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JANUARY 22, 2012 11:50AM

GNS~ 17-Year-Old Girl Wins Prize for Cancer Breakthrough

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                                                  Photo/Siemens Foundation 

As a Monte Vista high school freshman from Cupertino California, Angela Zhang decided to tackle "The Big C". She simply asked herself, "Why does this happen. Why does cancer cause death? What are we doing to fix this and what can I do to help." 

After delving into doctorate level scientific study and eventually talking her way into a research lab at Stanford, she rolled up her sleeves, took a hard look at the problem. By the time she reached her seniior year, she had made her ground-breaking discovery. Last week, it was announced in Washington that Ms. Zhang won top honors at the Siemens Foundation's annual high school science competition. The prize, a $100,000 scholarship for research. You can watch the video to see what her breakthrough entailed, but in a nutshell, she figured a way to target and kill cancer cells while preserving the healthy cells around them. This approach, though several years from human trials, could make cancer treatments much less toxic and far more effective.

Putting aside the audacity of one so young to take on the ultimate biomedical beast without a second thought, I was also struck by the dominance of Asian scientists among the Siemens winners. From the runners up to the top prize, Asian youngsters ruled the day. As a  substitute teacher, I've noticed the same propensities. Asian students are more disciplined, serious-minded, and better behaved as a rule. Sure, this is a great argument for open immigration, but I can't help wondering why Asian minds have such a clear academic edge, especially in the sciences. Whatever it is, could we somehow package it and feed it to American kids?


CBS News

CBS Sunday Morning

The Sydney Morning Herald

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Another terrific "CBS Sunday Morning" Story. I've been a loyal viewer something like 15 years. Check your local listings.
First off, amazing story..,.secondly I agree with your statement "Whatever it is, can we just package it and feed it to American kids? "
I saw this on TV the other day - last Sunday? She should win the Nobel. Phenomenal, and the way she explains it makes it sound like such a no-brainer you hafta wonder why the researchers getting all the big grants hadn't thought of it.
Thanks for reporting this, BSB. I've come to a great percentage of Asian, Oriental, and Indian youth during my teaching career, and have formed my own theory to answer your question. It would probably take another blog space. But it doesn't have to do with intelligence.
Cal has about a 65% ratio of Asian to others. They work hard and are dedicated. My oldest was a semi hard worker but the youngest and his friends were not. I agree.. bottle it and feed it to our kids.
The approach is so simplistic, of course it eluded sophisticated research scientists! Extraordinary and delightful.

Traditional Chinese parenting is strict, demanding and relentless. Typical American parenting? Not so much. Each way involves pretty dramatic trade-0ffs.

I don't think it was her parenting that made her so smart. I think it is her love of SHOES. I love CBS Sunday Morning too and this little lady was so fun. That is important in research. She enjoys thinking of new things to try. I think that is something that the strict parents of any race forget. Scientific research demands an element of passion. Americans have it. Like the twelve year old math genius on last week's Sixty Minutes. He was in love with math and to him the science was fun.
Love the show. Hubby and I watch it every weekend. So many great human interest stories on it. Today's show inspired my post as well!
Chicken Maaan-Phenomenal indeed. I too was struck by her aplomb, as if it was just a puzzle that she set about to solve. Surely there are biomedical researchers out there eating their hearts out.

Fusun--I assume you are referring to cultural influences. Lezlie mentions the same, but I find it hard to believe that could be the only factor.

Lezlie- Considering that "dramatic trade-off" you mentioned. I would say that only means that we, as American parents need to find a balance between the two extremes. I still think there is a genetic component though. Malcom Gladwell in his book, "Outliers" asserts that a history of rice cultivation may play a role given that the endeavor is so arduous; a long, labor intensive process. In other words, a strong work ethic was required for survival. Gladwell also mentioned the way the Chinese communicate numbers in a much more intuitive way than so in our system. This may give then a cognitive edge in math.

Zanelle--She was a doll, and so down to earth. The math prodigy on 60 Minutes was slightly insufferable ;) Just kidding, but Angela was much easier to relate to.

lschmoope--Yes, great show!
Maybe the scientific community will do her a "solid" and put her in the pool of people up for a Nobel Prize in Medicine?

I think most Asian children who do really well in school have cultural biases about family and honor that make them more focused. In short, it's parents who are deeply involved in their children's welfare, lives and upbringing. Who could have posited that one?

Imagine what this country could do if that sort of commitment could be packaged up and distributed?

Still, though, that's awesome news. Once again, new breakthrough brought to you by someone who doesn't know it can't be done, because they're not an expert. Just asking questions.

I've gotta agree with the owl. The cultural differences and expectations are such that bright children are encouraged to learn and to love learning whereas our kids are told to "put down that damn book and go outside and play with the other kids."

Packaging it wouldn't help a bit. Nobody can make our kits "eat" anything unless they can put catsup on it.....


I've used a cat avatar for muuuuch too long!

