Springs student named finalist for national research competition

Published 4:11 pm Thursday, November 16, 2017


INDIAN SPRINGS VILLAGE – Indian Springs School student Kenneth Jiao has been called “the young man who will cure breast cancer,” and that was just the beginning of the recognition for his groundbreaking research.


Jiao is shedding light on a potential way to determine if breast cancer cells are highly invasive and how to inhibit them from spreading throughout the body.

“I wanted to do something novel that no one had ever studied before,” Jiao said.

Jiao received top individual honors in one of two regions in the 2017 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, a top science research competition for high school students.

Jiao, who has earned a $3,000 scholarship in the competition so far, was the only student in Alabama to advance from semifinalist to regional finalist, and advanced to the national finalist level based on his presentation at the University of Texas at Austin on the weekend of Nov. 11.

He was among 101 students—individuals and teams—who were selected to compete in regional competitions out of a pool of more than 1,860 projects submitted.

“We’re so excited for Ken—it’s a huge honor to make it to the final round of this competition, which is like the Olympics of Science. He has worked incredibly hard to get here, and we’re excited for him and for us, since we will likely benefit from his research in the future,” Indian Springs School Head of School Sharon Howell said.

The regional winners now move to the final phase of the Siemens Competition to present their work at the National Finals in Washington, D.C., Dec. 4-5, where $500,000 in scholarships will be awarded, including two top prizes of $100,000. Each of the finalists will receive at least $25,000 in scholarship money.

“It’s amazing to see the knowledge and determination students bring to the competition each year,” said David Etzwiler, CEO of the Siemens Foundation. “These high school students are presenting top-notch, graduate-level research and they deserve recognition for their efforts to improve so many lives.”

Jiao’s project is titled: “Retain CHD7, an Epigenetic Regulator, in the Nucleus to Combat Breast Cancer Metastasis.”

Jiao discovered a new role of the gene and its molecular processes that could link to breast cancer metastasis, which occurs when cancer cells spread from a primary site to distant organs. His research could lead to an improved molecular understanding of the growth and prognosis of breast cancer, as well as better methods of developing treatments for patients with breast cancer.

An estimated 90 percent of breast cancer deaths are a result of metastatic disease, either at diagnosis or recurrence. And, according to the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network, an advocacy group for patients with late-stage breast cancer, all deaths from breast cancer result from the spread of breast cancer cells to other vital organs such as the bones, lung, liver or brain.

Despite great progress in cancer therapy, treatments to cure metastatic breast cancer do not exist.

Jiao was inspired to pursue his research after his mother had a breast cancer scare a few years ago and he “felt the patients’ vulnerability and their families’ desperation.”

Jiao’s mentor is Dr. Lizhong Wang of The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.

Jiao is interested in pursuing a career as a physician-scientist in order to pursue research while also interacting directly with patients.

Tanya Hyatt, dean of academics and science department chairwoman at Indian Springs School, said the Springs community is proud of Jiao and that his hard work and persistence in the lab are paying off.

“I can’t even believe we are talking about a high school senior when I read about his work,” Hyatt said. “I can’t imagine that there is a student anywhere who is more deserving of the honors he is receiving.

“Ken’s work gives us the ability to predict whether or not a particular breast cancer will become metastatic. If we know that a breast cancer is not going to move, we can use traditional therapies to remove or treat it. If we know that it will move, we can be more aggressive in our treatment from the very beginning, giving patients a better prognosis. Probably the most exciting piece of information here is that if we prevent CDH7 from leaving the nucleus, the metastasis of that cell is also prevented. Ken has found a way to do that in a couple of models, which means that we are that much closer to finding a real preventive measure.”

In May, Jiao received third place—and a $1,000 award—at the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair held in Los Angeles in the category of Cellular and Molecular Biology for his project.

He also placed first both in 2016 and 2017 in the category of Medicine and Health at the 2016 Central Alabama Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

Jiao, who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT in September, serves on student government, runs cross country for the varsity team and founded his school’s Science Olympiad Team.

He is an avid chess player, ranked 28th in Alabama, and guided his school’s chess team as its captain to first place at the Alabama Scholastic State Championships twice.

Jiao, whose parents both work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said he hopes to continue his research.

“Much more testing needs to be done,” he said.

Jiao is the first Indian Springs School student to reach the level of regional finalist though the school is no stranger to Siemens Awards.

In 2007 and again in 2010, an Indian Springs student was among the 100 students nationwide designated a state winner of the Siemens Award for Advanced Placement in the student category.

In 2009, Indian Springs received the Siemens Award for Advanced Placement in the school category. It was one of only 50 schools in the nation—and the first Alabama independent school—to earn the distinction for leading the state in AP participation and performance in math and science.