Yizhen Zhang, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, is one of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search this year. Her 12-week project while a summer 2014 intern with Dr. Wei Li in NEI’s retinal neurophysiology section drew the attention of judges from the Society for Science and the Public, which runs the competition for high school seniors with sponsorship from Intel Corp. Zhang presented her work at a poster session during a weeklong conference in March at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., and competed for up to $150,000 in awards.
Her project, with technical assistance from Dr. John Ball, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, involved short wavelength sensitive cone photoreceptors (also known as the blue or S-cones). These cones are essential in allowing mammals to see blue, which is important for circadian rhythms and eye development, as well as cognitive functions.
Zhang used the 13-lined ground squirrel, also known as the striped gopher, to create the first connectome, or neural wiring map, of the S-cone. By applying serial block-face scanning electron microscopy to reconstruct the cone terminals, she gained insight into the retinal circuits used for color processing. This line of work will provide knowledge of how the retina encodes color information. It could also help lead to interventions for certain forms of color blindness, which has been a motivation for Zhang ever since she met a group of colorblind students.
In addition to becoming an Intel finalist, Zhang was also a semi-finalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. “Yizhen wanted to participate in both competitions because she liked writing up her work,” said Li. “This isn’t seen often in students.” What stood out for Li was Zhang’s intensity and focus. “She drove the project and process, even driving me,” he said.
Zhang didn’t think she would go far in the Intel competition. “It really surprised me when I got the call saying I was a finalist,” she said. She credits Li and Ball’s support of her work with her success in the competition. She plans to continue in ophthalmic research in college with the hope of eventually getting her Ph.D. in neurobiology.—Cesar Perez-Gonzalez
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