What do a serious pianist, a science research assistant and a competitive ballroom dancer have in common with a student who dressed up as Uncle Sam and danced to Miley Cyrus songs in Upper Arlington’s Fourth of July parade?
They are all one person: Duy Phan, a senior at Upper Arlington High School who is an accomplished pianist, a student research assistant at Ohio State University and junior director of the Upper Arlington Civic Association.
Phan is also a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search. The $1,000 award he received from the Intel Foundation is accompanied by an additional $1,000 that will go to UA High School.
If he is selected as one of the top 40 finalists in the nation, he will receive $7,500 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to compete for more than $630,000 in awards. The top award is $100,000.
He was selected as one of 300 semifinalists from among 1,749 applications nationwide.
“I’ve always been curious about how the world works since a young age and science allows me to rigorously explore nature’s biggest secrets,” he said. “Living within walking distance from a lab, I grew up listening to professional scientists debate the functions of neuronal genes while looking at diagrams of the nervous system in neuroscience textbooks.”
The Intel STS is the nation’s oldest pre-college science competition, Phan said.
“While the research report describing the project is critical, other components including test scores, school transcripts, recommendations and essays are important as well,” he said. “STS looks at the whole person, searching for those with high potential and long-term commitment to become future leaders of the scientific field.”
Teacher Laura Brennan said Phan is a fourth-year student in Honors Science Research, a program in which teachers work with students to do independent research.
“The students learn good research techniques, how to do technical writing, how to write an abstract and complete a final science research paper,” she said. “They present their work at local, district, state and international fairs.
“Many of my students are published authors in professional periodicals before they leave high school.”
She said Phan has represented central Ohio three times at the Intel-sponsored International Science and Engineering Fair.
“His work is mostly in the area of SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) and is pretty amazing for a high school student,” she said. “His dedication to this work has been amazing and his attention to detail, which is essential in science research, is very commendable.”
Phan said SMA is the No. 1 genetic cause of infant death.
“While SMA is currently incurable, my project has identified critical therapeutic targets that set the stage for novel SMA drug developments,” he said. “What I really like about my project is that it is not only a model that can lead to a cure to SMA, but also other neurodegenerative diseases as well.
“Outside of SMA, I also research muscle development and epilepsy, in which I have identified a novel gene that protects the brain against damages induced by seizures,” he said. “This gene will potentially be a significant game changer for treatment of epilepsy.”
Born in Vietnam, Duy moved to the United States when he was 10 years old. He said living within walking distance of the Ohio State Department of Neuroscience fueled his interest in the brain.
“My upbringing around this professional scientific environment fostered my interest in neuroscience research, which would allow me to explore exactly how the three-pound mass of spongy brain tissue can drive all aspects of human consciousness,” he said.
In middle school, Phan volunteered in the lab to stack micropipette tips. He also volunteered to meet with spinal muscular atrophy patients at international conferences, sparking his interest in the disease. He has worked as a student research assistant at the OSU lab since his freshman year at UAHS.
SMA causes spinal cord cells called motoneurons to deteriorate and die, leading to muscle weakness and often paralysis, he said.
Duy has been published as a co-author in professional international scientific journals and has traveled to international research conferences to present his findings.
So what about the piano, ballroom dancing and the Uncle Sam impersonation?
Duy studies piano at the Ohio State University School of Music.
“I just really love arts performance and volunteering in the community, especially when I get to share my musical ability as I play piano for patients and visitors at The James Cancer Hospital,” he said. “One of my biggest childhood dreams was to participate in the Fourth of July Parade when I first came to America. The (UA) Civic Association made my dream come true by giving me a chance to dress up as Uncle Sam while dancing to Miley Cyrus songs at the parade.”
Duy said he plans to double major in neuroscience and molecular biology in college, then plans to attend medical school in an MD/Ph.D. program. He hopes to become a physician scientist so he can “tackle clinical problems on the laboratory bench, translating scientific discoveries into effective cures for neurological illnesses.”