Ben Lu was in eighth grade when he found out his father had cancer.
“What’s gonna happen?” Ben asked him. His father, Bai, who studies brain development and psychiatric disorders at the National Institutes of Health, was honest: “One possibility is that I’m going to die.”
He saw tears in his son’s eyes and wished he could take back his answer.
Ben, who graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at Rockville’s Richard Montgomery High School in June, didn’t tell any of his friends about his father’s illness. “Why my dad?” he wondered. He went online and looked up lymphoma “so I could find out what I was facing,” Ben says, “and what he was facing.”
By the end of the elder Bai’s first week of an aggressive clinical trial at NIH, he’d lost his hair; later he had trouble speaking. When Bai’s hands were too shaky to give himself the daily injections he needed, he asked Ben for help.
“It was hard seeing him like that,” says Ben, 18. “You always think of your father as some Superman.”
After six rounds of treatment, during which Bai went to work every day, Ben knew his dad was getting better—and he got very interested in the science behind the treatments.
“I’d say, ‘I have different chemos—one stops DNA replication, the other inhibits the cell from dividing,’ ” says Bai, who grew up in China. “I think that put him at ease a bit—to know there’s something that’s working.”
Two years later, with his father healthy, Ben applied for an internship at NIH. He had ruled out becoming a scientist because both of his parents are; his mother is a molecular biologist. He was focused on other things, like the It’s Academic team, playing violin for a youth orchestra, and video games; he has a patent pending for an educational board game for kids. But now he had a stake in cancer research.
“I had this body of knowledge I wanted to use to help people,” he says.
Ben spent two summers in a lab studying cell signaling pathways. Bai dropped his son off every morning at NIH’s Oral and Pharyngeal Cancer Branch, where Ben would put on latex gloves and study fruit-fly cells with a microscope.
“We had a list of proteins that could possibly transmit signals between a certain receptor on the cell surface and a gene in the nucleus,” says Ben. “We would try to get rid of one protein and see if it had an effect—whether the signal would reach or not.”
Ben and his mentor, then a postdoctoral fellow, discovered a set of signaling proteins that when disrupted might lead to a form of lung cancer.
“How cells communicate is important because when signals aren’t working properly, it might cause a cell to grow too fast and become a cancer,” he says. Their findings could help lead to new cancer treatments.
Ben’s dad encouraged him to enter the report from his summer work in the Intel Science Talent Search. A few months later, Bai received a call from his son’s principal: Ben was one of the nation’s 40 Intel finalists and the first in Richard Montgomery history. Ben would be told the news the next day.
Ben was called to the principal’s office—Bai was waiting there—where Intel representatives surprised him with the news and handed him a $5,000 scholarship check.
Ben, who now attends Princeton University, isn’t sure what he’ll do after college. He likes art, drama, and music but also hopes to get back to studying cancer. Following in his parents’ footsteps, he’s realized, wouldn’t be so bad: He’s seen science save his dad’s life.
This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.