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Laguna Niguel math whiz hones in on cancer

  1. September 13, 2010
  2. By Claudia Koerner
  4. http://www.ocregister.com/news/math-266289-research-school.html

LAGUNA NIGUEL – Johnny Li likes to solve problems, especially when they relate to math, biology and computer science.

The 17-year-old Laguna Niguel resident combined those topics in a research about how cancer cells move, and he's now working to get his results published. The work, "Effects of Motility and Contact Inhibition on Tumor Viability: A Discrete Simulation," caught attention at gifted education foundation the Davidson Institute, which awarded Li a $10,000 scholarship.

"It's a great inspiration," Li said. "It tells me I'm on the right track."

Li, a senior at St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, began taking math classes at UCI in seventh grade after he advanced through his school's offerings. After taking a partial differential equations course at the university, he began looking for ways to apply his knowledge with some real-world research.

"The idea came as an intersection of all these things I love," he said.

In addition to combining the academic subjects he's interested in, the research has potential to make a real-world difference. Since two of his grandparents have cancer, solving the mysteries of tumor growth is a puzzle that hits close to home, Li said.

The project uses math models and computer simulation to study cell's motion and the way they behave when surrounded by other cells. After analyzing data from the simulation, Li found that cancer cells, which tend to move faster, are quicker to fill open space. This could have implications for chemotherapy, he said.

"When it kills those cells, there's often space left over, and it's a question if healthy or tumor cells will fill the space faster," he said. "This would explain why sometimes chemotherapy isn't as successful as we want it to be."

In July, Li presented an abstract of his work at the annual meeting of the Society for Mathematical Biology. This year, he'll be fine tuning his work and partnering with labs to see if the model and simulation stand up in the real world. So far, a lab at UC San Diego has validated his results.

"It's a hint that my model reflects what happens in real life," Li said.

Now that school has started again, Li is focusing on his class work, playing golf and soccer and practicing cello in addition to applying to top research universities. He hopes to continue studying applied math and physics.

John Lowengrub, Chancellor's Professor in the math department at UCI, has taught and mentored Li for two years. Lowengrub has worked with high school students before through the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science, or COSMOS, program at the university.

"Johnny's research is far above that," Lowengrub said.

Li's success has come from being an excellent student, he added, but other traits may be even more important in research.

"You have to be smart, like he is, but you also have to have the drive to see things through and curiosity," Lowengrub said.

Outside of school, Li continues in his passion for math. In 2007, he began the OC Math Circle, which joins other math circles around the country. Li and other local high school students work with younger math enthusiasts to enter competitions and host lectures. This year the club, which recently earned a $2,000 grant from the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, will host classes for students in Santa Ana.

When Li was younger, he attended a math circle in San Diego.

"That was one of the biggest influences in my life," he said.

Note: A photo of Johnny Li can be seen by following the URL link at the top of this webpage.