Smart Money

By Emily Gold Boutilier / November / December 2004
June 13th, 2007

When Mason Hedberg ’08 was in high school, his grandmother was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer. To deal with the news, he headed to the lab. A lifelong science whiz, Hedberg invented a faster and better way to identify possible tumor suppressors. The breakthrough earned him the $100,000 top prize in the annual Intel Science Talent Search, a contest known as the junior Nobel Prize.

Hedberg came up with his idea while taking a summer course at Brown. He was in the Rockefeller Library, jotting down science-fair project ideas for his upcoming junior year of high school, when his mind turned to the enzyme telomerase. The enzyme is what allows cancer cells to keep dividing when normal cells would stop. And he knew that some substances found in nature can inhibit telomerase, making cancer cells “commit suicide,” he explains.

The problem is that screening for potential telomerase inhibitors is slow and cumbersome. Also, because current screening methods use nonhuman telomerase, scientists run the risk of identifying inhibitors that might not even work for humans and missing some inhibitors that would work.

Hedberg created a dialysis chamber to screen a potential inhibitor in only three minutes. He also used human telomerase, allowing for more accurate results. While he has yet to find a substance that actually works as an inhibitor, he recently applied for a U.S. patent, and plans to sell his creation to a biotech company. “Hopefully I’ll be able to get it out into science,” he says, “and see what happens.”

The Intel contest, which for years was sponsored by Westinghouse Electric, drew 1,600 applicants this year. Hedberg was among forty finalists invited to Washington, D.C., in March. While there, the finalists presented their projects to the judges and answered questions designed to test their science knowledge. They also toured the National Institutes of Health and talked with Senator Edward M. Kennedy on the floor of the Senate. They even met President Bush for a photo shoot in the Rose Garden and a visit to the Oval Office. 

The trip ended with a black-tie gala. All forty students gathered onstage, where the judges announced the nine runners-up, one by one. When Hedberg did not hear his name called, his heart started to race. Then, before he knew what was happening, confetti poured from the ceiling and someone placed a medal around his neck. He won the $100,000 scholarship to the college of his choice. “I couldn’t even fathom that amount of money,” he says. “I was just honestly hoping for a spot in the top ten.”

Hedberg’s grandmother, whose cancer is in remission, was in the audience.

Hedberg was accepted into Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, where he plans to complete both an MD and a PhD. His brother, William ’06, is also on campus, and his mother is Cynthia Hjerpe Hedberg ’80 PhD. Right now, Hedberg is taking courses in genetics, neuroscience, organic chemistry, and cognitive development.

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November / December 2004