Fred Lang’s first month in the lab was a series of failures.
The senior had trouble learning the correct techniques, his first five experiments yielded no useful results and while making viruses, Lang accidentally let half of the solution drip into the waste dish.
A year later, micro-RNA, mesenchymal stem cells and exosomes have become familiar terms to Lang, who is only scratching the surface of his scientific breakthrough.
In mid-November, Lang earned recognition as a 2013 National Finalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, a nationwide research competition for high school students. He is the second Regional Finalist from SJS in two years (fellow senior Anna Huang qualified last year) and the first National Finalist, receiving a $4,000 scholarship.
For two summers, Lang studied brain cancer at MD Anderson’s Basic Science Research Center. In his 18-page report, Lang examined how glioblastoma, one of the most prevalent and malignant types of brain tumors, can be destroyed by delivering certain micro-RNA’s into the brain.
“Both my parents are doctors, so my dad would often come home talking about his patients, asking me to pray for them,” Lang said. “It gave me this personal feeling against cancer that made me want to have an impact.”
From a record number of 2,440 projects, Siemens chose 90 regional finalists. Each of these finalists competed at one of six research universities. Lang presented his at the University of Texas at Austin, Nov. 8.
“This is the biggest project I’ve ever done,” Lang said. “It’s almost as if it’s my whole life’s work.”
Regional finalists were asked to prepare a poster display, deliver a 12-minute oral speech and participate in a private question-and-answer session with the judges.
“I actually surprised myself a lot — I thought I was awful at public presentations, but it went really well,” Lang said. “The question-and-answer session was the most stressful part because there was no way to prepare for it.”
Only six individuals, one from each competition site, qualify for the National Finals. Those selected for this honor will receive an expense-paid trip to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Dec. 6-10.
“When I won, it was a very surreal feeling,” Lang said. “I feel like I went up there and got back to my chair in a half-second.”
Lang began his Siemens project over the summer using data from the year before. He tested micro-RNA to develop a potential therapy for brain tumors.
Dr. Anwar Hossain, a professor in molecular pathology, instructed Lang in research and lab protocol.
“My goal was for Fred to develop a deep understanding of the scientific method and progress to the point of being able to conduct his experiments and catch his own mistakes independently,” Hossain said.
“Dr. Hossain helped me immensely both conceptually and in performing the actual experiments,” Lang said. “I could not have asked for a better mentor.”
The process required both patience and skill. Each experiment took at least a week to yield results.
“It’s kind of a monotonous job where you figure things out over time,” Lang said. “I feel like a lot of people get disillusioned with research because it’s really easy to fail, and I’m just really glad that I had the experience of succeeding.”
Senior Sira Ntagha worked in the same lab as Lang this past summer.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, going 24/7,” Ntagha said. “But he still took time to help me out if I had any questions.”
Lang connected the experiments he conducted in petri dishes to actual patient treatment in his final report for Siemens. He pulled his first all-nighter to finish writing his paper.
“I don’t really remember that night. I just remember zoning out,” Lang said. “I’m pretty proud that I didn’t have to use coffee or Five-Hour Energy.”
In preparation for regionals, Lang presented his work to Science and Math Club and the science department. He has also given research-based presentations for his Scientific Research and Design (SRD) class.
“Fred’s idea hasn’t ever been tried before and may ultimately end up helping numerous cancer patients,” Lang’s SRD sponsor Paula Angus said. “I think he’s been a role model for all who saw the process by showing what you can accomplish in SRD.”
While in Washington, D.C., Lang will have a shot at the grand prize of $100,000.
He plans to continue his research with micro-RNAs. Future experiments may include in-vivo tests with mice and creating a cocktail of micro-RNAs for more efficient therapy.
Lang said, “The project opens a lot of possibility for study.”