Michael Duong can’t remember a time when he didn’t love science.
Now 18 and a recent graduate of Methacton High School in Montgomery County, Duong still remembers pulling out his first aid kit any time a family member suffered a minor scratch or cut.
As he got older, Duong would throw himself into research as he prepared for high school science fairs. His 8th grade project, which required growing bacteria, forced the young man to think creatively and transform his basement into a lab when he lacked one otherwise.
While participating in his 11th grade science fair, Duong found out about the Pennsylvania BioGENEius Challenge, or what he calls the “hierarchy of science fairs.”
After making it last year to his high school’s regional competition at the Delaware Valley Science Fair, Duong was invited to attend BioGENEius.
While he made it to finalist in the International BioGENEius Challenge in 2014, Duong was determined to do even better this time around. The state level competition was hosted by Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, where Duong met a mentor who helped lead him to victory.
After two people were selected to move forward to the national competition, Duong found himself advancing as far as the International BioGENEius Challenge, where won second place in the global healthcare track thanks to his presentation on Alzheimer’s, a disease that is personal to Duong because his grandfather has it.
Even with hours of lab time and research, Duong doesn’t think he would have made it as far without the help of Dr. Mrunalini (Leena) Pattarkine, a biotechnology professor at Harrisburg University and the director of the Capital Area Biotechnology Partnership.
As a former judge at the national and international levels of BioGENEius, Pattarkine gave Duong advice on what judges would be looking for within his project.
With 25 years of research experience, Pattarkine understands how much students put into their projects. After watching Duong at the state level, Pattarkine said, she realized he knew what he was doing.
Her advice focused on the presentation itself, how to answer questions and how to narrow down his information to key points – all while showcasing confidence in his work and research.
“I coached and mentored him, but he is very passionate,” Pattarkine said. “The honor belongs to him.”
Being able to watch high school students dive into biotechnology is encouraging to Pattarkine, who sees it as a field that has more jobs that applicants in today’s workforce. She knows that without opportunities through programs such as BioGENEius, that some students would never be exposed to the possibilities of biotechnology.
As he prepares for his college education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he’ll study biochemistry, Duong believes he wouldn’t have had such freedom to choose where he’d go to school without the BioGENEius experience or the guidance of Pattarkine.
“It was an opportunity not only to present my research findings, but to meet people I would otherwise never know,” he said. “I learned from other students and judges, all while getting feedback on an area of study I hope to continue for the rest of my life.”