Teen whiz kid meets President Obama

Local student's idea could help treat the flu

SAN DIEGO - A Carmel Valley teen's breakthrough idea has pharmaceutical companies knocking on his door, and now he is in Washington, D.C., to meet with President Obama.

"I guess a lot of the kids I don't know, strangers, will walk up to me and say, 'Oh, Eric Chen!' And they'll ask to, like, shake my hand or something, so that's a bit different," said Eric Chen.

Chen said while some of his peers may be worried about a date for the prom or impending college acceptance letters, the flu is what keeps him up at night.

"Flu strains like H1N1 and H7N9 could cause a devastating pandemic any day now, and it could be like the 1918 Spanish Flu," said Chen.

Chen, a high school senior at Canyon Crest Academy, gave up his summer and learning how to drive to develop his revolutionary idea that may lead to the discovery of new anti-flu drugs.

"This computerized strategy might be applied to speed up the discovery of life-saving medicine," said Chen.

He explains it like this: Pharmaceutical companies typically test millions of potential treatments for the flu. Chen's computerized program narrows down those compounds to just a few hundred, which allows resources to go straight towards the most promising new drugs. He already has a patent and is in talks with different pharmaceutical companies.

"I've been spending so many hours [in the lab]; a thousand so far," said Chen.

The hours have paid off. Out of 1,800 applicants, he is one of 40 finalists in Intel's Science Talent Search and he is the only finalist from San Diego. He has left the hallways of Canyon Crest Academy for the White House, and now he is competing for a first place prize of $100,000. The attention has made his popularity skyrocket at school, according to his mentors.

"It's pretty funny. He's a bit of our academic celebrity in that way. We have fun with it, we poke fun at him sometimes," said Ariel Haas, an educator at Canyon Crest Academy.

Another mentor of Chen's, Wendy Slijk, agreed, and she added, "A couple of weeks ago, he came in and said, 'Ms. Slijk! I don't know what to do, people want to come and stand by me, I just want to be a kid!'"

Chen said any accolades don't compare to the feeling of making his parents proud.

"They came here with just a student scholarship and two suitcases and they've been making their world from there. I'm always thinking, what can I do in order to make them feel what they did in order to give me these opportunities was worth it? That's the pushing force for me," said Chen.

Chen will find out Tuesday night if he's won the $100,000. He said if he wins, the money will go straight to his college tuition.

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