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Rishab Jain receives national recognition for pancreatic cancer tool; he also wants to promote education for science, technology, engineering, the aets and math

Even before he enters high school, Rishab Jain was recognized as America's top young scientist and one of Time magazine's 25 most influential teens of 2018.

Heady stuff.

Rishab, 14, is an eighth grader at Stoller Middle School in Beaverton.

He's always had an interest in science and computer programming. His father is a hardware engineer at Intel; his mother is a Realtor.

"Ever since I was little, I remember going to places such as the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, trying all the different experiments and going from station to station. I've been hooked to science since then, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in general.

"When I was 6 or 7, I got exposed to programming. At first it was basic, such as drag-and-drop blocks. Then I started to make android apps on my phone, and today, I'm working on artificial intelligence programs."

It was his work combining artificial intelligence with physiology that won Rishab the top prize of $25,000 last October in the 3M Discovery Education Young Scientist Challenge for grades 5-8. The national competition for the 10 finalists was in St. Paul, Minn.

His work could lead to improved detection and treatment of pancreatic cancer, for which the five-year survival rate is 9 percent, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. (The rate has gone up 3 points since 2014.)

Pancreatic cancer killed Steve Jobs, co-founder and former chief executive of Apple, at age 56 in 2011. Alex Trebek, the longtime host of the game show Jeopardy, announced March 6 he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the most advanced form of the disease.

Rishab says the inspiration for his project came from a 2017 visit to his brother, then a medical student in Boston. He had been working with programs such as Python and MATLAB.

"That summer I was experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI)," he says. "After answering basic questions about pancreatic cancer — I didn't even know where the organ was in the human body — I thought it would be interesting doing a project that combined the two interests.

"Later, the curiosity led me to my school, where I borrowed a model of the human body and helped me visualize the pancreas. I met with some doctors who helped me define a problem statement and start my conception of the project idea. I started doing basic experiments with AI and ran it on pancreatic cancer images."

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect because the pancreas — vital in aiding digestion of food — can be hidden among other organs. Treatment is by MRI-guided radiotherapy, but doctors have to focus radiation on the cancerous tumor without damaging other healthy organs — and accuracy has been a problem.

Rishab's tool showed promise in simulations. He plans to use his prize money to help develop clinical trials for doctors and hospitals to use it.

"The medical community will find that AI has promise," he says. "I think my project brought awareness not only of pancreatic cancer, but applying AI to medicine."

He has met some of the survivors through the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, whose Purple Stride 5K run/walk is scheduled Sept. 28 in Portland.

"It was inspirational to listen to their stories," Rishab says.

Rishab envisions a future as a doctor or a biotechnical engineer.

He plans to use leftover prize money to start up his own organization, Samyak's Science Society, to encourage younger students who have had little or no exposure to science, technology, engineering and math — and the arts. (U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici is fond of promoting the "A" in STEAM education, and Rishab supports that.)

Among the activities Rishab wants to promote are workshops for science experiments and coding, and science kits.

"Elementary and middle school is the time to start promoting STEM, because that is when kids are finding new interests and hobbies," he says.

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