Sarah Waliany is eminently self-possessed for a mere 16 years of age. No “ums” or "you knows" clutter her speech.
It’s no wonder the Arcadia, Calif., teenager already has her eye on becoming a physician and scientist.
She recently used her focus in partnership with friend Shelina Kurwa, 17, to win the 2007-2008 Siemens Team Competition in Math, Science & Technology regional finals at the California Institute of Technology. The pair’s experiments on how breast cancer cells resist chemotherapy were done when Sarah interned at City of Hope.
Sarah participated in City of Hope’s Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy and has worked two summers in the laboratory of scientist Susan Kane, Ph.D., associate director of Beckman Research Institute.
“From day one, Sarah was thinking about her project, reading the literature, and coming up with her own ideas,” said Kane. “That's remarkable for someone so young — a real mark of drive and maturity.”
Mentored by assistant research scientist Long Gu, Ph.D., Sarah showed that when a particular gene was overexpressed in some breast cancer cells — meaning the gene makes too much of a certain protein — cells became resistant to the common breast cancer drug Herceptin.
If it turns out that the gene is responsible for Herceptin resistance, the work could suggest strategies to maintain the drug’s effectiveness.
Shelina, a senior at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, did much of the project’s background research.
Although the team did not win the competition’s national finals in New York in December, Sarah accepted loss gracefully. “I went there for the experience — I had done science fairs, but this was rigorous,” said Sarah, a junior at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Cañada-Flintridge.
Although her father is an oncologist, her first interest in cancer research grew from seeing how friends’ lives changed when their parents were diagnosed with the disease. In high school, Sarah started a club to support the Desi Geestman Foundation, which aids children with cancer. “Last year we raised $700 from bake sales for this little boy, Robert, treated for cancer at City of Hope,” she said. “It helped his family take him on a long-needed vacation.”
Just days after returning from the New York competition, Sarah returned to City of Hope to volunteer at a holiday pajama party for pediatric patients sponsored by the foundation.
The teammates will divide $16,000 in scholarship money from the regional and national competitions. Sarah hopes to earn both a medical degree and doctorate and become either an oncologist or a dermatologist.
The Siemens Competition is administered by The College Board and funded by the Siemens Foundation.