His finalist year: 1976
His finalist project: Studying how organisms can regenerate parts of themselves
What led to the project: As a little kid, George Yancopoulos was fascinated by such questions as how lizards can regrow their tails and how the body works. A New York City native whose parents had immigrated from Greece, "the whole reason I went to the Bronx High School of Science is that it had 'science' in the name," he says. He wanted to become a scientist.
He got a good start on that endeavor with his Westinghouse project, which occupied much of his high school career. He studied a single-celled organism called Blepharisma, which generally eats bacteria from decomposing vegetation. Parts of this organism function as a rudimentary digestive system; for instance, little external hairlike structures called cilia sweep bacteria into a cavity which functions as a mouth. Blepharisma can regenerate its digestive parts if they're destroyed, and Yancopoulos would tinker with the organism to study exactly how it was managing to accomplish this.
The project fascinated him—which was a good thing, given his schedule. Because he lived in a different borough, Queens, a two-hour commute from the Bronx, he had to leave his house at 4 A.M. in order to start experiments around 6:30. The experiments would run while he was in class, and he'd check them after school before heading home. It made for some long days, but the lack of sleep paid off: He entered his project in the 1976 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and was named a finalist.
The effect on his career: Yancopoulos's experience cemented his desire to become a scientist, but his father—who had immigrated to the U.S. where he worked as a furrier, a life insurance salesman and finally a financial planner to support his family—said he hadn't sacrificed just for George to become an underpaid academic researcher. He thought he should become a practicing doctor. There was, however, one scientist he told George that it would be all right to emulate: P. Roy Vagelos, who was at the time a rising star at the pharmaceutical giant Merck and later became its CEO. Vagelos just happened to be a doctor, and he just happened to be Greek.
Yancopoulos earned an MD and PhD at Columbia University in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, finishing in 1987. He then accepted a junior faculty position, studying the immune system. Shortly thereafter, he won an eight-year grant worth well over $1 million in today's money from the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, a foundation that specialized in promoting young biomedical researchers. It was a great start for an academic career. He marched back to his father, triumphantly. His father pointed out that although he might have lots of money for lab equipment, his own salary was still about $35,000. Surely, if his work was important to people, he could earn more than that?