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Building a New Generation of Scholars
Durham, NC - A team of two high school students who worked in a Duke medical research lab won one of the nation's most prestigious science awards Monday, extending an impressive streak of national awards given to young scholars who have found research opportunities in Duke labs.
Sajith M. Wickramasekara and Andrew Y. Guo, both students at the N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham, were named $100,000 Grand Prize winners in the 2008 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. The team's project combined traditional genetics with computational modeling to streamline the gene discovery process and identify new genes to target for cancer therapy.
The team worked on this project with the help of their mentor, Craig B. Bennett, assistant professor of experimental surgery, and their high school adviser, Myra Halpin.
"Mr. Wickramasekara and Mr. Guo used a modern way of screening for drugs with yeast to address an important problem regarding the limitations of chemotherapy, including resistance, toxicity and discrimination," said competition judge Jeffrey Pollard of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Pollard said the students' sophisticated technique could be used to identity new therapeutic targets and potential drugs. "Not only is this a process currently done by many large pharmaceutical companies, with much more resources, but my own graduate students have done similar work for their graduate theses," Pollard said.
Bennett said he first met Wickramasekara through Summers on the Edge in 2007, a summer research project for high school students at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center. Wickramasekara impressed Bennett with his work, which led to research unrelated to the Siemens project.
"It was a pleasure working with Sajith, and he did great work. We currently have a draft paper on that research in which he is listed as a first author," Bennett said.
This past summer, Wickramasekara introduced Guo to Bennett and asked to work on the project that led to the Siemens Award. A paper based on this research is also currently being written.
Bennett said he began opening his lab to high school students through Summers on the Edge in 2002. "I like to teach and I like to teach at different levels," Bennett said. "I have undergrads come through here as well.
"Sajith and Andrew are very bright and very hard working. These kids are the cream of the crop, so it's very rewarding, and it's been productive to me as well. They contributed work that will be included in publications, so they've helped move my science work. The benefit is mutual."
The award marks the fourth year in five years that a finalist in one of the two major national high school research competitions came out of research conducted in a Duke lab.
Â· This past March, Shivani Sud took the $100,000 top prize in the Intel Science Talent Search for developing a "molecular signature" that may help identify which colon cancer patients face the greatest risk of having their disease recur. The work developed out of a summer project she did in the lab of Dr. Anil Potti, assistant professor of oncology and a faculty member in Duke's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.
Â· In 2007, Nicholas Tang and Sagar Indurkhya, both students at the N.C. School of Science and Math, won third place in the national finals of the Siemens competition for research done with Pratt School of Engineering professors Lingchong You and Jingdong Tian.
Â· In December 2004, Lucie Guo of the N.C. School for Science and Mathematics won the top prize in the Siemens competition (along with classmate Xianlin Li) for work on a breast cancer biomarker she developed working in the lab of Jeffrey Marks, an associate professor of experimental surgery.
Both faculty and research administrators celebrated news of the Siemens award Monday as an example of how faculty mentorship can help attract bright young students to research careers.
Duke is putting more energy into mentoring young scholars both through lab research and direct assistance in the schools. A new Duke center promotes K-12 science education and research through community outreach, civic engagement and programs for school teachers.
"The Siemens news is a terrific reminder of the tremendous impact that Duke faculty can have when they open their labs to high school students who are eager to engage in scientific research," said Rochelle D. Schwartz-Bloom, director of the Duke Center for Science Education.
"Duke and the center are committed to engaging Duke faculty and high school students in partnerships," Schwartz-Bloom said. "These students will become our next generation of scientists, and as Duke faculty, we're proud to see our pre-college students follow our passion in science."
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