17-Year-Old Chesterfield Scientist is Smarter Than You

William.jpg
courtesy of the Academy of Science
William Sun is smarter than you. He is now also richer (probably). He got to meet President Obama. And he can explain molecular biology in terms so plain that even a newspaper reporter can understand. William Sun will probably take over the world.

Sun, a 17-year-old senior at Parkway Central, just won a $75,000 scholarship, second prize in the 2009 Intel Talent Search, a national science competition in Washington, D.C. In addition to presenting his project, a investigation of cellular transport pathways, to a panel of judges, Sun also endured two days of interviews on a range of unrelated scientific topics. "They wanted to know how I think and reason," Sun explains.

He compared the whole process, which also required him to submit his (perfect) SAT scores and grades and a 20-page research paper, to applying to college. Which, as it turns out, he's also very good at. (He's currently mulling over offers from Stanford, Yale and Rice.)

So here is a demonstration of how Sun thinks:

"A transport pathway in a cell is like a highway system. It carries materials like proteins in and out of the cell. It's necessary for normal cell function. In a multitude of diseases, like bacterial infections, the bacteria produce toxic secretions. The toxins use the pathways and start manipulating the pathways. This is what causes diseases like Alzheimer's and malaria.

"I study transport within the cell, which molecules and proteins control it, how it works. In my project, I used Golgicide A, a new small molecular tool that my mentor discovered. The first part of my experiment was to find out what it's doing. Then I identified the protein it inhibits.

"This knowledge is important for understanding bacterial diseases."

Clear?

Sun grew interested in infectious diseases in the spring of his sophomore year. "They're so small, but their impact is so large," he says. He wrote to a number of local infectious disease specialists asking if any would be willing to let him work in their labs in a capacity more advanced than washing out Ehrlenmeyer flasks. Dr. David Haslam at Washington University School of Medicine agreed to take him on.

Haslam taught Sun the basics of lab work and gave him some scientific papers to read about his work with Golgicide A. After that, Sun was free to work on his own experiments, under Haslam's guidance.

"The first part of my research is setting up the experiment," says Sun. "The second part is running and seeing if I get lucky. If nothing happens, I have to find some other way and rationalize why I'm seeing something I'm not supposed to be seeing."

Sun is grateful to Haslam for allowing him to take up lab space and grant funding. (He also received credit on a scientific paper on Golgicide A.) He's also grateful to the Academy of Science, of which he is a junior member, for encouraging his early interest in science.

The highlight of his week in Washington, Sun says, was meeting President Obama. "He was able to spend so much time with us. It shows how committed he is to science. It was really humbling."

At college next year, Sun plans, unsurprisingly, to study biology. "But I'm also interested in politics and philosophy," he says. "I want to work in public health, and maybe shape public health policy.

"It was really nice talking to you," he adds.

The kid already knows how to butter up the press. He's going to go far.


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