photography by Billy Surface Amy Chyao

How a Plano Student Uses Light to Fight Cancer

Amy Chyao is a self-taught chemistry superstar and certifiable genius. But it's not a big deal.

Q: In May, you won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a project titled “Lights, Quantum Dots, Action!” Can you explain the project in a way that even I will understand?

A: It’s really not that complicated, in essence. It’s for a cancer treatment. Chemotherapy attacks healthy cells. And surgery can cause infections. So the good thing about this treatment, photodynamic therapy, or PDT, is that it doesn’t have either of these problems. The only real reason that we don’t use it today is because it’s activated by light, and it’s hard to penetrate deeper into the skin to reach the deeper tumors. What we were working on was making a drug that will allow us to reach deeper tumors with PDT. It’s an existing treatment. We’re just trying to design a new drug that will help it be even better.

Q: But before you started, you didn’t know chemistry. So why this project?

A: It wasn’t really like that, honestly. It was more like, hey, I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’m just going to try to figure this out. I started out just learning some basic chemistry. It’s not a big deal to teach yourself chemistry. It’s more like reading a textbook and figuring it out. From there, I just started working with nanotubes and reading papers.

Q: You ended up displaying your project in the White House, which is where you met President Obama. What were your impressions of him?

A: He is a very cool guy, actually. I kind of forgot that he was the president after a little while, because he’s such a normal guy. He’s a
human, too, just like the rest of us.

Q: That wasn’t your first time in the White House. You competed in a spelling bee in 2007.

A: That’s a whole other story. My first official spelling bee was probably second grade. I got interested in the National Spelling Bee because, when I watched the Elementary School Spelling Bee, I knew all the words that the big kids were spelling, but I wasn’t allowed to spell. So the next year, I went ahead and won, and it kind of went from there.

Q: You’ve also spent some time in Poland. What did you win to get there?

A: That was more of an obscure competition. It was called First Steps to the Nobel Prize in Physics. Basically, you have to write a paper and submit it online. So I was chosen, luckily. I don’t know why they called it that, because it had no affiliation whatsoever. They’re Polish. They think that it’s really cool or something, but I don’t know what that was about. What I was trying to do was computer simulation. It’s not useful for anything. I guess for physicists, they think it’s cool or something.

Q: You got $75,000 for winning the Intel science fair. What do you plan to do with that money?

A: I don’t have it. They send it to the school once every four years. So I guess it has to be used for college tuition. That’s what I would use it for anyway.

Q: You do spelling bees, science fairs, you taught yourself chemistry, you play cello for two orchestras, and you volunteer. What do you do when you’re not studying?

A: I went to homecoming last year. I didn’t want to go this year. When I can, I go. A lot of times, it’s just not good with my schedule.

Q: What do you think of all the press you’ve received after winning the science fair?

A: I just wish people would realize it’s not a huge deal. It wasn’t really an explosion-worthy type thing. It was just what happened. So I don’t really think it’s a big deal.

Q: You’ve said you don’t consider yourself a genius. Do other people tell you that often?

A: Yeah, but I’m so used to it by now.