NanoExplorer Wins Top Prize in Intel Science Fair
High School Student’s Work at UT Dallas Holds Promise for Cancer Research

Research aimed at increasing the depths to which therapeutic light can penetrate the body and attack cancer cells has netted UT Dallas  NanoExplorer Amy Chyao the top prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, Calif. 

Chyao, a sophomore at Williams High School in Plano, Texas, won the competition’s Gordon E. Moore award.  The award is accompanied by a $75,000 prize, which Chyao one day hopes to apply toward medical school.

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More than 1,600 high school students from 59 countries competed in 19 categories.  Each participant had to win at the local, regional, state and national levels to compete in the Intel competition.  Chyao was grilled for 10 hours by more than 40 judges during the event.

Leading up to her stunning showings in nearly half a dozen science fairs,  Chyao spent the summer between her freshman and sophomore year in the George A. Jeffrey NanoExplorer program.  She conducted research under the mentorship of Dr. Kenneth Balkus, professor of chemistry.  Founded by Dr. Ray Baughman, director of the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute, the program hosts more than 30 high school students in labs across campus each summer.

“Last June, I joined the NanoExplorer program and found I was interested in projects in the Balkus Lab,” Chyao said.  “I looked into different projects and had to learn a lot about chemistry.”

Chyao created semiconducting nanoparticles that, when exposed to certain wavelengths of light, generate a highly reactive form of oxygen that proves deadly to cancer cells.  Once injected, the nanoparticles could travel through the bloodstream or stay localized in tumor sites.  Exposure to a targeted beam of light, like a laser, could catalyze the reaction specifically where the cancer cells are growing.

This photodynamic therapy, treating superficial skin cancers with light, is an established technique to treat skin cancers, but the particles developed by Chyao may allow targeted light therapy to penetrate even deeper into the body, creating the possibility of treating a wider variety of cancers beneath the skin.

“I’m so proud of Amy,” Balkus said.  “With her discoveries, we can possibly treat cancers that were previously inaccessible.  I’m delighted she’s returning to my lab this summer.”

Chyao joins a growing and impressive list of previous NanoExplorers who have published in major journals, won prestigious fellowships and placed highly in international competitions.

A new group of NanoExplorers will be joining UT Dallas in June to conduct research and possibly make discoveries like Chyao’s.

Chyao’s research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is part of the Balkus Lab’s overall effort to develop novel photocatalysts.

“I’ll be working in the Balkus Lab again as a researcher this summer,” Chyao said.  “I like it here.”

When not in the lab this summer, Chyao plans to complete Calculus II as part of an opportunity from the Office of the Provost that supports tuition and fees for a small number of students each year who have completed the mathematics courses available in public schools and community colleges.  The support gives students a head start on mathematics at the university level while they finish their remaining high school coursework.

In a letter to Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education Cathie Alexander, Chyao’s father acknowledged the variety of opportunities at UT Dallas that have enabled his daughter to accelerate her education.

“The UT Dallas outreach programs for high school students are the best for local students like Amy,” said Mr. Tim Chyao.  “Amy has benefited a great deal from programs like the Awesome Math summer camp, the Metroplex Math Circle, and especially the NanoExplorers.  We could not imagine all her achievements without the help from UT Dallas.”

Amy Chyao spent a summer conducting research under the mentorship of Dr. Kenneth Balkus in the George A. Jeffrey NanoExplorer program. 

The Gordon E. Moore award was accompanied by a $75,000 prize, which Chyao hopes to use for medical school.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].