What inspired your Google Science Fair project, in which you created six new potential flu drugs?
I live in San Diego, where some of the first cases of 2009 H1N1 swine flu took place in the U.S. It was then that I made the realization that flu can kill a lot of people. I thought, “Why can't we use the new computer power at our fingertips to speed up drug discovery and find new flu medicine?” I came across Dr. Rommie Amaro of the University of California, San Diego, and she was willing to let me work in her computational lab.
How did you find chemical compounds that would target and disarm a particular protein inside the flu virus?
I bounced between a computer lab and a biological wet lab. I first used computers to screen through a library of almost half a million compounds and reduce that to a top 237. Then I took those 237 and went to a biological wet lab and actually tested them for activity against the flu virus. I came out with those six top inhibitors.
One of the strategies you used is called molecular dynamic simulation. How does that work?
It uses supercomputer power to simulate every atom of a flu protein moving in solution. Previously, scientists had worked with static snapshots of this same protein.
With molecular dynamic simulation, you can see all the possible pockets within a protein that you could build your inhibitor into and what fraction of the time these pockets appear.
These are still pretty early in the drug-discovery pipeline. I haven't done any animal studies. What I'm now working on is giving these inhibitors good druglike traits. They have to be very potent, first of all, but they also can't be toxic.
You also do a lot of science outreach to younger kids. Why is that important to you?
Ever since I was 15, I was very, very driven to do research, and because of that I ran right through obstacles, such as e-mailing professors I didn't know. But a lot of these younger students, they're afraid to try.
I'm really trying to dig in the idea that when you do scientific research, you're doing stuff that nobody has done before. If I can give other students a taste of that discovery feeling, they may be more willing to face future obstacles.