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Richardson teen’s science project draws praise from President Obama at White House event



WASHIGTON – A Richardson teen whose research on cancer therapy has won accolades around the world got a rare dose of presidential attention today.

“Well, how exciting is this. It’s really inspiring,” President Barack Obama told Amy Chyao, after she spent several minutes briefing him on the project that won first place the Intel Science and Engineering Fair – a way to use light to fight cancer. “That’s wonderful. Congratulations.”Chyao, 16, a junior at Plano’s Williams High School, was among an elite group of top students invited to showcase research at the first White House Science Fair.

Her exhibit was one of 11 erected in the ornate State Dining Room, along with winners of other science, technology, engineering and math competitions. Other winners displays got less prominent display elsewhere in the White House.

Obama spent three or four minutes with each winner, congratulating them and quizzing them about their work – how they came up with their ideas, how long it took to develop their projects.

He tested a wheel designed to monitor distracted drivers and joked about trying to drive with his knees while “eating a burger.” At another station, he watched a robot kick soccer balls.

Chyao’s project — titled “Lights, Quantum Dots, Action!” – appeared to be the most complex, according to the small group of reporters on hand.

She told the president she had to teach herself chemistry to pursue the research, which involved developing a device to use light to activate a particular cancer drug.

“This is a drug that is already being tested in laboratories around the world?… Is it already on the market?” Obama asked.

Chyao explained her idea for a way to improve the treatment, allowing the drug to penetrate more deeply through photosensitizing.

Obama asked how she started the project.

“It was actually basically from scratch,” she said, adding that “when I started this project, I didn’t know any chemistry.” After learning some basic general chemistry, she began making nanotubes based on the drug at a nanotechnology lab where she worked.

After she offered further details, Obama asked, “How far did you get along with your ultimate goal of creating this new drug?’ ”

Chyao said she has already created it, proved that it works and is continuing her research to make it more effective.

Obama asked Chyao if she had connected with more established labs and scientists “who might be really inspired by these ideas and might move it along? Or are you still just working by yourself?”

Chyao said she has received numerous inquiries since winning the Intel competition, and her adviser is now “talking with a lot of people who are actually implementing” the therapy. Samples are being tested. For some tests, she will be working with the University of Texas at Dallas biology department.

“It’ll be a lot of working with other scientists,” she said.

The International Science Fair Competition hailed Chyao’s previous project, a study of reducing the environmental impact of traffic, as one of the top five in the world. Chyao went to Poland last year to meet leading scientists for a Nobel training program.

Moday’s visit wasn’t Amy’s first visit to the White House. After competing in the 2007 National Spelling Bee, her father said, she returned to Richardson with a signed photo of first lady Laura Bush.

“Between her freshman and sophomore years in high school, [she] taught herself chemistry, and then decided that she wanted to see if she could create a new drug to deal with cancer cells using light activation, and won the international science competition, and is now being contacted by laboratories across the country to see if this might actually have applications in terms of curing cancer,” Obama told an audience in the East Room Monday afternoon.

“Now, if that doesn’t inspire you,” he said, “if that doesn’t make you feel good about America and the possibilities of our young people when they apply themselves to science and math, I don’t know what will.”