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Davis teen has sights set on ending painful eye infection

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Fan Yang is a 17-year-old girl from Davis who is on her way to preventing millions of contact-lens wearers from getting eye infections.

She discovered a chemical compound that keeps bacteria from sticking to the lenses, potentially stopping common, painful conditions such as bacterial keratitis.

OAS_AD('Button20'); The same compound could work on lenses inserted into the eyes of cataract sufferers. Infections of those lenses, especially in seniors, can cause blindness, she said.

But the fix is only temporary right now, Fan said. The chemical compound she discovered currently lasts only for two days, and it needs to last much longer.

The makeup of the compound is still a scientific secret, and it's nowhere near ready to manufacture, not yet anyway, she said.

"We have a long way to go right now," Fan said.

Fan said she intends to start working on the problem once she gets to college.

In September, she will start her freshman year at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and plans to explore nanotechnology, the manipulation of atoms and molecules, as a way to create a long-term shield to bacteria.

As she reels off this remarkable list of goals and accomplishments, in as modest a way as possible, Fang sounds every bit the professional scientist.

Yet the girl sitting across the dining room table, wearing a bright pink blouse and white skirt and smiling shyly, is also still a teenager at heart.

Fan had metal braces removed from her teeth in July. After that experience, she wants to become an orthodontist to find a way to straighten teeth that isn't so traumatic.

"I want to make everything beautiful," she said. "I want to make everyone have a bright smile and a bright future."

Certainly Fan's future seems bright if the past year is any indication.

In May she won second place in the biochemistry division of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world's largest competition for pre-college students.

The event, held this year in Phoenix, Ariz., featured 1,500 contestants from 45 countries.

She was the 2005 grand prize winner at the Sacramento Science and Engineering Fair.

And this summer she won a $10,000 scholarship from the Davidson Institute, a Reno organization that recognizes young prodigies and works to improve education for highly gifted children and teens.

Oh, and she also graduated from Davis High School, and got a ticket for not wearing a bike helmet.

She likes to have sleepovers and watch horror movies with her friends and listen to pop music.

"I like Ricky Martin, but everyone thinks he's old-fashioned," she said.

Fan spent her childhood in China. Her mother, Yan Lei Liu, a scholar and physician in China, came to the United States in 1993 and now works as a laboratory technician at UC Davis.

Fan joined her mother here in 1998. She enrolled in Davis public school and learned to speak English.

She said she first became interested in bacteria in sixth grade, when she studied the different levels of bacteria on human skin before and after handwashing.

Beginning in the eighth grade, she interned at the University of California, Davis, Combinatorial Chemistry Lab and Biofilm Research Center.

She studied how bacteria could be prevented from clinging to teeth using chemical compounds.

An eyeglass wearer, she first got the idea of applying the same anti-adhesion principles to contact lenses when her optometrist warned her away from the lenses because of the risk of infection.

"She came up with this idea herself," said Jo Anne Suzuki, Fan's Davis optometrist and one of several mentors who have helped her along the way. "I don't know of anyone else who has done it. This is remarkable."

She said millions of contact-lens wearers in the United States and around the world could ultimately benefit from Fan's research.

"Unfortunately bacterial infections are becoming much more common," said Suzuki. "Contact-lens wearers are more prone to eye infections than any other population. They are at much-increased risk."

Suzuki said Fan's research is unique, as far as she knows.

"This is absolutely phenomenal," she said. "If someone could figure out how to manufacture what she has discovered, this could be a huge boon to patients and the contact-lens industry."

About the writer: The Bee's Hudson Sangree can be reached at (916) 321-1987 or - Get the whole story every day - SUBSCRIBE NOW! 

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