UNT TAMS students honored for groundbreaking research

Peter Hu
Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science student Peter Hu.
Katheryn Shi
Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science student Katheryn Shi.
Thursday, January 28, 2010

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- Two students at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas were named finalists in the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search for their groundbreaking research developing a biocompatible material for protein drug delivery and predicting the existence of new rare gas molecules.

Peter Hu, 18, and Katheryn Shi, 16, are two of 40 national finalists who will travel to Washington, D.C., in March to compete for $630,000 in scholarships. The top winner will receive $100,000 from the Intel Foundation.

The students were selected from an initial pool of 1,700 applicants.

TAMS students consistently compete for the top prize at Intel, but this is the first year the academy has two finalists.

"As highly as we think of the academy students, they always surprise us with their accomplishments," said Dr. Richard Sinclair, dean of TAMS. "Having two of the 40 Intel finalists in the nation is a great honor for us."

The Intel competition is the country's most prestigious pre-college science competition. Alumni of the competition have made extraordinary contributions to science and hold more than 100 of the world's most coveted science and math honors, including seven Nobel Prizes and three National Medals of Science.


Peter Hu, of Denton

For his bioengineering research, Hu used polymer nanoparticles to create a protein drug carrier that can maintain a sustained drug release while preventing the protein from degrading inside the human body. This has long been a challenge for scientists.

Therapeutic proteins are critical to treating many diseases. For example, cancer can be treated with interferons, diabetes with insulin and hemophilia with blood clotting factors. So with Hu's development, a diabetes patient could significantly reduce the number of insulin injections needed.

"Bioengineering interests me because it has the potential to solve so many of the world's problems," Hu said. "I've had family members who have battled cancer and diabetes, which was my primary motivation in researching this topic."

Hu's work was supervised by Dr. Liping Tang, a bioengineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Before coming to TAMS, Hu attended Denton High School. Both of Hu's parents are physicists, which he said spurred his interest in science at a young age. Hu's father, Zhibing Hu, is a physics professor at UNT.

"My parents were great influences in my love of science, and I was very involved in school science fairs," Hu said. The first project he remembers was an experiment to determine the speed of sound when he was 9. 

As vice president of the Junior Engineering Technical Society at TAMS, Hu is organizing a science demonstration team to promote interest in math and science among elementary and middle school students. In his spare time, he plays the piano and violin, as well as basketball and tennis.


Katheryn Shi, of Sugar Land

Using quantum mechanics, Shi predicted the stability of two new rare gas molecules, the first step in identifying new species with potential applications in medicine and industry. Currently known rare gas compounds are found in lasers used in laser eye surgery and semiconductor manufacturing, as well as anti-tumor agents used in cancer treatments.

For years, rare gases were considered inert, but since the discovery of the first rare gas compound in 1962, scientists have been searching for new molecules with important applications. Shi began by analyzing more than 80 hypothetical molecules using several quantum mechanical methods, eventually determining two of those molecules -- HArN and HKrN -- were stable.

Shi worked with Dr. Angela Wilson, UNT professor of chemistry and co-director of the Center for Advanced Scientific Computation and Modeling, on the computational chemistry research.

In the future, Shi hopes to pursue a career in research, possibly at a university.

"My experience has made me very interested in computational chemistry," she said. "But I'm interested in so many parts of science that I'm trying to keep my options open."

That interest in science began at a young age and was fostered by her parents, who are both scientists. Before coming to TAMS, Shi attended Dulles High School in Sugar Land.

In her spare time, Shi plays the clarinet, ice skates and swims. She is also a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do. At TAMS, she is treasurer of Mu Alpha Theta, the school's mathematics honor society.

In addition to Hu and Shi, TAMS also had six semifinalists in this year's Intel competition.

TAMS is a two-year residential program at UNT that allows exceptionally talented students to complete their freshman and sophomore years of college while receiving the equivalent of high school diplomas. Students enroll in the academy following their sophomore year in high school, live in a UNT residence hall and attend UNT classes with college students. After two years, they enroll at UNT or another university to finish their bachelor's degrees.

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