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‘Inspired by science’: Bishop’s student goes for the gold in national science research competition

Jeffrey Wang, a senior at The Bishop's School in La Jolla, is a finalist in the 2021 Regeneron Science Talent Search.
(Courtesy)

Jeffrey Wang, a senior at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, has proved his scientific prowess in the 2021 Regeneron Science Talent Search, having already won at least $25,000 as one of 40 finalists in the nationwide competition. Next week he moves into the last round of judging, in which the top 10 will be awarded $40,000 to $250,000 each.

Jeffrey, 16, was named one of the finalists from an original 1,761 entrants in the Regeneron STS, which was established in 1913 and is billed as “the nation’s oldest and most prestigious high school research competition.”

The competition invites high school seniors across the country to submit full research projects in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.

The project involves “a 20-page research report similar to a scientific paper, along with essay responses and letters of recommendation. In a lot of ways, it’s harder than a college application,” Jeffrey said.

This year’s finalists will compete virtually March 10-17. It’s normally an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., but has moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judging will be by panels including Nobel laureates and other scientific pundits who will ask the finalists to define their projects and gauge their scientific knowledge.

There also will be exhibition days when Jeffrey and his co-competitors will present their projects to the public. Other events are designed to introduce the finalists to scientific institutions and renowned researchers.

Jeffrey’s project is titled “A Systematic Method to Identify Significant Changes in 3D Genome Compartmentalization Across Multiple Cell Lines.”

The foundation for his research? “If you took a human cell and you took the DNA inside and stretched it all out, it would be about 6 feet,” he said. “That entire 6-foot-long string has to get compacted into the space of about one-tenth the width of human hair.”

The packing of DNA into such a small space “is not done arbitrarily,” Jeffrey said. “Instead, there’s a very systematic way that all the DNA is squished and packed together. ... This order has a lot to do with how the DNA is expressed.

“It turns out that changes in the 3D structure of the DNA drives a lot of biological processes, things from cellular differentiation all the way to cancer.”

Using computational biology, which applies mathematical analysis to the study of living organisms, Jeffrey “created a research application that takes this data across a normal cell and a cancer cell, and it can identify the significant changes within the 3D structure between those two cells,” he said.

Knowing where the 3D structure changes, he said, “can give us insight into the physical mechanisms behind things like cancer genes or cancer pathways or other biologically relevant discoveries.”

“With computational biology, the really cool thing is that you’re applying all of these programming and math skills to something that has real-life impact,” Jeffrey said. “I’ve had family members that have suffered from cancer [or] immune disorders. You see them get hospitalized for weeks and weeks, and it feels really gratifying to know that you can do something about it.”

Jeffrey Wang also is a theater performer, published poet and president of The Bishop's School's speech and debate team.
Jeffrey Wang, an intern at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, also is a theater performer, published poet and president of The Bishop’s School’s speech and debate team.
(Courtesy)

Jeffrey’s project, which he worked on for a year after beginning an internship with the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in summer 2019, is already in use by researchers, having been made available publicly.

“There are thousands of data sets that map the 3D structure of DNA. Other researchers across fields, across disciplines can use” the application, he said.

Knowing his research is already in use “is a little surreal,” Jeffrey said. “I’ll get an email from someone at a random university I’ve never met before” with a question about results. “It’s pretty cool.”

The paper is undergoing review and Jeffrey hopes it will be published soon in a scientific journal.

“I’m big into scientific communication,” he said. “I think this pandemic has shown, more than ever before, how important it is for people to have trust in science, for them to be inspired by science.”

Communication and presentation dovetail with Jeffrey’s other interests, like theater. “I really like performing,” he said.

He’s also president of the Bishop’s speech and debate team and a writer, with poetry published in several literary journals.

“I still am a STEM geek,” Jeffrey said. “To be honest, nothing really makes me happier than sharing science with other people.”

He said he hopes to find a career path that “merges computation and communication, something that works at the interface between those. That’s what really excites me.” ◆