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Young Scientist Searches For Cures

Research Earns 16-year old
Jamie Rubin Intel/STS Honors

An interview with Jamie Rubin
by Sean Elwell, Access Excellence contributing writer
Copyright Info

First Place winner in the 2003 Intel Science Talent Search,
Jamie Rubin, is congratulated by Intel CEO Craig Barrett.
(courtesy of www.sciserv.org)
 Bob Goldberg, Feature Photo Service

The experience of working at Hope Hospice, near her home in Fort Myers, Florida, inspired 16 year-old Jamie Rubin to conduct research that led to an amazing discovery: the identification of molecules that could help treat serious infections caused by the fungus Candida albicans. Jamie, a senior at Fort Myers's Canterbury School, was awarded top honors for her work by the Intel Science Talent Search (STS), one of the nation's most prestigious competitions for young scientists. Her first place finish was accompanied by a $100,000 scholarship.

Often referred to as the "junior Nobel Prize," the Intel STS is America's oldest pre-college science competition. For over 60 years, the competition has provided incentive and means for U.S. high school seniors to present their original research projects for recognition by a jury comprised of many of the nation’s leading professional scientists. Since its establishment, the STS has provided millions of dollars in scholarships to more then 2400 finalists. Intel STS alumni constitute a virtual “who’s who” of recipients of the world's most coveted science and math honors, including three National Medal of Science winners, ten MacArthur Foundation Fellows, two Fields Medalists, and five Nobel Laureates. For more information about the Intel STS, visit www.intel.com/education/sts.

At Hope Hospice, Jamie provided care for people with life limiting illnesses such as cancer, HIV and AIDS. She runs cross-country at Canterbury School, plays piano and hand bells, and participates in theater. As she prepares for graduation and study this fall at Harvard University, Jamie sat down with Access Excellence contributing writer Sean Elwell to talk about her work and plans for the future.

Q: How would you summarize your Intel Science Talent Search project?

A: I identified a number of drug candidates for a fungal infection that attacks people with compromised immune systems, particularly people with AIDS. It’s a type of infection that would never take hold in a healthy person but can be life threatening in a person with a comprised immune system. These infections are usually called Thrush infections.

Q: What about your work do you think caught the attention of the judges?

A: I used combinatorial techniques to target the virulence factors of the Thrush causing fungus and designed drugs to attack specific enzymes associated with the fungus. The most scientifically interesting or innovative aspect of the project are the efficiencies I discovered for identifying compounds that can be used to attack specific enzymes. Instead of having to test each possible compound enzyme interaction I found a way to test only those interactions that were most potentially useful. The efficiency techniques I came up with reduced the time to discovery to a small fraction of what it might have been using traditional methods. The challenge of identifying any compound to be used as a drug in treating human disease is to identify a compound destructive to the thing you’re trying to kill yet harmless to the human host. Ultimately I discovered a family of drug candidates called aspartic proteinases that proved to be very effective in attacking enzymes specific to the Thrush fungus. I also tested the drugs for safety on human enzymes to good effect. Eventually, I hope these drugs will be tested on actual human subjects. My tests suggest the aspartic proteinases will be both effective and safe, more work needs to be done though.

Q: How did you take interest in this particular area of research?

A: I spent 2 years volunteering at Hope Hospice, preparing food and feeding patients and saw the suffering caused by Thrush infections first-hand, the suffering it causes is immeasurable. I also read as much as I could about the disease, mostly in textbooks.

Q: How did you make the jump from your interest in the human aspects of the disease to doing scientific research?

A: First, I have a history of doing science projects and participating in science fairs. I’m always looking for a worthwhile scientific mystery to solve. This one was both important enough and interesting enough to encourage me to dig deeper.

Q: What role did you family and parents play in the process?

A: My mother, a Nurse Practitioner, is always an inspiration to me. My parents were also willing to drive me 4 hours away, 4 hours each way, to the library at the University of Florida to gain access to good scientific resources. Those visits also enabled me to have conversations with University of Florida professors who also helped me with my research.

Q: What are your short-term and future ambitions in science and education?

A: Well I’m going to college next year at Harvard and looking forward to it. I’m going to study Biology and Physics and also take English courses. I will continue with scientific thought but not specifically research.

Q: What are you doing this summer?:

A: I’ve been asked to be a counselor at the Research Science Institute at MIT. It’s a program that accepts students from all over the world to participate in an intensive summer science program. I was a participant last year and will be a counselor this year.

Q: Is there any advise you can offer to other high school students who also take an interest in science?

Jamie Rubin
speaks to visitors about
her biochemistry project
(courtesy of www.sciserv.org)
Bob Goldberg, Feature Photo Service

A: Science competitions like STS are great and I encourage others to participate in them. They help add focus to your work and they can be a lot of fun. I’d also say to pursue science and your interest in science and don’t place too much emphasis on winning. I see a lot of kids going out there with a lot of pressure to win science fairs and it’s not helpful, it then becomes more about winning and less about science. I’d say to enjoy the science and enjoy the competition and let it take you wherever it takes you. It’s good to take part in competitions but it’s also important to keep competition in perspective. Stay in touch with the science that interests you and keep pursuing it.

Q: Do you have any URLs you’d like to share?

A: www.pubmed.com is a great site but requires a paid subscription to gain access to the most important resources. You can usually use a University or library subscription if you ask. Pubmed has deep background information and provides good access to new and current information. Pubmed was an important resource in doing my research for the STS project.

Thrush infection
Photo credit: Boston University

"I was so completely shocked when they called my name and I still don't think I completely believe it. It's an incredible honor, and I'm at a complete loss for words. I really can't believe it's me after seeing all the other finalists and all their amazing contributions to science that I was selected." - Jamie Rubin, first-place winner, 2003 Intel Science Talent Search

Thrush causing fungus
(Candida albicans)

(Courtesy of the Centers
for Disease Control.)
Institute of Biological Sciences,
The University of Wales,


Candida albicans

(courtesy www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)


Jamie Rubin

Top winner at the
Science Talent Search

(courtesy of www.sciserv.org)
Bob Goldberg,
Feature Photo Service





AE: Science Fair Step-by-Step

CDC: HIV/AIDS Fact Sheets

NCBI: How Candida albicans switches phenotype - and back again

NIH: AIDS Resources

NLM: Secreted Aspartic Proteinases

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