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Vol. LVII, No. 15
July 29, 2005

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17-Year-Old Enlightens NIH Scientists on Protein Structure Prediction, Teenagers

If they hadn't been told beforehand, the crowd of scientists who attended a recent event hosted by NIGMS never would have known that their speaker was barely out of high school. With all the poise and confidence of the seasoned investigators who usually address such groups, 17-year-old Ryan Harrison wowed his audience with his scientific knowledge and unrelenting curiosity.

"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," said Dr. Roland Owens, a molecular biologist at NIDDK and a 1976 alumnus of the same high school as the young scientist.

Ryan Harrison will continue his research as a freshman at Johns Hopkins, where he will participate in the university’s Baltimore Scholars program. It offers full tuition scholarships to Baltimore City high school students.  
Harrison caught the eye of NIGMS in January, when news spread that this Baltimore Polytechnic Institute high school senior had made it to the final round of the annual Intel Science Talent Search — the mother of all science fairs. The research he had submitted offered a new, more reliable way of predicting the three-dimensional shapes of proteins, an area of basic biomedical science strongly supported by the institute.

After Harrison took home fifth place and a $25,000 college scholarship, NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg sent a personal note inviting him and his mentor, Dr. Jeffrey Gray of Johns Hopkins University, to discuss their work at NIH. "We thought it'd be a great opportunity for Ryan to get to know NIH and for us to learn about new research in protein structure prediction," said Berg.

Watching Harrison click through his slides and coolly answer questions from the audience, you'd assume he had been studying proteins his entire life. But neither a prodigy nor a stellar student, Harrison stands apart from many of his teenage peers not because he knows all the answers, but because he asks all the questions. "It's one of his special qualities," said Gray, an NIH grantee.

When Harrison started his research with his mentor 2 years ago, he had taken biology and physics classes, but not organic chemistry. "I knew what a protein was, but I had a lot more to learn," he said. Ironically, he relied on the Berg biochemistry textbook to master the science.

Armed with ideas and the discipline to learn — perhaps traits he picked up from his mother, a teacher, and his father, a former corrections officer — Harrison peeled through other college-level textbooks until he uncovered the problem he wanted to solve: How can you predict the shapes of proteins in an environment with particular acidity or alkalinity levels, factors that can drastically change the structures and functions of these molecules vital to many biological processes?

During his mentorship in the lab at Johns Hopkins, Harrison developed the computer code to make this possible. His methods will be integrated into the well-known protein structure prediction modeling program called Rosetta, currently being enhanced with NIGMS support. Harrison said he hopes the incorporation will shed new light on proteins and their functions, as well as lead to more effective medicines for treating diseases.

As Harrison wrapped up his talk, the scientists in the room drilled him with questions about his work. With one hand casually dangling from a pocket, he answered them all. Dr. James Cassatt, an NIGMS division director in cell biology and biophysics, said, "Someday, you'll submit a grant, and it'll come here. But we'll all be retired!"

While Harrison left NIH that day with an accurate, three-dimensional model of a protein he'd been working on — Berg himself had bent it from wire — the audience left with entirely new impressions of what a teenager can accomplish, raising the bar for their own children. One NIGMS staff member, who works with inner-city schools to promote scientific research and mentorship programs among underrepresented minorities, got first-hand tips on recruiting new mentors and students from Harrison, an African American educated by the Baltimore City public school system. For others, the recent high school graduate stimulated them scientifically. "This event really turned me on, more so than a lot of recent seminars," said Cassatt.

Harrison will continue his research with Gray as a freshman at Johns Hopkins, where he will participate in the university's Baltimore Scholars program that offers full tuition scholarships to Baltimore City high school students. But Harrison isn't entirely sure where his curiosity will take him. Perhaps he'll follow one of his other interests: poetry, history or philosophy. Berg said, "There's no doubt in my mind that he will go far no matter what he does. We should definitely keep our eye on him!"

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