Flushing boy fights cancer for Siemens science award

John Shim
By Connor Adams Sheets

A high school student from Flushing is exploring the cutting edge of cancer research, which earned him a berth in the regional finals of a competition for an award many consider the Nobel Prize of pre-collegiate science.

John Shim, though only a senior studying physics at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, has completed research with professors at Columbia University that caught the eye of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology.

Acceptance into the competition comes on the heels of years of study and interest in the sciences.

“I first became interested in science when I was young. I always asked my parents a lot of questions about nature, I always bombarded my father with questions, and they annoyed him but he always answered them,” Shim said. “He always encouraged me to ask a lot of questions and because he always answered them, he taught to always persevere until I get the answers.”

On Saturday, Shim presented his work, which he completed along with research partner David Cho of Tuckahoe, N.Y., to judges in the contest’s regional finals at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but did not advance to the finals for the top national prize of a $100,000 scholarship. Despite the letdown, his work still has the potential to change the way scientists look at certain aspects of cancer cells.

Basically, he is working with a team at Columbia that is examining how a new type of microscope called the Simulated Emission Depletion microscope can be used to learn new information about the purpose of hail-like structures found on the membranes of cancer cells. By examining gastric cancer cells, which have specific traits that make them easier to work with, he hopes to glean some important tidbits about the way cancer operates.

“They’re called filopodia and we’re not too sure about their function in cancer cells specifically, and we think they might be involved in communication with other cancer cells through signals for things like division, migration and metastasis,” he explained. “We want to see how it works and how to stop it.”

Inspired in part by cancer deaths in his own family, Shim attends the Olympiad Academia in Manhattan, an academic center for highly advanced students who want to expand their educations outside the traditional school setting, when he is not at Stuyvesant. Through the academy, he was paired up with Dr. Junji Chi Liao, a Columbia professor, and several graduate students and other people in Liao’s laboratory in the school’s high-tech mechanical engineering department.

Shim, an avid rower and bass guitarist, hopes one day to become a biomedical engineer whose work will make a real difference in people’s lives.

“I chose cancer because I feel it’s a real problem in the world. It’s one of the biggest killers,” he said. “Some of my family members died of cancer, too. I want to prevent this from happening again or happening to other families.”

He has applied for early action admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but said he would also like to attend Columbia if he is not accepted at MIT.

And he is humble about the hard work that has gotten him this far already in his life.

“I feel pretty blessed to be able to participate in this research and I feel that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to do research as a high school senior and to be able to work with professors at Columbia and enter the Siemens competition and to have results that might help in the future,” Shim said.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

More from Around New York