Intel Prize Winner: Meet the Next Nobel!
ALISON STEWART, host:
The Intel Science Talent Search is not the science fair you were in as a kid. No one is proving that baking soda and vinegar makes a volcano.
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
We were so smart back then.
STEWART: I was very proud of that. There were no mice running through mazes here. To name a few of the finalist projects, "A geometric analysis of the number of lattice points inside polygons on nine sides," "Proof that Einstein's General Relativity Theory could in principal modify rotational curves in the absence of dark matter."
MARTIN: Well, in principle, it could.
STEWART: :A new way to improve the efficacy of antibiotics against multi-drug resistant bacteria.: Now we picked those three because those had words we could pronounce. The science talent search goes back 66 years. It used to be the Westinghouse Science Search. Now in that time, six of the contest finalists have won Nobel Prizes. Two have won Fields Medals. Two have won McArthur Genius Grants. And this year, out of 1,600 contestants nationwide and 14 finalists, the winner is...
(Soundbite of drum roll)
STEWART: That's our drum roll for you. Shivani Sud, 17 years old, she won, or I should say, she earned, 100,000 dollar scholarship from the Intel Foundation, and Shivani is on the line to tell us about her project. First of all, congratulations.
Ms. SHIVANI SUD (Winner, Intel Science Talent Search 2008): Thank you so much.
STEWART: You must be so excited.
Ms. SUD: I most definitely am.
STEWART: Can you describe that feeling in your heart of hearts as they were reading off the name of the big winner?
Ms. SUD: Well, it was kind of an intense moment. As they counted down, I just kind of told myself it's OK. You came here. You did your best. You met a lot of great people. It's OK you didn't win anything. So I was really shocked when they said my name.
MARTIN: That's awesome.
STEWART: That's amazing. Your family must be so proud.
Ms. SUD: Definitely.
STEWART: Now your project is not only scientifically significant, it's also personally significant for you. Tell us a little about your project and the genesis of it.
Ms. SUD: So, essentially my project focuses on early-stage colon cancer. Right now in the clinic, when we look at stage two colon cancer, about 40 to 50 percent of patients relapse, they develop cancer a second time. So what I wanted to see if I could go down to the genetics and use a genetic predictor to figure out who's most likely to relapse, and furthermore, if there's certain drugs I can use to reverse that signature of malignancy to prevent that relapse. So shifting the conversation from after-the-fact chemotherapy to proactive chemo-prevention.
STEWART: Now did you - you knew someone in your life who had cancer?
Ms. SUD: I did. I have an immediate family member who had a benign brain tumor.
STEWART: And what impact did that make on you?
Ms. SUD: Well, that's when I was six years old and it definitely made an emotional imprint on me. I was very fortunate. I got to keep my family member. The doctors did a great job, but you know that there are millions of families that don't have that chance, and I know that definitely helped me to start live out my dreams, and I'd like to return that to someone else.
STEWART: Now have you always been interested in genetics?
Ms. SUD: Well, I've always had an interest in cancer. It's a funny story, because I started off doing my research at Temple University, and then I spent the summer with Dr. Tsokos at the NIH. And every place I go I either listen to a talk in the lab or I read a paper, so initially I didn't even know you could do this kind of stuff with genetics. And then when I read it, I thought, wow, this is really cool. Let me go try this. So, I mean, it's interesting because you learn new things.
STEWART: I'm wondering how you were first received when you're younger. I mean, you're 17 now. And you're at Temple, or you decide you're going to work at Duke University, where you did a little bit of your research. You walk into the research lab and you say hi, I'm here, I'm 15 and I'm going to do cancer research.
Ms. SUD: Well, you definitely have to get in touch with them beforehand. I got in touch with the mentor that I had at Temple beforehand. The one at NIH, I applied there. And then I sent some of the research I had done down to the lab at Duke. It's definitely hard. When I'm in the lab, I don't like to be babied as someone who doesn't really know what they're doing. I really like to go out and show that I am capable, and that I do have the skills required for scientific inquiries. So you definitely have to prove yourself. But I have to say every environment has been very supportive.
STEWART: Was it ever difficult to deal with - you picked a branch of science that deals with life and death.
Ms. SUD: Mm hum.
STEWART: Not just abstracts. Did you let yourself go there when you were thinking about your project?
Ms. SUD: Well, it's something that always strikes you when you're sitting there late at night, working in the cell culture 'hood, you definitely wonder what you're doing there. And you go back to that image of you with your family member or others. And it just motivates you even more. And when you're at science fairs, like here when we were putting our projects on display, or at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, you have a lot of people who come by your project and say I have a family member who has cancer or I have this cancer, will this help me?
And you know, sometimes it's very difficult because you know that your research has a little while to go before it can actually be implemented in the clinic. But overall, it just motivates you even more because you put a face to your research. It's not just about this cell that you see under a microscope, it's about the potential that your work has to help someone else. And that's really what makes it worth it.
STEWART: Shivani, are you interested in a career in oncology, being "Dr. Sud?"
Ms. SUD: I'm most definitely interested in medical research, so right now I'm looking at the M.D.-Ph.D. track and trying to kind of figure out where I want to go next year.
MARTIN: One of those isn't enough. You need a M.D.-Ph.D.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: So I don't want to make an assumption. Are you going to go to college next year?
Ms. SUD: I most definitely will be going to college next year.
STEWART: What are you thinking about? Where you thinking?
Ms. SUD: I'm not really sure. I've gotten into all my schools so far. I've got two left to hear back from. So I guess...
MARTIN: Something tells me they're going to let you in. Lucky guess.
Ms. SUD: It's kind of nice, because you sit there, and you wait and you pray that they'll pick you and now you get to pick one of them. So a little bit of revenge time.
STEWART: And on the short-term, how are you going to celebrate?
Ms. SUD: How am I going to celebrate? Well, we had a pretty nice celebration last night. We had a student party back here. I really can't wait to get back home and tell my grandmother. I know she'll be very proud and after that, I've got homework to catch up on.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Oh, my gosh.
STEWART: Well, Shivani Sud, we congratulate you once again on winning the Intel Science Talent Search. Really appreciate you taking the time after what must have been a very exciting 24 hours. And we wish you all the best.
Ms. SUD: Thanks.
MARTIN: It makes me feel more secure about the future with people like you at the helm.
Ms. SUD: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
MARTIN: Take care. Hey, that does it for this hour of the Bryant Park Project, directed by Jacob Ganz, edited by Trish McKinney, produced by Matt Martinez, executive E.P., Sharon Hoffman. I'm Rachel Martin.
STEWART: I'm Alison Stewart.
MARTIN: It's time for breakfast!
STEWART: I'm out of here. We're always online at npr.org/bryantpark. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. I'm getting a bagel.