by Sue Ann Rybak
Ever since he was a boy, 17-year-old Jonah Kallenbach, of Ambler, has always been incredibly curious.
Kallenbach, a senior at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, was recently selected as one of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search 2013, a program of Society for Science & the Public and the nation’s oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competition.
Former finalists include 1968 winner Roger Tsien, who was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry, for his discovery and development of the green florescent protein (GFP) with two other chemists: Martin Chalfie and Osama Shimomura.
“This year’s Intel Science Talent Search finalists are presenting a wide range of research, from optimizing algae oil for biofuel to developing a new treatment for blood cancer,” said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation. “It’s exciting for the future of innovation because the U.S. needs these 40 high school seniors, and others like them, to question, explore and help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.”
The 40 finalists were narrowed down from 300 semifinalists and more than 1,700 entrants. This year’s finalists will gather in Washington, D.C., For a weeklong event from March 7 to 13. Finalists will compete for $630,000 in awards, with the winner receiving $100,000 from the Intel Foundation.
Allison Kubota, a spokeswoman for Intel Corporation, said Kallenbach submitted an Intel Science Talent Search bioinformatics and genomics project entitled “Characterizing and Identifying Interactions of Intrinsically Disordered Proteins” that breaks new ground in predicting protein binding for drug therapy.
“Proteins are the workhorses of molecular systems in the cell,” said Kallenbach. “Once you understand how proteins function and their structure, and even their amino acid sequence, then you have a shot at defeating a lot of diseases that you wouldn’t be able to target by random attacks. Hopefully, in the next 20 or 30 years, scientists will be able to construct drugs based on known molecular functions.”
“Intrinsically disordered proteins and disordered proteins regions are critical in a number of diseases,” said Dr. Gil Alterovitz, a professor at Harvard Medical School. “However, because they cannot be seen using conventional techniques, they are hard to study. By developing a method for predicting interactions between such proteins and others, Jonah’s work in our lab presents a fundamental advance in the field – one that can be built upon by other scientists to study how such proteins function and relate to various diseases.”
“Jonah solved an open problem first posed several years ago about segments in protein chains called ‘disordered regions’ that have inconsistent three-dimensional structures,” Kubota said. “Jonah’s research advanced methods for predicting interactions between disordered regions and their binding partners. He validated his results with proteins coded by the cancer-associated BRCA1 gene. His work may open a new paradigm of drug design, where disordered regions can be used as promising new drug targets, and has already attracted attention from a pharmaceutical company.”
Catching the science bug
Kallenbach credits his grandfather for igniting his passion for science.
“Without him I would have never caught the science bug,” he said. “I would have never known about how awesome science is and the transformative power that it has.”
Neville Kallenbach, Jonah’s grandfather, said that when Jonah was 11 years old, he wrote a paper on the string theory and sent it to Brian Greene, a renowned physicist and a specialist in quantum field theory.
The string theory also known as the “theory of everything” (TOE) attempts to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. String theory is based on the idea that elementary particles such as electrons and quarks within an atom are not zero-dimensional objects, but rather one-dimensional oscillating lines (“strings”).
Neville Kallenbach, a former chemistry professor at New York University, said that when Jonah was a little kid, if you gave him a puzzle or a riddle he had to figure it out for himself.
“If he didn’t know the answer, he would not let you just give him the answer,” said his grandfather, a longtime resident of Chestnut Hill. “I used to collect puzzles online and give them to him. He would always figure them out.”
But Jonah doesn’t fit your typical “science geek.” He plays the guitar and is a four-year member of the varsity swim team and water polo team, leads the computer science and ethics clubs and edits the school magazine. And in his spare time, he works as an advisor at the writing center, tutoring students.
“Jonah has a competitive urge,” Neville Kallenbach said. “He is very outgoing and social.”
The olympics of science
While most teenagers spend their summer lounging by the pool or going to the beach, Jonah spent his summer working with Dr. Alterovitz at MIT.
Sue Johnston, a teacher at Germantown Academy, said the Intel Science Talent Search Award is comparable to the Noble Prize for scientists.
“It’s like getting the gold medal at the Olympics,” said Johnston. “Kallenbach’s project deals with proteins that have a flexible tertiary structure so they can take on more than one conformation, and those are really interesting because they’re heavily involved in disease, particularly cancer. Most of the tumor-suppressing proteins, mutations which cause many cancers, are intrinsically disordered so they have those more flexible regions.”
Johnston said Kallenbach will be presenting his work to the American Bioinformatics Convention in California in March.
“He will be the only high school student in a sea of doctors,” Johnston said.
Prior to being selected as a finalist in this year’s Intel Science Search 2013, Jonah Kallenbach worked for three years with two mentors: Sam Litwin, a statistician, and Dr. Roland Dunbrack, a professor, at Fox Chase Cancer Center. At the International Science and Engineering Fairs, Jonah placed third in the world in computers in 2011 and third in the world in mathematics in 2012.