Lauren Zhang ’22 Shares Insights on Early Cancer Detection Research
Most high school juniors are busy leading clubs and exploring college options.
Most high school juniors are busy leading clubs and exploring college options. Neither extracurricular activities nor the college process can faze Lauren Zhang ’22, though. The IV Former has spent her high school years conducting groundbreaking research in biomedical engineering, with the goal of developing technology that can detect cancer in its earliest stages. Zhang started her work in STEM not only because of a love for the field but also because of a passion for geometric design. She noted that “as [she] grew older, she began to incorporate design and engineering into the lab,” changing the molecular geometry of gold. In addition to her artistic interests, Zhang draws inspiration from reading the news and exploring solutions to current issues in the medical field.
Utilizing her strong foundation in chemistry and biology, Zhang entered the world of scientific research in her freshman year. Since then, Zhang has devoted her time to one project: a cost-efficient, equitable cancer screening solution. The best work gets done with the help of others, and Zhang’s research is no exception; she works in a lab at Dartmouth College alongside Lawrenceville alumna Amogha Tadimety ’10 to complete her research.Zhang’s project uses sensitive gold nanoparticles to detect small traces of tumor DNA in a patient’s blood draw. She creatively thought to use gold because of a unique chemical property: gold has a strong cloud of electrons on its surface. This cloud creates more light refractions than any other material. She manipulates the geometric surface of the gold, adjusting the angle of the surface to find the best light refraction for detecting cancer.
Unlike a CT scan, which can only detect cancer once the tumor reaches a visible size, Zhang’s method detects cancer in its earliest stages. Noting her technology’s cost effective, minimally-invasive nature, Zhang said, “I want this project to reach people of all socioeconomic classes and people without healthcare insurance in order to create a healthier population overall.” While Zhang has spent the past few years advancing cancer-screening methods, she believes that her research will always be a work in progress. To continue making strides in her research, she commits many hours to lab work. “Working in a lab is definitely a lot of early mornings,” Zhang said. “My computer now lags from the hundreds of data spreadsheets I have.” Given the intricate nature of Zhang’s research, challenges are inevitable, but she overcomes these hurdles by focusing on what matters most: “sticking to plan, staying positive, and reminding [herself] of the end goal: helping people.” ut what does scientific research look like in action? Zhang’s typical day in the lab begins with “hands-on lab work, which primarily involves synthesizing gold particles,” followed by a series of tests. Then, Zhang either grabs lunch with her research collaborators or inspects nanoparticles under a microscope to see how they’re refracting. “Later on in the day,” she said, "I’ll work on data processing [and] preparing what I’ve collected in the morning for publication.” For Zhang, data collection is all about piecing together a puzzle: “Every day [I] collect a piece of data, analyze it, and [it becomes] a little part of a final outcome.” Every seemingly-small data point collected during refractive index testing—testing to see the light refraction caused by the gold—brings Zhang one step closer in her understanding of tumor DNA.
Zhang’s impressive work in the field of biomedical engineering has certainly paid off. She was recently selected to be the youngest speaker at the TechConnect World Innovation Conference, taking place in Austin, Texas this June. Not only was Zhang’s work accepted among international medical professionals and researchers, but also a panel of judges selected her to present her findings live. Reflecting on the moment she heard the news, Zhang said, “It’s really exciting, but in a sense, intimidating, since there are scientists [at the conference] who are experienced medical professionals.” Nonetheless, she looks forward to meeting innovators from diverse backgrounds who share similar interests in the field of biotechnology.
In addition to her work on cancer detection outside of school, Zhang dedicates time to the Hutchins Scholars program. Through an internship with the Seung Kim Lab at Stanford University, Zhang and her fellow Hutchins Scholars will conduct advanced molecular biology research and present their findings to the Lawrenceville community in the Fall Term. Currently, Zhang’s research involves genome editing on Drosophila melanogaster, fruit flies, providing useful insight on the genetic processes driving pancreatic cancer and diabetes.
Despite the program’s cancellation last summer due to the pandemic, Zhang and Science Teacher Elizabeth Fox met weekly while on campus last fall, studying the processes of gel electrophoresis and genome analysis. Fox’s expertise in molecular biology, statistical analysis, and microarray analysis inspired Zhang’s interest in the program: “Even before I was selected as a Hutchins Scholar, I was really interested in [Fox’s] work at Stanford, and I applied to the program in hopes of working with her.”
From the classroom to the lab, Zhang’s deep dive into scientific research has taught her important skills—perseverance, commitment, and creativity—which have “shaped [her] into the person [she is] today.” On the applications of her research, Zhang noted that her technology not only works on various types of cancer, but also can help treat infectious and genetic diseases. Through blood draw, her technology can even target Covid-19 in a cost-efficient and timely manner. “I think [my work stands out] because of how relevant it is to many of the issues we face in society today,” she said. “I want to expand it to make a real impact on the health of our global population.”