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Yifan Li, a senior at Blair Montgomery High School in Silver Spring, MD, is one of forty finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search this year. His eight-week project while a summer intern with Dr. Lijin Dong in NEI’s Genetic Engineering Facility caught the eye of judges from the Society for Science and the Public, who run the competition for high school seniors with sponsorship from Intel Corporation. Yifan will present his work during a weeklong conference in March in Washington, D.C., and will compete for up to $100,000 in awards.
Yifan’s project was to develop a protocol to induce mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells into pluripotent cells, which would then be differentiated into retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells. “I wanted to choose a project in which I would be more engaged and able to contribute intellectually,” said Yifan. The 17-year-old, who had laboratory experience from school and a previous summer internship with Dr. Wei Li of the NEI, had never worked with cells in culture, much less in the challenging area of ES cells. However, under Drs. Dong and Pinghu Liu’s mentoring and after an extensive amount of background reading, Yifan was successful in generating RPE cells in a relatively short period of time. The work was not without its challenges. According to Yifan, they “half-knew what they were doing” when it came to finding the correct conditions for RPE differentiation and at one point succeeded in creating cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells) instead of RPE cells. The success of Yifan’s project has implications for treating eye diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.
“Yifan is a very bright and highly motivated student,” said Dr. Dong, “his previous experience with literature searches and excellent grasp of scientific concepts helped him design his research plan and develop his own hypotheses.” Besides being a talented scientist, Yifan studies piano with the European Academy of Music and Arts and performs as an a capella singer at his high school.