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Jessica Boklan: A Last-Minute Math Project, Then Back to Medicine

A 1986 Westinghouse finalist works to come up with better treatments for devastating childhood cancers



Courtesy Phoenix Children's Hospital

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Her finalist year: 1986

Her finalist project: Developing a method to come up with equations that read the same way forward and backward

What led to the project: As a preschooler, Jessica Boklan used to follow her father, a hematologist, around on his hospital rounds near their Roslyn, Long Island, home near New York City. That interest in biology and medicine stayed with her. Between her junior and senior years of high school in 1985 she did a research project at Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor, Maine, on the preservation of mouse embryos using cryogenics—very low temperatures.

But that wouldn't cut it for her Westinghouse Science Talent Search project, because the rules at the time did not allow projects involving research on vertebrates. So she decided to do a trigonometry project instead. Then, two weeks before the deadline, she realized the project wasn't going to pan out, and so she switched to a project she titled "An Algorithmic Approach to the Construction of Reversal Products." Reversal products, she wrote, are pairs of equal-digit numbers such that the product of these numbers is equal to the product of their "reversals". For instance, 6739 X 3872 = 2783 X 9376 (the product is 26,093,408 in both cases).

She came up with methods of generating such equations, including simple algorithms for determining all of the two- three- and four-digit reversal equations. She entered her project in the 1986 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and, despite its somewhat rushed quality, she was named a finalist.

The effect on her career: Boklan was thrilled with the award, but she never really considered a career in math—rather, she quickly returned to her first love: medicine. Indeed, she ultimately decided to pursue a specialty in hematology, like her father (who died when Boklan was a child), though in her case, she decided to learn it in the context of pediatric oncology. She went to Harvard University as an undergrad, to New York University for medical school, and then did a residency at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a fellowship at Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. In 2001 she moved to Arizona and took a job at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

What she's doing now: These days, Boklan is the director of oncology research at the hospital. She works with children who suffer from blood cancers (like leukemia) and hail from all over the Southwest. "I really like taking care of critically ill patients," she says. "I like the challenge, and the long-term relationships with patients and families. I tell people, 'What's more rewarding than curing a five-year-old of leukemia?'"

Few would argue with that, although the downside—caring for the 25 to 30 percent of children who don't make it—is devastating. "There are kids who have broken my heart," she says. She recently spoke with the mother of a patient who died five years before, and whose brother was doing a report on the experience for school. "We still keep in touch," she says. "You form such an emotional bond with them."

Her particular mission has been to develop the Phoenix Children's Hospital into a major regional research institute, where newly diagnosed patients can be enrolled in Phase I clinical trials—that is, extremely early stage trials that take a first look at how potentially helpful compounds work in humans. One of the things she likes best about pediatric oncology is that "science and research are so integrated in what you do," she says. Because pediatric cancers are so rare, the culture is that "we really want to learn from every child." (Boklan points out that more women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in New York State than children with all cancers combined in the U.S. this year.)

So far, the project has been going well, according to Bob Meyer, the hospital's president, who praised her efforts: "Without her, research as we know it today probably wouldn't exist in the Phoenix area."

Not all trials pan out. But, "ultimately, the goal is to find better treatment for kids in the future," Boklan says, so the current 75 percent survival rate "goes up to 100 percent, which is obviously everyone's ultimate goal."

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