University Work Earns Talented Teen A Trip to Intel Science Contest
Feb. 16, 2016
High school student Joshua Choe (right), with Dr. Jung-whan Kim of UT Dallas, is investigating possible therapeutic agents that might be effective against a type of lung cancer often linked to smoking.
Two summers and many late nights devoted to research in a UT Dallas laboratory have earned one high school student a trip to Washington, D.C., to compete for honors among the nation’s elite young scientists.
Joshua Choe, a senior at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, is one of 40 high school students chosen as finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest pre-college science and math competition. Choe is the only finalist from Texas for the competition, which will be March 10-16 and present more than $1 million in awards.
Since the summer after his sophomore year, Choe has been conducting research on lung cancer in the lab of Dr. Jung-whan Kim, assistant professor of biological sciences at UT Dallas. Working with isolated cells, Choe and his lab mates are investigating possible therapeutic agents that might be effective against a type of lung cancer often linked to smoking.
Choe said he first became interested in biology when he was about 8 years old, when his father bought him a DNA science kit. The budding scientist extracted DNA from tomatoes, and took cheek swabs from his parents.
“I started getting interested in actual research after freshman-year biology,” said Choe, noting that his school has a biology lab with specialized equipment.
Once he was hooked, Choe began reading research articles online, and when he didn’t understand a term or concept, he looked up each one. He read books and listened to online lectures by cancer researchers.
“Cancer is the emperor of all maladies. That drew me to cancer research,” he said.
Choe said he started getting interested in research after his freshman-year biology course in high school. (Courtesy of St. Mark's School of Texas)
A visit to the UT Dallas campus with his parents after his sophomore year connected him with Kim. Choe had written a research proposal to investigate the connection between certain bacteria and colon cancer, and was looking to pursue it with a UT Dallas faculty member.
“We just happened to cross paths with Dr. Kim,” Choe said.
“Honestly, I couldn’t say no to him” after reading his proposal, Kim said. “It was a good idea, but we were not set up to work on that particular project, so I suggested that Joshua work on our current project.”
Choe tested compounds for their ability to block a protein that transports glucose — a type of sugar — to cells. In a variety of cancer called lung squamous cell carcinoma, this protein — called GLUT1 — is present at higher levels than in normal cells or in other types of lung cancer. The research team hypothesized that, by depriving these cancer cells of glucose or interrupting glucose metabolism, the cells would be starved of an energy source and die.
The team’s findings may contribute to earlier diagnosis of a disease that accounts for up to 30 percent of all lung cancers, as well as guide the investigation of novel treatments.
“Testing those compounds was a key part of this study, so Joshua has been very instrumental to this project,” Kim said.
The results of the group’s experiments are being submitted for publication in a major scientific journal. Choe is one of the co-first authors of the paper, indicating his significant contributions to the study.
Choe submitted research he had done at UT Dallas to the Intel competition last fall.
“Joshua is very motivated. I can see that he is enjoying doing this research, and I think that is one of the keys to his success. I believe that if you enjoy something, everything follows from that.”
“I was very happy and satisfied when they announced that I was among the semifinalists, which were 300 students from 1,750 entrants,” Choe said. “I was not expecting to get finalist at all.”
When the call came about his finalist status, Choe was at a restaurant with some of his lab mates.
“At first, I didn’t recognize the phone number. It was from D.C., and I thought it might be a telemarketer,” he said. “So I actually hung up on them the first time.”
Intel Science Talent Search finalists are chosen based on the originality and creativity of their scientific research, as well as their achievement and leadership both inside and outside the classroom. During their time in Washington, finalists will present their research to the public at the National Geographic Society, and interact with prominent scientists and national leaders.
In addition to his research interests, Choe competed in varsity track and field, and represents his school as a violinist in the Texas Private School Music Educators Association All-State Orchestra. He leads the Caduceus Medical Club and, as a student guide, led incoming freshmen on a nine-day, rite-of-passage trek through the Pecos Wilderness of New Mexico. In his spare time, Choe loves to camp and fish.
A true team player, Choe brought fresh-caught trout to campus to share with his fellow researchers.
“Joshua is very motivated,” Kim said. “I can see that he is enjoying doing this research, and I think that is one of the keys to his success. I believe that if you enjoy something, everything follows from that.”