Bloomfield Hills resident Madeleine Yang hadn't yet entered high school when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, turning the teen's world upside down and setting her on a quest to develop medical advances that will help others in the future.
"I was interested in early breast cancer diagnosis using patient blood," the Detroit Country Day School graduate and current Harvard University freshman said. "My mom was detected at stage 0, which is the earliest detection, but she had a mastectomy and it was extremely invasive. I thought it was really unfair. I wanted to find an easier way to detect it, and earlier."
Yang began emailing professors across the country in hopes of getting involved in medical research. While her goal of pursuing advances in cancer detection were her motivation, she instead became immersed in research involving nanoparticles that could be used to develop new and effective vaccines.
Earlier this year, Yang was awarded with a Davidson Fellows Scholarship for her work in developing a new method to create a universal influenza vaccine. Her project is titled, "Enabling M2-incorporated Influenza Virus-Like Particles (VLPs) as a Potential Universal Influenza Vaccine."
"It was about 2017 or 2018 when the flu hit Detroit really, really hard, and there were some concerns," she said. "The vaccine didn't work very well, and it's produced using chicken eggs, so it takes a very long time to make. The flu was responsible for about 80,000 deaths that year across the United States, and people had predicted it because it takes about six to nine months and hundreds of millions of eggs to develop. That gives time for the virus to mutate, so the vaccine isn't the same virus that is hitting people months later."
Yang's project instead utilizes ovarian cells from an armyworm instead of chicken eggs. The process enables a universal vaccine to be created in a shorter time frame, and with lower production costs. Further, the vaccine can be produced on a mass scale.
"We already have a stock of virus-like particles we are using to inoculate mice, so it's already going into trials," she said. "It's a very long trial. FDA approval takes like 10 years."
Prior to entering Harvard, Yang was one of 20 students across the country to be recognized by the Nevada-based Davidson Institute for Talent Development with its Fellows scholarship. The program offers scholarships to students 18 or younger who have completed projects that have the potential to benefit society in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, literature and music.
Yang hopes to focus on the drug design and delivery field, and work in academia and the technology industry to develop breakthrough research with real world solutions to help solve global health problems.
"To make an impact, you have to advance with research," she said. "I'm not sure what medicine will be 10 years down the line, but hopefully I'll be part of it."
Outside of school and research, Yang plays piano and violin, and enjoys sailing, which she participated in for three years. She also hopes to inspire other young women to enter the research field.
"There aren't a lot of young women in the field," she said. "It's about empowering other women. It's important that once you have an opportunity that someone opened for you, that you turn around and do it for others. That's the only way that this can get better."