It wasn’t enough for Michael Hwang to earn a perfect ACT score or become a National Merit semifinalist.
Now the Jenks High School senior is being recognized for his groundbreaking research into how matcha green tea could prevent the spread of cancer.
Hwang was named this week one of the top 300 young scholars in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, which bills itself as the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. He and his school each will receive a $2,000 prize as part of the recognition.
“It feels amazing,” he said. “I definitely feel privileged and humbled because I know the people applying to this competition are all really, really high level and they’re all amazing. So I definitely feel really special for being selected. I didn’t expect it at all.”
The Regeneron Science Talent Search provides students a national stage to present original research and celebrates the “hard work and novel discoveries of young scientists who are bringing a fresh perspective to significant global challenges,” according to a news release.
Hwang began researching the properties of matcha green tea as an anticancer agent after taking on an apprenticeship with a University of Tulsa biochemistry professor about three years ago. Since his sophomore year, he begins his day at TU around 6:30 a.m. and then drives to high school two hours later.
His research has focused on how human cells metabolize certain nutrients. The 18-year-old began looking for compounds in matcha — the powder made from dried green tea leaves — that could stop cancerous cells from metabolizing while allowing healthy cells to multiply and prosper.
The idea came from reading a literature review about how matcha seemed to limit the growth of cancer cells. He decided to treat cells with the finely ground powder using TU’s lab equipment and see what happened.
As it turned out, high concentrations of matcha seemed to kill both cancerous and noncancerous cells at a drastic level.
So how can this information be used to treat cancer?
“The thought process here is that you have this one element of matcha green tea that you don’t want because it kills healthy cells as well as cancerous cells,” Hwang said. “You have this other element that only affects cancerous cells. So what I want is the part that affects cancerous cells.
“I haven’t worked on this yet. I mean, I’ve been making developments. But basically, the future plans of this research basically is to separate the compounds of matcha green tea so I can isolate the part that just inhibits that cancerous-specific metabolism. That’s the part I want because that’s not going to affect healthy cells in a negative way. There’s a lot of chemistry involved with that.”
When Hwang submitted his project titled “Characterizing Matcha Green Tea as an Anti-Cancer Agent” to the Regeneron Science Talent Search, he did not expect to receive a response. The Society for Science and the Public, which organizes the competition, received nearly 2,000 applications from 49 states and eight countries.
Instead, he became one of only two Oklahoma students to be designated Regeneron STS scholars. The other is 17-year-old Brendan Crotty of Muskogee.
But Hwang’s selection should come as no surprise. In 2018, he scored a perfect 36 on the ACT. It was his second attempt.
In 2019, he and about 200 Oklahoma high school seniors were named National Merit semifinalists who will compete for scholarships worth more than $31 million this spring.
It made sense to start 2020 off with another prestigious accomplishment. On Wednesday, 40 finalists will be chosen from the field of 300 scholars. Finalists receive an all-expense paid trip in March to Washington D.C., where they will compete for more than $1.8 million in awards provided by Regeneron and will present their research to many of the nation’s top scientific experts as well as elected officials.
Hwang, channeling the same humility that left him shocked by his success on the ACT and in the first round of the talent search, said he does not expect to be named a finalist.
“If I ever was selected, that would be really just insane. I would not believe it,” he said. “It’s really hard to tell, because I was so surprised to be selected as one of the top 300 as well, so we’ll just see what happens. The announcement’s next week, so fingers crossed.”