When 14-year-old Daniel Liu buttons his lab coat and goes to work, he transforms from a teenager into a fearless and persistent researcher.
“Failures don’t scare me,” says Liu, speaking like a seasoned academic. “There are so many of them, that every success seems like a new milestone! When you hit one of those, you feel ‘a bit lucky.’”
Liu, whose research focuses on pharmaceuticals, has been feeling “a bit lucky” ever since he arrived at researcher Melanie Sanford’s lab, the Sanford Group, this fall. At 14, he is the youngest researcher ever to work in the lab, the only undergrad student there, and the only student to pursue his chemistry degree with half the course credits already completed. He is also one of the youngest undergrad students at the University.
“Many students didn’t believe I was [enrolled] here at the beginning of the semester,” Liu says, laughing. “But they [also knew] I wasn’t just a random middle school student lost on campus.”
While in high school, Liu completed nearly 100 credits at the University of Toledo. He transferred 60 credits toward his chemistry major at U-M and is pursuing a second degree in computer science. A cello player, he also is considering music classes.
Sanford, principal investigator at the Sanford Group, says her team recognized Liu’s potential right away.
“There was a bit of a fight in my lab over who was going to mentor him,” she says. “We have around 20 people here and everyone wanted to work with Daniel.”
Graduate student Ellen Aguilera is partnered with Liu, working 10 hours per week on a project to tweak biologically active molecules to improve their efficiency. One goal is to help pharmaceutical companies produce more environmentally friendly products.
“We put a project together to create new drug candidates,” Aguilera says. “We picked something that is pretty focused first, that can possibly go to many directions.”
Breaking bonds is not new to Liu, who is taking 12 credits in his first semester at U-M. During his time at Toledo, the then-13-year-old co-authored a study that proposed a quicker, less expensive, and greener route to synthesize pharmaceuticals and other compounds.
“These bonds are very strong, so it is really a chemical challenge to break them,” says Sanford. “If you can solve this challenge, you can apply the same methodology to all kinds of drugs and have a very big impact.”
At just 10 years old, Liu already knew he wanted to study chemistry. It was 2015, and he beat some 40,000 students in the national “You Be the Chemist” challenge. He was the youngest person ever to win the competition and received a $10,000 prize. He also met President Obama at the White House.
Now Liu is taking his passion to the next level.
“I really want to drive my project forward, get a lot of research experience, and learn how to be an independent researcher,” he says.
For Sanford, Liu is pure inspiration.
“Most people that are good in school come in the lab and hate it, because everything they have done has been a success. Then they see that many actions in the lab don’t work,” Sanford says. “What is very unique about Daniel, who is obviously intellectually talented, really good in classes, and young, is the capacity to come into the lab, have the maturity to accept the amount of failure, move on, and be successful.”
(Top image: Liu in the lab. Credit: Fernanda Pires.)