TAMS student's antibacterial polymer creation earns Siemens top award

Certain kinds of bacterial infections, called nosocomial infections, affect more than 2 million hospital patients annually and kill about 100,000.

Wen Chyan

Wen Chyan, winner of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

But Wen Chyan, a 17-year-old student and researcher at UNT's Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, hopes to change those statistics.

Chyan engineered a polymer coating that releases bacteria-killing silver ions. The adhesive coating – when used on catheters, breathing tubes and other medical devices that have contact with patients  – could help prevent the common nosocomial infections.

Winning research

For his research, Chyan earned the 2008 national Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology – the country's premier high school competition for math, science and technology research. The award comes with a $100,000 scholarship.

The national finals were judged by a panel of nationally renowned scientists and mathematicians, headed by lead judge Joseph Taylor, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Eighteen national finalists competed in this year's national finals, including 6 individuals and 6 teams. The finalists competed at 1 of 6 regional competitions held at leading research universities throughout November.

Family inspiration

"Since some of my relatives have been infected by nosocomial infections before, I knew that there would be immense practical applications for my research," Chyan says about the reason he chose to research polymers. "Also, my mentor, Dr. Richard B. Timmons, had pioneered a technique known as pulse plasma deposition, and we wanted to develop some useful technology using this technique."

Pulse plasma deposition uses radio frequency waves to create the polymer. It is a one-step process that easily controls the polymer properties, which is crucial to the polymer's antimicrobial effects.

Timmons is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas at Arlington. TAMS students generally begin their research tracts during the summer, so about half of the students chose a mentor and research facilities at locations other than UNT because they can live at home and conveniently commute to laboratories near their homes.

Chyan's father, Oliver Chyan, is today a professor of chemistry at UNT, but he was a UTA student when Timmons was chair of the chemistry department.

"Dr. Timmons has known me since I was a child," Chyan says. "I asked to work with him because I was interested in his laboratory."

Nurtured love for science

Chyan said he owes his love for chemistry to his parents who spurred his interest in science when he was a youngster. In addition to his chemist father, Chyan's mother, Jin-Jian, is also a chemist who home schooled her son prior to his TAMS acceptance.

"From an early age they would attempt to interest me in science by taking me to tour labs, doing chemistry demos, and also teaching me about science," Chyan says. "I caught their passion for science and specifically, Chemistry."

The researcher's future

Chyan plans to major in chemistry or chemical engineering after graduating from TAMS and would like to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said he would like to pursue a career at a research university where he can continue conducting research while teaching.

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The Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS) is a two-year residential program at UNT that allows talented students to complete their freshman and sophomore years of college while also receiving their high school diplomas.

Students enroll in the academy following their sophomore year in high school, live in a UNT residence hall and attend UNT classes with college students.

After 2 years, they enroll at UNT or another university to complete their education.