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Chemistry Prodigy in His Element in Research Project

February 27, 1986|ROD LAZO | Times Staff Writer

While most of his high school classmates were either lying on the beach or working last summer, 17-year-old Kelvin Wong was in a science lab at California State University, Los Angeles, doing the type of research even a college chemistry student might find difficult.

But the South Pasadena High School senior is not an average student.

Wong spent more than 400 hours in the lab last summer working to better understand a component of a tranquilizer used to treat schizophrenics. He placed part of a molecule in different chemical solutions to analyze changes in its shape. His ultimate aim is to determine how the different shapes affect the tranquilizer.

Judges for the 45th Westinghouse Science Talent Search were so impressed with the research that Wong has advanced to the finals of the national competition. During the next five days, he will be in Washington competing with 39 other high school students from around the country for $140,000 in scholarships.

The research has already brought him recognition. He won first place in the senior chemistry division of the 35th Los Angeles County Science Fair last year and then received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue his work.

Unlike most high school students, Wong has also taken an upper-division university chemistry class.

He got a rare perfect score of 800 on the mathematics section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, an exam administered nationwide to test mathematics and language skills of college applicants.

"In my eight years here at South Pasadena, he has had the most curious and scientific mind of any student," said biology teacher Greg Ring.

His scientific bent goes back to "when he was little," said Dinah Wong, Kelvin's mother. "Every time I took him to buy a toy he liked something

with machinery . . . so later he started getting more interested in science."

Recalling that as a child he liked to play with toy chemistry sets, Kelvin said, "Ever since I can remember I was doing experiments on my own."

But Ring said that although Wong devotes a lot of his time to scientific pursuits he has other interests.

Wong's mother agrees. "He is interested in many things and I don't feel he spends very much time on any one thing," she said.

Take last summer for example. Wong would spend up to 11 hours a day on his research. But in August, he left for China where he spent a month practicing wu-shu, a martial art similar to kung fu, but without the fighting component. He has studied it for five years.

Father Born in China

Since his father, Jin Wong, an electrical engineer, was born in China and his mother's parents are Chinese, the trip was also a return to the land of his ancestors.

"I got to visit a castle that was a thousand years old and there were steps with holes in them where people had walked. You don't get to see things like that in the U. S.," Wong said.

"I speak Mandarin and that helped . . . . It was a broadening experience in that I lived by myself. I matured a lot," Wong said.

He ended the trip with a solo wu-shu demonstration at a gymnastics-type meet in Shanghai before returning to South Pasadena.

Wong began working with the the tranquilizer in 1984, when he first enrolled in a chemistry class at Cal State L. A., through a program that allows high school students to take a college class on the campus.

Too Minute for the Eye

Because the material he works with is too minute to be seen by the eye, Wong used a nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscope, a machine that provides data on the shape of the part of the molecule he is studying.

"I have a lot more work left to make it a tangible effect on the treatment of schizophrenics, but I looked at a side chain of the molecule separately and no one has done that before," Wong said.

Westinghouse has guaranteed Wong at least $1,000 and he will compete for 10 scholarships ranging from $7,000 to $20,000.

Kit Newton, a spokesman for Westinghouse, said 1,219 entries were received from 561 high schools and were judged on who did "the best independent research that's been done on the high school level."

Westinghouse named 300 of the students, including Wong, to its 1986 honors group and chose 40 finalists from that group to compete for the scholarships. Three of the finalists are from California, including Wong and Andrew Lawrence Feig from University High School in West Los Angeles.

Wrote an Essay

As part of the competition, Wong submitted a written summary of his research and wrote an essay about himself that included information on his future plans and participation in high school extracurricular activities, such as the debate team.

"In many cases these students are smarter than their teachers and one of the most valuable parts of the trip (to Washington) is they get to meet with other students who are their scientific peers," Newton said.

During the trip, Wong will meet with a representative of one of California's two senators and he will spend a day at the National Institutes of Health, the same agency that gave him the grant.

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