by Xinyi Zhou '10
Just back from six days in Washington, D.C. competing as a finalist in the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search (STS), Yifan Li is initially stumped when asked about the highlight of his week-long experience. His final answer: meeting with "39 of the smartest people I have ever met... everyone had such amazingly dynamic personalities." Li was part of that elite group because of his Senior Research Project, Differentiation of Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells into Retinal Pigment Epithelium Cells in Culture. The 40 Intel STS finalists competed March 11-16 in Washington, DC for for up to $100,000 in award money.
Li was the only Finalist from Blair this year, but eleven other Magnet Seniors were semifinalists: Michael Cohen, Pin-Jo Ko, Haozhi Lin, Li Ma, Nils Molina, Kamal Ndousse, Rohan Puttagunta, Kristen Rosano, Ben Shaya, Conway Xu, and Xinyi Zhou. The Magnet has traditionally done very well in the Intel STS, but 12 semifinalists is the most since 2005 (when there were 13), and having a finalist is always a special accomplishment. This was the first year for research teacher Elizabeth Duval, and the success of this year's seniors is a credit to her guidance. Asked how she feels about Li's work, she exclaimed enthusiastically, "Of course I'm very proud! He worked hard!"
Ms. Duval advised all the students in the Senior Research Project (SRP) course throughout the first half of the school year to help them write papers, prepare presentations and apply for competitions, and she saw firsthand how much work Li put into his project. While some students were able to finish during the summer, Li was among those who had to work weekends well into the school year to wrap up their projects. Li knew what he was getting into -- his mentor, Dr. Lijin Dong of the National Eye Institute at NIH, told him "it was a high risk project" -- but he still found himself frustrated by "not really knowing what to do" because "scientists don't know early retinal development well." Li also faced difficulties working with stem cells, which are fickle because of their potential to grow, or differentiate, into any type of cell in the body. Li's challenge was to turn them into a specific type of eye cell, retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells. To do this, he cultured stem cells and changed the conditions in which they were over time to nurture them step by step from stem cells to RPE cells. Li explains, "We had to start over several times," and were "really surprised in late October or so, when we looked at the cells and discovered that, yes, these are RPE cells, and that yes, we were successful." These results have broad future applications , such as growing retinal cells to help treat age-related macular degeneration.
But the exciting results were only part of Li's road to becoming an Intel finalist. The Intel STS application consists of a paper, essays and recommendations, among other paperwork. Li thinks it was "about as strenuous as a college application," and just like a college admissions committee, the Intel STS takes a holistic approach to evaluating each contestant. While competing at the finals in Washington, D.C., Li not only had to present his project but also went through nerve-wracking interviews, when he was asked questions ranging from his own field of biology to those in mathematics, ethics and policy. He credits the Magnet Program for helping him strengthen his thinking, saying that Magnet "always valued reasoning over knowledge." Honing his mind also helped him write a coherent paper, and Li advises future students to follow the advice given in the SRP course: "If you can't make it readable, then your paper's useless ... that's something SRP really advances ... otherwise I would have made [my paper] too detailed." He is also eager to point out that "a lot of people have contributed to my overall success." He said: "I'm really grateful to my mentor Dr. Lijin Dong, as well as Dr. Pinghu Liu, for getting me started on the project and guiding me through lab procedures until I was ready to work by myself, to Ms. Ragan and Ms. Duval for helping me through the research process, and just to all my science teachers who have been constantly training and honing my scientific reasoning."
His advice for other Magnet students? There is "seriously no reason not to do Intel" after writing a paper for SRP. Li did not finish in the top ten, but he isn't disappointed. "After I met everyone there, I think that's what should have happened... I'm really happy for the top ten." He describes his experience competing as "awesome ... so awesome." As a finalist, he won $8500 and a laptop, and he met everyone from the Nobel Laureate who discovered green fluorescent protein to Congress members to the person who invented the USB. Good reasons not to miss out on a chance to compete in the Intel Science Talent Search indeed.