Academic Magnet High School senior Jenny Yao’s research on healing the human heart was far from your local science fair project.
Yao was recently selected as a semifinalist from 1,900 student applicants in the Siemens Competition, which recognizes high-schoolers for team or individual math, science and technology projects.
Her work, "Engineering Metabolically Viable Stem Cell Spheroids for Human Cardiac Regeneration," also won her a Special Award at the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles.
For her research, Yao used stem cells harvested from human fat to fabricate and culture microtissues in hydrogel molds, then studied their metabolic processes in different nutrient environments. Basically, she's trying to find a new way to repair injured heart muscles.
She also used computer and mathematical modeling to explore the processes.
Yao's findings remain a long way from any real-world application, but doctors could one day use such microtissues to treat patients after heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases.
"This is pretty cutting-edge research. We’ll be doing in vivo animal tests soon, but this is still in the developmental process, just seeing how this would function in the simulated environment," Yao said.
Yao said she has been fascinated with science since an early age, and Academic Magnet's unique environment helped her get ahead. She took high school biology in her freshman year and was able to take college-level Advanced Placement Biology and Calculus courses her sophomore year. She said both courses were important in her research.
In 10th grade, at an age when many South Carolina students take their first high school biology course, Yao reached out to Dr. Ying Mei of the Clemson-Medical University of South Carolina Joint Bioengineering Program about the possibility of a mentorship.
"I was really fascinated by his research in these kinds of stem cell microtissues in terms of how they can facilitate cardiac regeneration. So my sophomore year I contacted him through the program and I got to work in his lab, where I've been working ever since," Yao said.
Mei and Yao were credited as co-authors on a March 2017 article in the biomaterials journal Acta Biomaterialia that included some of her findings. She will also present her research as a senior thesis at Academic Magnet.
Yao is no stranger to the national or international spotlight. She was also one of 45 students in the tri-county area to be named National Merit Semifinalists this year, and she has been president of her school's Mu Alpha Theta math honor society since her junior year.
Yao is also an accomplished composer and pianist, one of seven finalists for 2016-17 in the Music Teachers' National Association Composition Competition. She has performed community concerts with the Kostroma Symphony Orchestra in Russia. Back home in Charleston, she founded AMHS Fine Arts Youth Outreach Club.
Yao said she favors the avant-garde work of artists like Kate Soper and George Crumb. For her debut piano performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City, after being named a prizewinner in the 2015 American Fine Arts Festival's Romantic Music Competition, she played Chopin's Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major.
"Obviously it was nerve-wracking, but once I got onstage and I started performing, I kind of blocked everything else out, like the audience wasn’t even there," she said. "I just delved into the music and it was all alright from there."
Principal Catherine Spencer said Yao represents the very best of Academic Magnet High School, which Newsweek has ranked as the state's best public high school.
"Her outstanding achievement and involvement in the arts, academics, leadership and service prompt me to consider her the perfect profile student," Spencer said.