A Ward Melville High School senior who forged ahead with anti-cancer research, even after a college adviser cautioned the work might be too difficult, emerged Monday with a first-place $100,000 prize in the national Siemens science contest.
With his Chinese-born parents looking on proudly, a visibly stunned Ruoyi "Roy" Jiang, 17, was named this year's top individual winner at an awards ceremony in Manhattan. He is the first Long Island teen to win individual first-place honors - four others won as team members - since the competition started in 1998.
Jiang's project used a supercomputer at Brookhaven National Laboratory to simulate effects of a cancer-killing drug, with the aim of finding alternative ways to kill cancer cells that have grown drug-resistant.
Monday, Jiang told a swarm of reporters that his work was spurred in part by the memory of his a ninth-grade biology teacher, John Boynton, who died of cancer in May.
"That was something that really shook me," Jiang said. Earlier, the East Setauket 12th-grader told an audience at New York University that he was in "sort of in a state of shock" over his top-place finish.
Jiang thanked his project advisers, George Baldo, who directs research at Ward Melville High, part of the Three Village district, and Carlos Simmerling, a chemistry professor at neighboring Stony Brook University.
Simmerling, who watched the awards ceremony via the Internet, recalled his initial advice to Jiang last spring that the teen's chosen project was too difficult for any high school student. To prepare himself, Jiang had to gain a working knowledge of quantum physics, organic chemistry and medicinal chemistry - subjects ordinarily reserved for advanced college students.
"He insisted on undertaking the project anyway, and I'm glad he did," Simmerling said. Last year, he mentored another Ward Melville student, Christine Shrock, who made it to the final round of another national science contest, funded by Intel Corp.
Research is nothing new for the Jiangs. As an elementary student, Ruoyi Jiang recalled, he used to annoy his mother, Junping Xia, by borrowing vinegar and other household items for chemistry experiments that inevitably led to stained carpets.
Both of his parents are from Fujian Province in mainland China. His father, Jiansheng Jiang, trained as a biologist in England, then brought his family to New Haven, Conn., where he did postgraduate work at Yale University.
Ruoyi Jiang, who was born there in 1992, said life in those early years was typical of struggling academic families, housed in a dilapidated inner-city tenement. Later, his father obtained research jobs at Brookhaven National Laboratory and in Maryland, and the family moved to a suburban condo in East Setauket.
"Things started getting better," said Ruoyi, who Monday posed for photos holding an oversized $100,000 check.
Monday's ceremony featured $500,000 in scholarship awards from the Siemens Foundation, which is funded by a German-based electronics corporation of the same name.
The top team award of $100,000 went to Sean Carson of Winter Park, Fla., Dan Liu of Austin, Texas, and Kevin Chen of Sugar Land, Texas.
Two students from Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, Queens - Xiao "Cathy" Zou and Israt Ahmed - won a third-place $40,000 scholarship. The other team member, Stephanie Chen, attends Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.