High school student joins in medical research

Dominick Zheng has sequenced DNA. He’s published medical papers. He’s researched the human immune system. And he just graduated high school.

Zheng, a Mission Hill resident, has achieved so much so early partly because he got lucky. Dr. Richard Stevens, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and principal investigator in rheumatology, immunology and allergy at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), chose him for a summer job during Zheng’s freshman year at the Longwood Medical Area’s Boston Latin School.

“Dr. Stevens could use the money to get a person with a Ph.D., not a high school student. I’m crazy thankful for [his choice] everyday,” Zheng said. “I’d do this for free, I’d pay to do this.”

Stevens originally wasn’t expecting Zheng to return the following year, but Zheng committed: not only did he show up for a full-time load during that summer, he returned during the school year and for the following two summers.

“Dominick was exceptional,” Stevens said. “I can give the environment, but the student really has to run with it.”

Zheng and Stevens’s research has been related to a kind of immune-system cell that prevent infections from attacking one’s own body.

“If we understand these cells more, we can better treat patients with all sorts of diseases,” Zheng explained.

“What’s astonishing about the whole relationship is how Dominick matured in a way that is beyond his years,” said Kathleen Bateman, the head of Boston Latin’s science department. “He’s very humble about things he doesn’t know about. He’s confident without being cocky. He’s the real deal.”

Zheng was already a top achiever at Boston Latin when Stevens offered him the opportunity to work with him at BWH following a science fair.

Stevens was a judge at that science fair. Zheng had entered a project he had completed with the help of another mentor.

“That ended up giving me the feeling of wanting to go into science,” Zheng said.

Stevens was so impressed with the quality of work the students were generating that he got in touch with Bateman, who chose two students for Stevens to interview, she said.

“It was a difficult thing for him, because I’m a very demanding person…[but] it worked out so well,” Stevens told the Gazette.

Stevens had mentored before and wanted to keep his involvement.

“Many of [Boston Latin’s] top students will be the next generation of great scientists,” he said. “I’d have a chance to mold that student to be a world-class scientist.”

“We can’t express how thankful we are to Dr. Stevens for what he did for Dominick. We can’t provide real research opportunities for the kids like people like Dr. Stevens can.”

Zheng is headed to Harvard in the fall, aiming for a major in pre-med.

“I’d like to help patients in the present and do research to help patients in the future,” he added. He just isn’t sure what specialty to choose yet.

And beyond college, Zheng is already planning on returning the favor.

“Mentorships are something I want to foster,” Zheng said. “I might end up doing the same for a high school student.”

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