People Are Awesome: The Teenage Girl Who's Helping Defeat Cancer People Are Awesome: The Teenage Girl Who's Helping Defeat Cancer
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People Are Awesome: The Teenage Girl Who's Helping Defeat Cancer

by Cord Jefferson

December 15, 2011

At age 17, most kids are worrying about the SATs, making the basketball team, or finding a prom date—or all three. Angela Zhang, a 17-year-old from Cupertino, California, is worried about something different altogether: cancer. Zhang's great-grandfather was once afflicted with liver cancer, and her grandfather died of lung cancer several years ago. She says it's their struggles that initially interested her in attempting to beat cancer once and for all. "I asked, 'Why does this happen. Why does cancer cause death? What are we doing to fix this and what can I do to help?'" she told the New York Daily News. Zhang's efforts paid off, literally: Last Monday, after two years of research, Zhang was awarded a $100,000 scholarship in the Siemens Foundation's annual high school science competition. A bit more exciting than the prom, huh?

Zhang, who was the only female finalist in the competition, beat out five opponents with her creation of a nanoparticle that can kill cancer cells without damaging the surrounding healthy tissue; she calls it the "Swiss Army knife of cancer treatments." The work is still decades away from being tested on patients, of course, but it could potentially improve the effectiveness of cancer treatments for millions, and Zhang did it all before she could legally vote.

Zhang is obviously awesome for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is her preternatural science abilities. But perhaps the most important takeaway from her story isn't her age, but her motivation. A lot of kids—adults, too—might look at so much cancer in the family and grow despondent; it hurts to watch loved ones die. That Zhang let her relatives' illness spark her mind instead of hobble her is what's truly amazing. That ability is the difference between people who sulk through life and those succeed despite the setbacks.

Photo courtesy of the Siemens Foundation

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People Are Awesome: The Teenage Girl Who's Helping Defeat Cancer