His finalist year: 1991
His finalist project: Figuring out what a virus needs to "survive"
What led to the project: For a long time as a kid, Weily Soong wanted to be an astronaut. But in the 1980s, as a student at Vestavia Hills High School in Birmingham, Ala., he learned about biology and chemistry and switched his allegiance to more Earth-based sciences. Soong applied for a summer program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and wound up working in the lab of Eric Hunter, a pioneering AIDS researcher (now at Emory University).
By the beginning of the 1990s, researchers were just beginning to understand retroviruses—those like HIV that reproduce by inserting their DNA into a host's genome. Soong threw himself into the work of breaking down a retrovirus—the Mason–Pfizer monkey virus—into its major genetic components to see which parts were necessary to create an intact virus. To do that, Soong engineered a mutated virus, which was missing genes that made the virus's capsid, or protein shell. He then used it to infect cultured cells.*
He spent a lot of time at the lab. "My mom and dad were complaining that I didn't come home for dinner," says Soong. But the effort paid off when he entered his work in the 1991 Westinghouse Science Talent Search: Soong was named a finalist.
The effect on his career: His lab experience helped him see "how science operates," Soong says. He also realized that he liked studying science in the context of medicine—determining how research advances could positively impact human health. Soong's interest in HIV led to a broader interest in infectious diseases and the immune system in general. He received his undergraduate degree from Birmingham-Southern College, attended the University of Alabama School of Medicine, and then moved on to Yale for a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in allergy and immunology.
What he's doing now: These days, Soong is a practicing allergist and immunologist at the Alabama Allergy and Asthma Center in Birmingham. "One of the reasons I came back into practice is that I really love patient care," he says. He treats a variety of asthma and food allergy patients, a community that, for reasons not yet understood, is growing. Soong is sympathetic to the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that as we stamp out deadly diseases and sanitize our kids more than ever before, the immune system "gets kind of lonely" and attacks harmless things.
Soong doesn't just treat patients in the U.S. In medical school, he began volunteering with a group called FOR Nicaraguan Health. For the past eight years, he has made a trip almost annually to Nicaragua to work in a clinic in Granada. "It's pure medicine," he says. "There's no insurance and very little paperwork." He simply diagnoses the various ailments of the patients who come to him and designs courses of treatment that take into account the reality of poverty and limited access to drugs. In the U.S., "you can easily get lost in the bureaucracy of medicine," Soong says. Working in a developing country, "you realize why you're doing this in the first place."
The clinic visitors appreciate it, says Frances Owens, executive director of FOR Nicaraguan Health (and also one of Soong's immunology patients in Birmingham). "He's very patient," she says. "He delves into problems and is very attentive in listening."
*Correction (3/5/09): The sentence originally stated that Soong engineered mice that were missing genes.