Science whiz Sarah Waliany is eminently self-possessed for a mere 16 years of age. She answers questions about her accomplishments intently. “Ums” and “you knows” do not clutter her speech.
The Arcadia, Calif., teenager used that focus and partnered with Shelina Kurwa, 17, to win the 2007-2008 Siemens Team Competition in Math, Science & Technology regional finals at Caltech in November. They conducted their experiments on how breast cancer cells resist chemotherapy when Sarah interned at City of Hope.
The team did not win the national finals held in New York on Dec. 2-3, but Sarah accepts loss gracefully, marveling at the team that did. “They found a drug to treat TB,” or tuberculosis, said Sarah, a junior at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Cañada-Flintridge. “I went there for the experience — I had done science fairs, but this was rigorous.”
Sarah participated in City of Hope’s Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy and has worked two summers in the laboratory of 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 gene called t-Darpp was overexpressed in some breast cancer cells, cells became resistant to the common breast cancer drug Herceptin.
The work is in progress and Sarah will continue experiments over her school’s winter break. If it turns out that t-Darpp 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 who was mistakenly identified as Sarah’s cousin in media coverage — did much of the project’s background research.
Sarah’s first experiments were on lettuce plants in her backyard when she was only 12. Her mother Shenaz, a cytologist, said that when Sarah asked to study math in fourth grade, her parents took her to a Japanese after-school program, where she learned high-school algebra.
Some of the young woman’s talent may be the legacy of her aunt Shirin, a physician who died of meningitis at only 29. “She had a passion for science, math and books, just like Sarah has,” recalled Shenaz.
Although Sarah never met her aunt, who died before she was born, she nonetheless describes her as a driving force in her life. “She battled arthritis but stayed at the top of her class,” Sarah said. “I feel I know her.”
Sarah is bright, but not bookish. Although her father is an oncologist, her first interest in cancer research grew from seeing how friends’ lives changed when their parents got cancer. 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.”
Three days after coming back 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 both the regional and national competitions. Still energized by her first trip to New York, Sarah — an only child — is researching colleges back east, prompting her mother to mention how cold it is in Chicago, where she once worked.
Sarah hopes to earn both medical and Doctor of Philosophy degrees and become either an oncologist or a dermatologist. The Siemens Competition is administered by The College Board and funded by the Siemens Foundation.