Whiz Kids

Instead of Hanging Out, Some Teens
Would Rather Find the Cure for Cancer

There are parents who believe their kids are really smart, despite evidence to the contrary. We’re not about to burst their bubble, but as not everyone can be filthy rich, the odds for a crop of super geniuses are simply not there. Fortunately, some teens do make the whole race proud, grim statistics notwithstanding. It’s just our bad luck none of them is sleeping upstairs, so to speak.
In the time it takes to type ‘celebrity teens’ on the search field, a 15-year old developed a way to detect pancreatic cancer, a 17-year old devised a potential cure for all types of the disease, an 11-year old solved a chemistry puzzle his scientist dad could not, all the while a 13-year old, who designed a more efficient layout for solar cells, got his experiment, well, debunked.
And you thought adolescents spend most of their precious time text messaging. Maybe only the ones we know, we’re afraid. For even if these inventions may not represent the breakthrough in the medical and technological fields that many are hoping for, they prove that some youth is not only about wasting energy reading about the latest fracas involving Chris Brown.
So we say, yay and we may not be alone on this one. Many a jaded New Yorker can be refreshingly optimist when it comes to give credit to the whiz who’s just fixed their phone app, or managed to show them a faster way to send a pic to Twitter. Even when it’s clear that they wouldn’t be caught dead showing you that they care, or tell you point-blank, dude, you’re so slow.
Take Linus Hovmöller Zou, for example, who’s most likely named after the 1962 Nobel Prize Award winner, not Charlie Brown’s best friend. Then again, we never know. The point is that the 11-year old managed to do what his chemistry professor dad had been trying and failing for years: to crack a puzzle involving the structure of crystals called approximants.
These complicated atomic structures have what seemed impossible to exist: a five-fold symmetry. Then again, everything sounds complicated, and slightly impossible, if you’re not a chemist. Or a tween. And Linus does have the attitude to go along with his brilliance: “What we did was to solve a set of puzzles, where the pieces were ‘wheels’ that could be connected in different ways,” he explained. Whatever.
For sure, his famous namesake would be as proud as his dad about this accomplishment. This set of puzzles solved, which some day may inscribe his name on chemistry research books, Linus can now go back to his beloved video games and Sudoku. Yeah, he’s good at that too.
Then there’s the case of Clara Lazen, a 10-year old fifth grader who accidentally discovered a new molecular configuration, akin to nitroglycerin but somewhat less explosive to handle. While her classmates got distracted playing with modeling kits used to simulate chemical experiments, Clara decided to do something slightly different. Who knew kids are so into chemistry these days?
To build a ‘molecule,’ she combined oxygen, nitrogen and carbon atoms, because after all, she ‘just saw that these go together more.’ The result was something that simply hadn’t been done before. Her teacher run the picture of her formula, dubbed tetranitratoxycarbon, through an online database for chemistry research, and voilá, there’s nothing like it.
The only tiny, teeny bit of contrarian analysis, though, which should be mentioned along with Clara’s intuition and rare luck, is about what she said when her teacher made her aware of the potential financial windfall such a discovery may represent. That is, if and when any technological applications come to be developed from it. ‘I can sell this to the military for money.’
Somehow we don’t like to see our children develop such a shrewd commercial sense, specially when they’re just 10. But neither should we expect them to make a speech about peace and understanding among nations of Earth, and how she’d wished her breakthrough could someday help less privileged kids from Africa to grow and etc, etc.
That kind of awareness, perhaps a bit less corny, we granted, may come a bit later, when they are 15, like Jack Andraka, or 17, like Angela Zhang. In completely unrelated research, these two American teens have both won important research awards for developing devices that may make easy to detect and even eradicate the scourge of cancer.
Jack, of Crownsville, Maryland, personally affected by the recent death of a relative from the disease, developed a pancreatic cancer test that costs as little as three cents and works within five minutes. And Angela, from Cupertino, California, who worked in her spare time, created a nanoparticle that can detect and eliminate cancer cells, and then monitor the treatment response.
Remarkably, they accomplished that without having their smartphones taken away from them in school, or throwing vicious tantrums every time their experiments would run afoul, and had to be restarted. Just like your own kids would, of course. They both got a cool couple of hundred thousand dollars, likely to be enough to cover at least tuition and possibly even a whole semester in college.
Jack’s sensor, which may benefit an estimated 40,000 patients suffering of the painful and often terminal disease, is cheaply manufactured out of recycled papers. Angela’s polymer, which has successfully eliminated cancerous tumors in mice, may take years before being adopted as a standard procedure for humans. But her method has already single-handedly advanced the research in the field by at least a few decades.

For a young person, a valuable, if a bit of a bummer, lesson is to learn that not every effort pays off right away. History’s dustbin is full of our attempts at greatness. Which may have discouraged a few, but for thousands, it just helped them keep on pushing until they eventually succeed. Such a tough but untimely curve, is what 13-year old Aidan Dwyer may be going through just about now.
A few months ago, his model for a solar cell layout inspired in the natural branch distribution of an oak tree, was praised for being revolutionary in that it seemed to increase the efficiency of energy output by 50 percent, compared to traditional layouts. That would represent a breakthrough for an industry that’s facing ferocious competition from fuel-based energy producing corporations.
But when Aidan’s model was put to the test, it proved a fluke, as the energy output didn’t really spike as he’d hoped. Which shouldn’t let down this young New Yorker and prevent him from keeping at it. The jury is still out about what keeps you longer in the game, whether success or failure, the accumulation of both, or the lack of only one of them.
But if he succeeds, and he may be already back on the drawing board for doing just that, it may mean a big blow to the multi-billion dollar oil and carbon industry. For it finally won’t have the same excuse for being completely oblivious to the environmental devastation that it’s been causing to the planet, nor it will be able to continue to extract ever fatter subsidies from the federal government.
So, for you Aidan, and for you only, never mind what Linus, or Clara, Jack, or Angela, have achieved, however great it may be, and everything. It’s we, adults, who should be humbled by their daring efforts. Because yours are equally second to none, and you just make sure you’ll come back at them over and over again, until you get it right.

We relate to you in the same vicarious way that sports fans relate to their team: when it wins, they all win. When it loses, they all grieve. But that’s as far as the tired metaphor goes; you kids can no longer lose, for even before reaching your second decade on this planet, you’re already contributed more to it than even those who may write about you.
So, never mind about us; we’re just passengers, glad to hitchhike on your trip towards the future.

4 thoughts on “Whiz Kids

  1. Dear CollTales,

    You are quite right, Linus Hovmöller Zou is named after Linus Pauling. Pauling was a great scientist (chemist and crystallographer and double Nobel Prize winner – chemistry and peace) but he was wrong about quasicrystals. Linus’ mother professor Xiaodong Zou, who is also a co-author of this now famous paper, actually was one of the very first to support Dan Shechtman (Nobel Prize in chemistry 2011 for discovering the quasicrystals with 5-fold symmetry) against Linus Pauling who didn’t believe in quasicrystals.


    • colltales says:

      Thank you so much for your input Sven. You’re right, Pauling won twice. It’s a fascinating piece of research; wish more kids were into it, but Linus’s already on the right track. Well done. Congrats to you both. Come back often. Regards, Wesley


  2. I’m impressed.


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