"Asian students are more disciplined, serious-minded, and better behaved as a rule." I think this sums up pretty well why they dominate in the sciences; to assume it's an "Asian thing" like many do isn't accurate because there are also millions of Asians who who don't excel. What an amazing girl.
This was and is truly news!
Margaret--I didn't mean to suggest that all Asians are high-achievers, and certainly there are exemplars in all cultures. I do submit, however, that among high-achievers, Asians are disproportionately represented. Or at least it seems so to me.
Great stuff, and a reminder that intellect, diligence and ingenuity are not defined by race, religion, age, or gender. So, how does that answer your question? Likely the main reason you see the stronger participation of Asian students has to do with a work ethic of coming from immigrant families where the central themes of hard work, devotion to family, maintenance of resources, and respecting elders comes into play. Within a generation or two, American kids are mostly the same. What most American kids have in common, if they are not children of recent immigrants, is that they don't have the idea that there is a better life to get. The American Dream/Holy Grail of success is not greater anywhere else in the world (it's possible to do better elsewhere) and there is little to work towards.
Until we have new frontiers- (since mega wealth is still out of the hands of most hard working and intelligent people)- we are hitting the very ceiling of ambition already. While it's great she won 100k for a scholarship, that's what politicians and businessmen earn in a week. And she's solving the riddles of cancer- to be taken at great profit for the owners of the labs her studies will favor. Perhaps if we paid doctors and scientists better, we'd have more "American" kids looking into the world of research and medicine. Until then, they are just going to hold out for the pimpin' lifestyle of the privileged and entitled American citizen.
I love brilliant minds. As for culture and family influence on students...too much to say for a comment other than we need to be careful about stereotypes. I know Asian students who get mad because people expect them to be a genius. I like the comments I read here about passion. We need to figure out how to keep and encourage a passion for learning instead of destroying it.
Oyoki Bowl--As usual you leave nothing left to say. If it is only about culture, can't we get a crack team of anthropologists to study it. We want to be better so why don't we model what works?
Mimetalker--I know the danger of stereotyping. As I said to Margaret, of course not all Asians are stellar in this way. I only wanted to shine a light on what those parents are doing right so we can copy it. Not to reduce Asians to a sterotype.
"Whatever it is, can we just package it and feed it to American kids? "

These are American kids.
I'm just grateful she is such a gift to the world. We need more like her, no matter what race.
I don't think people want to be better, as you suggest. I think people want life to be easier- for themselves, anyhow, someone else should be better. Being better implies having a moral scale, and a sense of shame.
We are now in that flummoxing space of the first generation of kids who have not had to work hard to get much of anything now not being able to afford to get almost any of the things they thought they were just going to get. They are facing a lot of hardship that their parents didn't prepare them for. Perhaps their children, if they have any, will learn from this. I hear South America is emerging as the new place to be, as American and European culture face their economic (and perhaps social?) decline. Perhaps we need to send our kids there.
Great wonderful story. In my experience, exceptional students are interested, motivated, disciplined, curious and have bought into the importance of school and learning AS HAVE THEIR PARENTS. Valuing learning from birth to death and embracing it wholly..that's what I've noted in high achievers. R
It is such a different world, how the typically Asian child is raised, isn't it? A little less, "Aren't you perfect, my precious boo-boo?" might help some American kids achieve more...
I love this story, and feel her brilliance goes with the naive curiousity some smart kids get: why wouldn't I look into this subject I'm curious about? I doubt she even thought she'd have a breakthrough (although I haven't looked at video yet, maybe she clearly was ambitious about discovering a cure), just that she was curious about it and the outside-of-the-box answer came to her.
I love it.
Thanks for writing about her!
ccdarling--Me too. Of course that's all that really matters,and I don't mean to diminish that by highlighting the fact that she's Asian. I just want more kids follow this line, particuarly "American" kids who have fallen so far behind.

the traveler--Touché
What an amazing young lady!
Great story. Makes you wonder and think.
I loved this story on CBS. Made me smile. And I share her love of shoes. It is a great show.
Just Thinking, Barb, Fernsy and Firechick--Thanks for reading. Three cheers for precocious upstarts!
"And a little child shall lead them". It is well-accepted in scientific circles that many, if not most, great discoveries are made by people under thirty. For instance, Einstein's best work was conceived when he was in his very early twenties.

I suppose one reason for that is younger people are better able to maintain the "suspension of disbelief", that is, they don't know they can't. This is sometimes referred to as the triumph of the uncluttered mind.

As for the "Asian thing", it's commonly accepted that the oriental mind and the occidental mind operate differently. I suspect that has to do with culture and training, but I suspect it is also a consequence of a very different weltview, one which emphasizes the group over the individual.

That divide is all too apparent among America's Kindergarten Kristians who, for all their mouthing of platitudes, haven't a clue about the communal aspects of Jesus' teachings.

Of course, generalizations about oriental and occidental thinking become highly suspect in the case of a young woman of Asian heritage raised in America's melting pot culture of California.
Tom--Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Yes the young lady is "ABC" (American Born Chinese), but her parents were born and raised in China so the cultural distinctions would be clear.
I saw her on the news last night--what a story! Anything is possible.
Wow! Thanks for this inspiring story! I love that it may mean even more hope for cancer sufferers - and also that it shows that, no matter what odds might seem against you (in this case, lack of age and professional experience), if you are determined, you can accomplish just about anything! Thank you for this!
This girl's story is some of the best news of2011. She is a wonderful rebuttal to the pols and social critics that claim that her generation is a bunch of spoiled selfish amoral slackers who are taking the country to hell in a hand basket. I love her.