Sometimes, great science begins with a sore throat

If you advanced science when you were a senior in high school, then maybe you’re in Michelle Mai’s league. The Century High School student, profiled in the Rochester Post-Bulletin this week, is a seminfinalist in a nationwide science contest.

The Regeneron Science Talent Search is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. The finalists will be announced tomorrow

She invented a home test for strep throat.

Nature or nurture? You decide. Her dad is a researcher at Mayo Clinic.

“He’s definitely part of the reason I love science so much,” she tells the paper.

Mai said her three-step diagnostic kit operates in a fashion similar to a home pregnancy test. But in this case, the presence of two dark lines indicates the presence of strep throat, an infection of the throat that afflicts most children at one point in their lives.

Her kit uses DNA to detect the bacteria that causes the inflection. A sample taken from a throat swab is applied to a card, the DNA is extracted and amplified, then tested for the presence of bacterial DNA.

The virtue of her home kit, she said, is that it’s faster and cheaper than going to the doctor — advantages that she believes might give her project some commercial viability.

It takes 20 to 30 minuets to get the results from her kit, whereas a trip to the doctor can lead to a two-day wait before results are delivered. There is a rapid detection test that is available in hospitals, but it is based on the presence of antibodies in a throat culture and not commercially available. Mai doesn’t see her DNA-based kit as a replacement for hospital tests, but as a supplement to them.

If last year’s finalists are any guide — and they usually are — this year’s group will include the daughters and sons of first-generation immigrants.

It’s not a coincidence, Dr. George D. Yancopoulos, the chief science officer of Regeneron who won the award in 1976, wrote on his blog last year.

This is the history of great scientists — they represent a broad spectrum of people from all over the world, and this is fitting, as the challenges these finalists are tackling are not unique to our country. Climate change, disease, space travel — these issues have global significance, and they’re growing only more complex. It should be easy to agree that supporting young people who are eager to address them through rigorous scientific research is not only the right thing to do, but is a wise investment in our collective future.

Furthermore, what these students are doing is a gift that keeps on giving. In addition to their development of real-world solutions to challenges that face us now, we hope their work will plant a seed. We want kids all around the world to hear their stories and begin to think, “Maybe I could do that, too.” Our hope is that the next generation will continue to look to the future with hope, curiosity and confidence.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Mai plans to be a physician.

She said the idea for the home test came when she suffered from it. She says she’s always been the type to ask “why?”.