Nair, 16, who is an 11th grader at Webber Academy in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, took home the top Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada prize of $5,000 earlier this year. His research project, mentored at the University of Calgary, focuses on an experimental cancer “photothermal therapy (PPT),” whereby patients are injected with gold nanoparticles. The particles accumulate in tumors, forming so-called “nanobullets” that can be heated with light to kill cancer cells.

PPT has shown promise but its effectiveness has been limited because tumor cells produce heat-shock proteins to protect themselves. Arjun, who was mentored by scientists at the University of Calgary, showed how an antibiotic (17-AAG) may overcome the defenses cancer sets up to defend against the therapy.

Arjun Nair (center), receiving a Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada prize for his cancer research.

“Proof-of-concepts were developed and tested to demonstrate the viability of PTT,” said Arjun. “Moreover, after analyzing the literature a mathematical model was developed to evaluate a theoretical synergetic treatment.”

In addition to his research, Arjun likes to debate, play sports, and do volunteer work. He is thinking of pursuing a career in medical research.


Passionate about Pancreatic Cancer

In May 2012, Jack Andraka, 15, of Crownsville, MD, was awarded first place for a new method to detect pancreatic cancer at that year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Based on diabetic test paper, the North County High School sophomore created a simple dip-stick sensor that was composed of single-walled carbon nanotubes and antibodies to test blood or urine to determine whether or not a patient has early-stage pancreatic cancer. He reported that his study resulted in over 90% accuracy and showed his patent-pending sensor to be 28 times faster, 28 times less expensive, and over 100 times more sensitive than current ELISA tests. Jack received the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore Award, named in honor of Intel co-founder and retired chairman and CEO.

After a close family friend died of pancreatic cancer, Jack (then a ninth grader) became interested in finding a better early-detection diagnostic test. The diagnostic method he developed detects the presence of pancreatic cancer’s biomarker protein mesothelin.

Watch the video below for a more detailed description of Jack’s innovative test and to see his enthusiastic response to winning the award. (If you’re having trouble viewing the video, click here.)


John Sterling is editor in chief of GEN.

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