Teen takes prizes for environmental chemistry work

Just describing what she loves about science makes Eileen Jang swoon a little.

"Oh," she beams, "really being able to be curious and ask questions."

That wonderment has served her well. As a 17-year-old June graduate of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, Jang has cleaned up at major state and national science contests for discoveries she made about tiny particles of mercury and how they clump together in water.

Her work has propelled her to Beijing, Alaska, Nevada, Tennessee, Colorado. Next month she's heading to Stockholm, Sweden, for a prestigious international science contest as the U.S. winner in the Stockholm Junior Water Prize Competition. The prize, awarded by the crown princess of Sweden, singles out work that tackles problems with the world's water resources.

For Jang, the past year has been a prelude to a future she hopes to build in chemistry, as she begins her college career this fall at Yale University. But it's also been the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

As she graduated from high school in June, she gathered with her parents to crack open a time capsule they made when Jang began kindergarten. Among the 12-year-old treasures was a photograph of a preschool Jang engulfed in a huge white lab coat, holding a sign that said "Scientist."

"That was funny," she says, adding that some of her best childhood memories were attending nature camps and science day camps.

Those early experiences built up, and by the time she was a junior in high school, she had won a summer internship at Duke University, studying how contaminants behave in water.

Well before the internship began, Jang delved in.

"She contacted her mentor and started reading journal articles and learning as much as she could before she started the summer lab," says her high school chemistry teacher and mentor, Myra Halpin, dean of science at NCSSM. "She has that innate curiosity and strives to be successful. On top of that, she's just a very nice young woman."

Not just a scientist

Jang, the oldest daughter of Cheng-Fang Kao and Carey Jang of Cary, excelled at Green Hope High School in Cary before transferring her junior year to the academically rigorous science and math boarding school in Durham.

"She's always been very detail-oriented and wanted to know more," says her mom, Kao. "My husband and I are just very proud of her."

Even as a standout student, however, she honed other interests, keeping up her soccer and basketball skills on intramural teams and playing second base on the varsity softball team until her senior year, when the science contest travel schedule kept her off the ball field.

She also joined a number of science and service clubs, including the Health Occupations Students of America club, and was a co-captain of her Science Olympiad team that won a first place in the state tournament.

"It's a good memory," she says.

Her interest in environmental chemistry was sparked her junior year in high school, when she took chemistry and an advanced research class taught by Halpin that helped aspiring scientists conduct studies and, more importantly, communicate their findings in written papers and presentations.

Jang, who is interested in applying her chemistry interest to initiatives that improve the environment, was chosen last year for a Howard Hughes precollege summer internship at Duke and paired with Heileen Hsu-Kim at Duke's Civil and Environmental Engineering center.

Hsu-Kim has explored the chemical processes in water that affect trace metals that pollute the environment, and she suggested Jang look into mercury sulfide particles.

By the end of the summer, Jang had figured out how tiny bits of mercury sulfide, called nanoparticles, bind together when the salinity of the water changes or when they're exposed to certain organic matter from decomposing organisms.

The findings advance knowledge of how trace amounts of mercury sulfide build up and may eventually convert to methylmercury, the pollutant that can cause neurological and cognitive problems in humans.

"Her finding is important in the larger quest," says Hsu-Kim. Hsu-Kim says she's writing a scientific paper for publication and is hoping to include some of Jang's work to give the teen a publishing credit.

Instead of ending her work when the internship wrapped up last August, Jang continued her research through the fall and then wrote the papers and presentations that led to the Stockholm prize and others.

"At the end of the summer, it felt like I was working with a first-year graduate student," Hsu-Kim says. "It's amazing that she's not even in college yet."

What the future may hold

This summer, Jang has been working in Hsu-Kim's lab doing additional experiments with mercury in soil sediments. And she's preparing for her trip to Stockholm, accompanied by Halpin and perhaps her mother. She says she holds a deep debt of gratitude to her teachers and parents for all their support.

When she returns, she'll head to Yale, where she says she is excited to expand her studies.

"Maybe what I'm passionate about will change," she says. "I want to learn more about the humanities and the arts."

But for Jang, that first love runs deep.

"I don't know -- giving up science would be hard to do," she says.

Those who have taken note of her science would hate to see that happen.

"People are following these kids," says Björn von Euler, director of corporate philanthropy for ITT Corp., which sponsors the Stockholm award. "Over the years, most of the students have made an important impact on their local environment. Eileen's paper is discussing a problem that is much more global than it is local. It stood out."