Eric Chen used a computerized model to show that there are ways to greatly expedite the discovery of powerful influenza inhibitors.
Priyanka Wadgaonkar, Zainab Mahmood and JiaWen Peipresented new research identifying a previously overlooked gene that could help protect major crops against environmental damage.
These individuals don't hold doctorate degrees in science or engineering fields, although their research seems to suggest otherwise. In fact, they haven't even started college yet.
These are four high school seniors who won the grand prizes in the 2013 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology on Tuesday.
Since its inception in 1998, the competition has drawn research submissions from more than 20,000 students. This year's challenge received 1,599 project submissions, 12 of which were named national finalists -- six individuals and six teams.
"This country spends a lot of time celebrating athletes," says Eric Spiegel, president and chief executive officer of Siemens USA. "We have the high school all-Americans, we have all these entertainment celebrities, but we don't spend enough time celebrating these kids. These are the best and brightest kids."
Spiegel says in recent years, more evidence that American students are falling behind in math and science further emphasizes the need to educate and inspire students to engage in STEM fields.
In 2012, American students not only performed below average in mathematics on the Programme for International Student Assessment when compared to other countries, but the United States' rank also slipped between 2009 and 2012.
And although some research indicates the number of bachelor's degrees earned in science, technology, engineering and mathematics may be growing at a more rapid rate, the number of job openings in those fields by the year 2020 is expected to grow by 26 percent, outpacing the number of STEM graduates.
"We're falling behind and we're not producing enough students in these areas to generate the kind of growth and innovation we need in the future," Spiegel says. "I think [the competition] will inspire thousands of other kids in their high schools."
Spiegel says he hopes the winners of the competition will serve as role models for other students.
Eric Chen, the grand prize winner of the individual competition, says he was inspired to pursue research related to the flu after the swine flu pandemic hit his home town of San Diego in 2009.
"I was 13 years old and I was pretty confused because before that, I thought of the flu only as a vaccine every year, a few days sick in bed," Chen says. "But now the seemingly harmless flu virus is killing lots of people."
And in recent years, with the prevelance of different strains of the flu, such as H5N1 and H7N9 (both strains of the so-called bird flu), Chen says he saw an urgent need to further investigate the potential to develop more effective anti-flu medication.
"A lot of people don't really think of the flu as a danger, as a threat," Chen says. "My thought process was that computers are getting really powerful and doing so incredibly quickly, so why can't we use this vast computational power in order to speed up drug discovery for new flu medicine?"
Chen built a three-dimensional model to virtually screen different known inhibitors of the flu, and was able to bring the number of potential compounds down from nearly half a million to 237. He then took 237 compounds to the biology lab to test and see if they could be developed into anti-flu drugs.
The grand prize winners of the team competition -- Priyanka Wadgaonkar, Zainab Mahmood and JiaWen Pei -- said they were inspired to pursue their research during a three-year program at their high school in New York, which focused on environmental topics.
Through examining the sequences of several genes online, they came across one gene in particular that had not been characterized, meaning its function was unknown.