Pay attention to the national science fair circuit long enough and certain competitors come up again and again. It makes sense: Science fair preparation is rigorous and taxing, and even some of the smartest kids out there won't necessarily choose to dedicate their free time to national competitions. Even so, Eric Chen is a unique competitor in the high school science fair world.
This week, the 17-year-old from San Diego won the Intel Science Talent Search competition—after handily winning both the Google Science Fair and the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology last year. In the Intel competition, Chen's project beat almost 1,800 other entries.
Chen's project, which apparently is like catnip to science fair judges, combines supercomputer modeling with biological testing in order to speed up the discovery of new flu drugs. "A lot of companies are still in the industrial era of discovery, using robots to test millions of molecules. I'm using the computer to find the top fraction that are most likely to work and then test those," he says.
Chen's computer model selects for chemical compounds that have certain features considered desirable in flu drugs, whittling down half a million compounds to the top 237 most promising ones. His focus is on drugs that inhibit a key enzyme—endonuclease—in flu virus propagation.
Even though he previously won two competitive science fairs, Chen says he was still surprised by the Intel win. And none of it seems to be going to his head. "I really try not to think about it," he says. "My friends do treat me the same way and I feel like I prefer it that way."
Already, Chen's work, conducted with professors in labs at UC San Diego and the Scripps Research Institute, has led to some promising flu-fighting drugs. UCSD has reportedly applied for patents on the discoveries.
In addition to lots of awards, Chen now also has a significant savings account, winning $100,000 in the Intel competition alone. Most of his winnings will go towards college education, he says. Chen is deciding between Stanford and Harvard (tough job!), and still isn't sure what he wants to study.
His advice for budding science fair entrants: Don't be daunted by anything, even professors with fancy titles and letters next their names. "Many times, they're only too happy to help some young, eager scientist," he says.