BioGENEius Competition Shows Sophistication of America’s Future Scientists

Theral Timpson

“It’s ok to be a geek. Be proud of your nerdy interests. We need you.” David Lacey, Bay Area BioGENEius Challenge emcee and former site head, Amgen San Francisco

What did you do for your high school science project? Let me tell you what Natalie Ng from Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, CA did for her’s this year. She developed a novel biomarker discovery tool to identify clinical signatures of cancer from statistically deconvoluted expressions. And Nikhil Buduma of Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose--he found that the pertussis toxin in a vaccine for the whooping cough was inhibiting lymphoscyte trafficking in lung tissue. This causes a delayed response to the vaccine of up to four weeks, making an infant unnecessarily vulnerable. Not bad, eh?

Each year America’s top high school science students are welcome to participate in the <a href=" target="_blank">International BioGENEius Challenge, a competition recognizing original research in biotechnology. The competition proceeds in stages, first at the local level, then on to national, and culminates in the international competition (Canada, United States, Australia) at the annual BIO convention. The level of leading edge science that high school kids these days are involved in baffles me and gives us all a nice shot of optimism for the future.

When I got a call from the <a href=" target="_blank">BayBio Institute, home of the education and entrepreneur programs of our local life science trade group, asking me if I wanted to come to this year’s competition, I jumped at the chance. Last year at the BayBio convention I talked to a couple of the twelve local competitors and got a glimpse of the level of sophistication of the projects. This would be a great chance to see some cool science students again and show them off to a wider audience.

As with last year, what struck me most was the extraordinary high level of the students’ work. Given five minutes to present their projects to two groups of judges (local industry veterans and academics), these high-schoolers showed impressive poise, brilliance, and confidence in their grasp of the subject matter.

I sat in on a few of the presentations and learned about new anti-cancer compounds and drug targets for alzheimer’s.

“These could be Ph D thesis projects,” said Amena Rahman, one of the judges and a friend of mine.

I expected the students to show some frustration with the short time they had, but no. The presenters I saw used all of their time and finished within a few seconds of the five minute mark. Then there were two minutes each for questions by the judges. The students answered these questions with an impressive knowledge of their project, often having a chance to explain why they didn’t pursue this or that angle. The only limiting factors for these projects were budget and time constraints, not the students’ education.

“I could have used a microarray for this, but it was too expensive for my school,” one student pointed out.

When asked why she didn’t do some 6, 12, and 18 hour experiments in addition to her 24 hour work, one student replied, “I had to go to my other classes. I couldn’t check it that often.”

Other projects included testing deer antler material on the proliferation of endothelial cells. Vishnu Shankar, also from Monta Vista High School and showing the first bit of hair on his upper lip, presented an algorithm for simulating the onset and spread of a pandemic. Okay then. If I’d been in a different room and didn’t know about the competition, I’d think it was a presentation to members of the World Health Organization.

Presented here are interviews with Natalie and Nikhil, the 1st and 2nd place winners (there were three winners out of 33) of the local competition. They talk about their individual projects and their plans for the future. (Check out the confidence level.)

In addition to the presentations and competition, BayBio treated the students to a keynote speaker and the chance to quiz a “career panel.” <a href=" target="_blank">Susan Molineaux, CEO of Calithera Biosciences, a company developing cancer therapeutics, used the keynote to relate stories from her own life. Her father, who’d made it from nowhere to Columbia University, gave her a microscope at the age of eight. Dr. Mullineau’s path went from academic research into industry, and she was keen to let the students know that she had followed her passion.

“I couldn’t leave a problem alone--I just wanted to know,” she said of her time as a student and then as a researcher in the lab of her mentor, the Nobel Laureate, Richard Axel. “Find a mentor,” she advised.

A panel of scientists led by Dave Lacey, formerly of Amgen, discussed how each of them chose their careers.

What’s the difference of working in academia versus industry, the students asked. And how do you know when it’s time to change to something else?

Answers came back assuring the students that they could pursue a career in science and maintain other interests as well.

“We’re still thinking about what we want to do when we grow up,” said Paul Kassner, who had worked at more failed than successful biotech start-ups before becoming Director of Research at Amgen.

The team at the BayBio Institute helped by Amgen's primary sponsorship did a great job with the competition. It’s one of the nicest events I’ve been to in a while. Here were industry insiders volunteering their time and recognizing these promising scientists of tomorrow at a tender time in their life. It was obvious that the inspiration was flowing in both directions.

“The stuff these kids are doing puts my high school project to shame,” said one of the panelists to me as the students milled around after the event. “Know what I did?" he asked. "I took a piece of bread and wiped the bathroom and grew mold!”