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Former Student Worker Wins High Honor

By Colleen Chandler
February 2006

A 16-year-old high school student who spent the summer of 2004 at NIEHS was named a 2005 Davidson Fellow. The award carries a $25,000 cash award. John Zhou of Northville, Mich., won the science award for his project, "A Study of Possible Interactions Among Rev1, Rev3 and Rev7 Proteins from Saccharomyces Cerevisiae."

His project used yeast cells to study the role of proteins in DNA with results that suggest a new molecular model for proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) of translesion DNA replication, according the to Davidson Fellow web page. His research indicates the same molecules that have the ability to let the DNA replication process occur may also be a source of mutations. The results of his study not only impressed the contest judges, but will help scientists learn to enhance or suppress the function of these molecules, which is important in a wide variety of cancer treatments.

Zhou was a special volunteer in Tom Kunkel's lab under the supervision of Sean Zhong. During the five weeks he worked at NIEHS during the summer between his sophomore and junior years in high school, he conducted hands-on lab research related to DNA replication fidelity, learning technical procedures such as PCR, electrophoresis, restriction enzyme digestion, ligation, transformations, desphosphorylation and DNA sequencing. The objective of the project he worked on at NIEHS was to examine molecular mechanisms under which Polymerase Zeta, composed of subunits of Rev3 and Rev7, and Rev1 protein interact to replicate DNA past lesions.

Zhou said Kunkel, Zhong and the other lab members taught him the ropes of their research, showed him lab techniques and taught him how to use equipment, all the while making him feel at home. "As a result of the exposure to molecular biology and the expert guidance from NIEHS, I have developed a keen interest towards the biomedical sciences and plan to pursue that area at Harvard, where I will most likely be attending next year. The laboratory skills and research fundamentals at NIEHS have been a tremendous factor in the other research that I have pursued in the past year and will continue to be important in college and beyond," Zhou said by e-mail.

After his stint at NIEHS, Zhou was off to math camp, where he focused on abstract algebra and topology, working on his research project, "DNA Sequence Alignment with Hidden Markov Models." At math camp, he studied the algorithm for Markov models in a computer simulation to model DNA sequence and expected probabilities.

The whiz kid carries a perfect grade point average. In his sophomore year in high school, he aced the final exams in his advanced placement courses, which included calculus, chemistry, physics and statistics. As a junior, he took six advance placement courses. He was a silver medalist at the Michigan Math Competition and served on the student council and president of his school Science Olympiad Club. He was a varsity member of the school "Tests of Engineering Aptitude, Mathematics and Science Competition" team. He won first place in the state competition and eighth place nationally. He also finds time to volunteer, working with the homeless and teaching English to Chinese people.

Zhou said he hopes to work at NIH again in the future to continue building his knowledge and skills in biology. That interest, he said, has "already been fostered so thoroughly by the NIEHS experience."

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