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Flu Pandemic Research Takes Top Prize at Intel Science Fair

San Diego high schooler Eric Chen, 17, (center) won first-place and $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search.
San Diego high schooler Eric Chen, 17, (center) won first-place and $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search.Intel

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A 17-year-old California lad has won $100,000 and the top prize at the Intel Science Talent Search contest for his science project to stall the spread of flu pandemics. Eric Chen was picked from 40 other teenage finalists, whittled down from more than 1,700 students who entered the contest this year.

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San Diego high schooler Eric Chen, 17, (center) won first-place and $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search.
San Diego high schooler Eric Chen, 17, (center) won first-place and $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search.Intel

Chen was inspired to start researching anti-flu drugs after a local outbreak of swine flu in San Diego in 2009.

He joined a lab at UC San Diego the summer after his sophomore year at Canyon Crest Academy. "I was very curious to try research," Chen told NBC News.

"What I'm hoping to do is develop a drug that will stop the flu from replicating itself," he said. His focus is an endonuclease enzyme, which viruses need to multiply.

He has identified a group of molecules that could work as potential drugs by scrambling the working of that enzyme. "It has a slower mutation rate, so resistance will be slower to develop," he said.

The Intel win is the latest in a busy few months for the high school senior. He also picked up the top prize at Google's and Samsung's science contests in October and December of 2013.

"Every time I've won it's been a surprise," Chen said.

Chen's parents work in science, and his sister is a pre-med student at UCLA, and he "had the science textbooks lying around, I had the toy microscope."

Chen will start college in the fall. For other freshmen considering a major in science, or wondering about a future in research, his advice is to sign up at a lab and just "try it out."

"Maybe you'll bump into something you’d really love."

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