Teens analyze data to help babies | December 9, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 9, 2011

Teens analyze data to help babies

Gunn, Paly student project leads to prize in national science contest

by Chris Kenrick

They met at an "Awesome Math" camp in Santa Cruz two summers ago.

Palo Alto High School student Jeffrey Ling and Gunn student Helen Jiang stayed in touch.

With a shared interest in data analysis, they agreed early this year to team up on a project under the direction of a Stanford Medical School professor.

Last weekend, the two were in Washington, D.C., presenting their project on data predictors of severe gastrointestinal disease in premature infants to a panel of judges in the national finals of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

They walked away with $10,000 in prize money as one of the six teams and six individuals receiving awards from $10,000 to $100,000. The contest initially drew 2,436 entrants.

"The project wasn't hands-on touching babies. It was more observing the data and using statistics," said Jiang, a Gunn junior.

Working in a lab under the mentorship of Medical School Associate Professor Karl Sylvester, the students integrated clinical and molecular findings to predict which newborns are most likely to develop serious necrotizing enterocolitis, the most common and severe gastrointestinal disease affecting premature infants.

Jiang said she was particularly gratified when she met people at George Washington University last weekend who told her their families had had personal experience with the disease.

"It made me feel so much happier when I thought it was actually going to help people a lot more than I expected," she said.

Ling said he and Jiang met at Stanford almost daily over the summer to work on the computer analysis.

"We told him (Sylvester) we were interested in children's diseases and helping babies," Jiang said.

Using data on past cases supplied by other hospitals and the National Institute of Child and Human Development (NICHD), the two analyzed clinical parameters as well as molecular parameters such as proteins and peptides from babies' urine or blood.

"If we combine them together we can correctly split the patients up, and the information helps doctors and nurses diagnose the disease as early as possible and helps predict whether that baby needs to have immediate surgery or just stay in the hospital," Jiang said.

Ling, also a junior, and Jiang said they've been too busy with schoolwork to do much work on the project during the academic year.

But both said they hope to continue work on the project, adding more data in the future.

"Right now we're using patient data from patients who've already had this disease, and we need to add in a lot more data," Jiang said. We already have thousands of cases from NICHD."

Both also said the best thing about last weekend's contest finals was meeting the other students.

"Even though it was only four days long, it feels like I've known them forever," Jiang said.

"Now we have a Facebook group and everything, and we still talk all the time."

Jiang said she hopes to become a university professor.

Ling's goal is to become an inventor and "create something interesting and worthwhile that can benefit the lives of everyone in the world."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be reached at ckenrick@paweekly.com.