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The ultramodern scientist: 2013 Google Science Fair grand prize winner

Chen and Amaro. Image courtesy Erik Jepsen, University of California, San Diego Publications.

Eric Chen, a 17-year-old senior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, California, US, has won the trifecta of science competitions: the 2014 Intel Science Talent Search; the 2013 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology; and the grand prize in the international 2013 Google Science Fair. Prizes from Google included those from Science Fair partners CERN, LEGO, National Geographic, and Scientific American.

Chen’s computations focused on analyzing molecules that might block the activity of an enzyme called endonuclease, which all flu viruses use to reproduce. From a database of more than 450,000 compounds, he whittled the list down to 237. Subsequent lab work identified six candidates as potential anti-flu drugs. 

“Many of the things I was curious about could be explained logically with science,” says Chen. Driven by the possibility of discovery, he gravitated toward research. He was just 13 years old when the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic spread across the US and the world.

“I never really thought about the flu as being dangerous,” Chen notes. “The common misconception is that the flu is a harmless bug; you get sick for a few days and then you get better.” Since that time, new strains of flu have developed, along with Chen’s determination and skills to discover solutions. His name will appear on the patents for six potential anti-flu drugs. 

Chen, grand prize winner of the Google Science Fair 2013, and winner of the 17-18 age category. Video courtesy Google Science Fair.

Chen received training in computational biology at the University of California, San Diego, US. He took advantage of resources at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), including the center’s Gordon supercomputer, to run molecular dynamics computations as part of the BioChemCoRe outreach program organized by associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry Rommie Amaro. She has likened Chen to an ultramodern scientist — one who is not afraid to combine all sorts of methods, not only experimental, but also computational.

Chen says that supercomputers were vital tools in his project, enabling him to run simulations and virtual screens requiring huge amounts of computational power. He used 399,000 core hours on the Ranger supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). Like Gordon, Ranger is available to researchers via the National Science Foundation’s XSEDE (eXtreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment) program.

This fall, Chen will attend Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US. “I’ll still continue with science but don't know yet which direction I'll go. I would like to take my undergraduate years to explore as much as possible. Further in the future, I would like to become a professor because I enjoy teaching and inspiring others to think about pursuing careers in science. It would also allow me to continue research.”

Entrepreneurship may also be in Chen’s future. “Since doing the flu project work, I have seen the difference between making a scientific discovery and evolving it to the point where it is helping people — where it is actually saving lives. Entrepreneurship bridges that gap. It would be really cool to bring scientific innovation to people that need it.”

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