Angela Zhang is just a teenager who recently graduated from Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, CA, but she’s already on her way to curing cancer.Zhang won the grand prize–a $100,000 scholarship–in the 2011 Siemens Competition in maths, Science & Technology for her research on a nanoparticle system that she likens to a Swiss army knife because of its many functions: It is capable of targeting tumors, eradicating cancer cells, and monitoring treatment responses all at the same time.
“At the heart of my nanosystem is the drug delivery capabilities,” Angela wrote to us in an email. “My nanoparticle was designed to be preloaded with a cancer drug that would be released directly and selectively at the tumour site to eradicate cancer cells. The greatest advantage that a drug delivery system has over many current cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, which tends to attack cancer and healthy cells, is minimization of toxicity to non malignant/healthy cells.”
She said that the hope of the project was to “personalise cancer treatment” by improving treatment efficacy while improving the patient’s quality of life during cancer treatment.
Zhang said that it took years to come up with the idea. She began researching this project in her spare time as a mere freshman in high school, when she began reading doctorate level papers on bio-engineering and attending numerous scientific talks. By sophomore year she started working in a lab at Stanford, and by junior year was doing her own research.
Zhang tested her nanoparticle system on mice, and was thrilled to find that the cancer tumors almost completely disappeared.
“It was a great feeling to find that my project worked,” she wrote. “It was a culmination of hours of hard work, but I also concede that my project is perpetually a work in progress. That aspect of research makes research such an exciting and interesting field to me. I value the failures as much as the success that I have encountered in my project because of the great learning opportunities that the failures have provided.”
It could still take years to know if this research might work on humans, but Zhang has certainly paved the way to a possible cancer cure with her nanoparticle system.
When she’s not working in the lab, Zhang, who is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, is like any typical teenager. She loves shoes, and in her free time, she kayaks, hikes, and reads as much as she can. She said that one of the items on her bucket list is to read every novel on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.
“I adore Fitzgerald,” she said. “In fact, after winning the competition, I begged my mum if I could buy a first edition copy of The Great Gatsby.”
Zhang plans to attend Harvard in the fall.
“I definitely would love to pursue research in the future and hopefully this project,” Zhang said. “I enjoy research greatly because it provides a great intellectual challenge that also has a societal impact. Cancer research has always been an exciting field to me; however, I am also open to other activities and other fields of research. I am excited to see what the future holds!”
Watch Angela Zhang explain her love of science on a TedX Talk:
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