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2 San Diego high schoolers named finalists in prestigious Regeneron competition

Posted at 6:46 AM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 14:25:10-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Two local high school students are making San Diego proud after each was named a finalist in the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest science and math competition for high school seniors.

However, the teenagers say the distinction is about more than just personal achievement.

Jeffrey Wang, a senior at The Bishop’s School, says his time as an intern at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology taught him much, including how he could apply his coding skills to something bigger. He developed a program that can help scientists detect changes in the 3D architecture of our DNA.

“It turns out a lot of things from genetic disorders to cancer come from changes within this 3D architecture," Jeffrey says.

Jeffrey's computational application starts with a strand of DNA which stretched out is about 6 feet long, but he says, “Inside the cell, that entire 6-foot string has to get packed into a space that's about one-tenth the width of a human hair.”

That means the folded parts of the strand touch other parts and that can lead to the start or growth of disease. Jeffrey says his application is now publicly available online for researchers to use and that they are already using it.

The Bishop's School senior isn't the only local student making an impact. San Diego Jewish Academy senior Jessie Gan has also been named a finalist. Her projected centers around what she calls the “stickiness of cells.”

Jessie lost her grandfather to cancer that metastasized. So she made the most of an opportunity two summers ago to initiate her project at the Mechanobiology Institute in Singapore.

She says, “I found the metastatic cell or the harmful cells were much stickier than the benign or not cancerous cells.”

Jessie's discovery could be used as a diagnostic tool to identify metastatic cancer cells based how they cling to their surroundings.

She says, “This technique might be more useful or might be more appropriate than other techniques that other scientists use because it's less cells and it's more versatile.”

Jessie is studying science while a stem gender gap still exists but she's also excited to see the trailblazing-role scientists, both men and women, have played during the pandemic. She says, “I think that's really awesome that scientists have really risen to the occasion.” She goes on to say, “There's newfound appreciation for scientists in the public. I think that's very gratifying.”

Both Jessie and Jeffrey, who even manage to find time to pursue other interests such as theater and origami, have learned it's never too early to make a difference. Jeffrey sums it up. “At the end of the day science is all about going toward this common goal, toward living a life without disease, toward making life better for other people.”

Jeffrey and Jessie have each already won $25,000. Next month the 40 finalists, chosen from 1,760 entrants nationwide, will participate in the virtual last step of judging, vying to be named to the top 10. Those awards range from $40,000 to $250,000.