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.
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.
|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.
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
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
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!"