Hand in Cancer Fight Ahead of Her Time

Emily WangPublished in UT San Diego, July 7, 2014

Neil and I are passionate about supporting the next generation of scientists and engineers who represent the future of our country’s innovation economy. So we were eager to meet Emily Wang, the winner of the International BioGENEius Challenge that was part of the recent BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization) conference at the San Diego Convention Center.

“I started my project because one of my grandmothers was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer when I was a little girl. In high school, I learned about biotech, and I wanted to create something that could allow researchers to see what was going on in a cancer cell,” said Wang, 18, who graduated in June from Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto.

For winning, Wang was awarded a $7,500 research grant in addition to $2,500 from a preliminary competition. In the fall, she will enter Harvard University, where she plans to study computer science and biology.

The competition is organized by the Biotechnology Institute, a Washington-based organization dedicated to biotechnology education, with the goal of recognizing high school students who conduct outstanding research in biotechnology.

Wang’s research focused on developing bright fluorescent proteins that could better observe cellular activity at the molecular level in order to better treat cancer. She started working on the project more than two years ago when she had very little background in this field. Her first step was to read research papers, highlighting all the words that she didn’t know and looking them up. Next, she talked to her teachers and judges at science fairs.

“I’ve been competing in science fairs since middle school. One of the judges liked my project and said that I should work in a university lab,” she said.

Wang was fortunate to live near Stanford University, so she read the lab papers of various scientists in order to determine which ones to contact. When she was a high school sophomore, she emailed a few researchers who told her that their labs were full and that they didn’t work with high school students. (They will be sorry when she wins the Nobel Prize!)

Then she talked with professor Michael Lin, who told her that he needed people who had studied AP biology and chemistry, classes that she hadn’t yet taken. Undaunted, Wang said she told Lin that she had read his research, and he offered her a spot in his lab. Through Lin, she met Jun Chu, a postdoctoral Stanford researcher, who has become her mentor.

(Neil’s note: You can see the power of networking, how one lead morphs into the next, until you finally hit pay dirt. But the road is circuitous, and you need to keep banging on doors. They eventually will open, but it doesn’t hurt to have a crowbar in your backpack.)

We love Wang’s relentless pursuit of her goal — an essential part of success in any field.

When Wang describes her research, her eyes and voice sparkle with enthusiasm. She explained that she has spent more than 2,000 hours on the project, and there is still a long way to go. This is her second year entering the BioGENEius Challenge.

“I’ve learned that you have to keep trying new things. Some of the early proteins didn’t work well when I got to biosensors. After my first few failures, I got used to it. My mentor said that this is what research is all about,” Wang said.

If you want to accomplish hard things, time and effort are required. There is no easy path.

Through BioGENEius, Wang said she has found a community of other kids just as excited about research as she is. This year, the 14 finalists earned a free trip to BIO, where they displayed posters describing their research. The group stays connected through Twitter and Facebook. We applaud programs that elevate the importance of achievement in science, and hope they encourage more young people to become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Young scientists like Wang are the key to the future of our country’s biotechnology industry, which creates the good jobs that we all want for our children. In San Diego, the life-science industry employed almost 49,000 people in 2012-2013, and the average earnings were $95,446, according to an economic impact report released by BayBio and Biocom, the San Diego biotech industry organization.

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