Regeneron Semifinalist: Jiwoo Lee

Jiwoo Lee is one of the eight BCA semifinalists of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, formerly known as “Intel.” The Chronicle was lucky enough to catch up with her and find out more about her research, motivations, and reflections on the experience.

For more information on the  Regeneron Science Talent Search, and links to interviews with seven of our other semifinalists, read”Regeneron Science Talent Search: BCA Boasts 8 Semifinalists.“.

Jiwoo Lee, AMST 2017, in a lab during her experimentation.

Can you briefly explain your research?

I developed a “Smart Cancer Drug” that selectively kills cancer cells while sparing normal cells, which eliminates side effects and complications that are commonly associated with traditional cancer treatments. I used a gene editing technology called CRISPR and designed it so that it deactivates a glycolytic gene called ENO1 preferentially in the presence of cancer-specific signals. So, I can give a normal cell and a cancer cell the same CRISPR plasmid, and only the cancer cell will die. With this next generation cancer therapeutic, cancer patients will no longer have to opt out of treatments in favor of quality of life over survival.

Is the project personally important to you?

Yes. I was introduced to cancer at a young age when my grandparent passed away from lung cancer. I realized that he suffered more from the side effects of the treatment than from the cancer itself, and I thought that it was unfair that cancer patients not only suffer from the cancer, but also from the treatment.

How did you get the idea for your project?

I joined the research program, there was a gene editing technology, CRISPR, that was blowing up every major journal, magazine, newspaper, etc. A quick Google search made me realize that CRISPR was cutting-edge – it is not typically found in a high school laboratory, and I knew that I wanted to do something different. Then, with weeks of discussions with my research mentor, friends, and family, the idea of a “Smart Cancer Drug” was developed.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while doing research?

The biggest challenge was probably a technical one: trying to achieve a high transfection efficiency. A transfection is a way to insert DNA into cells, and cells don’t like being invaded with foreign DNA. So, I had to perform transfection after transfection for months until my cells finally accepted the CRISPR plasmid.

How did it feel to win the Regeneron award?

I actually had no idea when Regeneron results were coming out, so when my friend told me that I had been named a Semi-Finalist, my initial reaction was surprise, and then happiness. In the ultimate trifecta of research competitions – ISEF, Siemens, and STS – STS is the most prestigious, and I felt honored to have been recognized.

What did you learn / take away from the Regeneron Science Talent Search experience?

I definitely learned that hard work pays off. Behind every award are months of failure and hours of hard work, in addition to lots of blood, sweat, and tears.

I always remind myself that the research experience isn’t over yet. My motto? Stay humble, avoid complacency, and move onto the next big thing.