Boston Latin 9th Grader Awarded $75,000 For Genetic Detection Tool

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A Boston Latin freshman arrived at school this morning $75,000 richer.

Fifteen-year-old Nathan Han claimed first prize at this year's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. There were over 1,700 finalists — all high school students — from over 70 countries.

Han earned the award by developing a machine learning software tool that can study the mutations of a gene that's linked to breast cancer.


Nathan Han, Boston Latin School 9th grader who just won top prize at this year's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.


On what the machine learning tool does, and how Nathan came up with the idea:
Nathan Han: "I created a process that can successfully identify and predict cancer-causing mutations in a person's DNA and I did this by mining mutation data from online public domain databases and then performing statistical analysis on how those mutations change certain properties of proteins."

On how Nathan wrote this code:
NH: "I wrote my code in a combination of two programming languages that are statistics-focused. One is R and the other is Wolfram Mathematica."

On what Nathan hopes the machine learning tool would do in the breast cancer research field:
NH: "As you can probably imagine, there's tons of immediate applications for a system like the one I created — and I find them all fascinating. They range from something relatively straight-forward, like identifying specific mutations that do cause disease to improving gene screening, for example, to large-scale analysis of an entire populations' genomic data in the up and coming fields of bioinformatics and big data in genomics."

On where Nathan's interest in computer science, biology and statistics comes from:
NH: "The background knowledge leading up to my project came together in bits and pieces, here and there. I've always just been passionate about those three things. I learned to code in 4th grade, yeah, 4th grade, wow. It's just been no looking back since then. I find those fields really amazing."

On where Nathan sees himself going after he graduates from Boston Latin:
NH: "I have, like, no idea. I mean, the possibilities are endless. Before I did this project I did this neuroscience-related project, but I sort of always liked the interdisciplinary approach — working in computer science and statistics and a bunch of things. Bioinformatics really speaks to me."

On what Nathan will do with his $75,000 award:
NH: "I don't know that part either. I'm probably going to save most of it for college or for the future. I might reinvest some more into my research. I didn't have a laboratory research mentor, since I'm sort of young, to do this project. So, in the future, I would definitely like to explore that."


Student Science: Teen’s Cancer Research Scores Big At Intel ISEF Competition

  • "An innovative statistical analysis of cancer-promoting genes could provide a new roadmap for scientists studying the disease. The technique, which could be applied to other genes as well, earned a 15-year-old researcher the top prize — and $75,000 — here, this week, at the world’s premier high-school science and engineering competition."

This segment aired on May 19, 2014.


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