The Youngest Thiel Finalist: SRF's Thomas Hunt

Posted by Iain Inkster on July 19, 2013 | SRF Education

At just 15, Thomas Hunt became the youngest 20Under20 Finalist selected by Peter Thiel's Foundation to compete for a $100,000 Fellowship and the chance at two years of freedom to pursue his dreams. But Thomas’s entire story is even more amazing. He's been conducting research here at SENS Research Foundation in Mountain View since the age of 13.

What did you do before you came to SRF, and how do you supplement your education around your present work?

Before I joined SRF, I started out as a curious and active member of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) bio community. As a young teen, I got involved with BioCurious in its earliest days to help build the BioCurious lab. I also participated in other organizations like the Health Extension Salon and Thiel Fellowship Under20 Summits before applying for a 20Under20 Fellowship this past year.

Currently I volunteer at SRF four days a week. I spend my time conducting research to understand a poorly understood pathway that plays a key role in cancer cell immortality called alternative lengthening of telomeres, or ALT. I keep current with new developments in my field by reading scientific papers at the cutting edge of ALT work, and I am currently in charge of studying POT1, a protein that could negatively affect ALT activity. I am also performing experiments on cancer cells to test for ALT activity.

When I'm not at SRF, I've designed my own home schooling curriculum, where I get to choose which subjects I want to study. I take local college classes that I feel will assist me in my research goals, like chemistry and public speaking. I love telling people about the latest discoveries in science, and have spoken at The University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) about genetic modification.

How did you come to volunteer for SRF so young, and what got you interested in working on age-related disease?

I've always been fascinated by science. Every year since kindergarten, I've entered the science fair with fun projects. One year I won first prize with a computerized sprinkler system that self-discovered an optimum watering schedule. By 2010, I was curious about doing a science project related to molecular biology, but I wasn’t sure exactly what at the time. After looking around for experts who could help me, I discovered BioCurious, an incredible then-budding DIY bio community of citizen scientists. After consulting a lot of people, I decided to test corn-based food products for genetic modification. But I needed an approved lab in which I could conduct these tests, and BioCurious was so new that it didn't have its own yet. I met SRF COO Tanya Jones,  researcher Max Peto, and Academic Initiative lead Daniel Kimbel at a meeting, and they offered me the SRF lab space for a day. I also brought several other people, and the experiment went down in history as one of the first BioCurious 'fieldtrip' events.

While I was there, I talked with several of the researchers and was amazed to learn about the work on underlying mechanisms of age-related disease at SRF. Many people considered the diseases they worked on inherently incurable, or had given up trying to understand them. I have several relatives whom I’ve lost to supposed “natural causes.” This really opened my eyes to what's important and what I want to do with my life. I began regularly asking people like Max if they needed help in the lab. Max was incredibly busy, but, after some pestering on my part and kindness on his, he offered me an internship on the condition that I study some college-level chemistry and pass a test prepared by him. I was just 13, but I relished the challenge. I studied hard and became an intern at the SRF’s Research Center in 2011.

What do you work on here at SRF?

I am part of the Oncology Team led by Dr. Haroldo Silva at SRF where I also work with research associate David Halvorsen as well as our most recent summer intern Navneet Ramesh. We are studying telomere maintenance mechanisms with the goal of eliminating cancer from forming in the first place. We are particularly interested in studying Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres, or ALT, a mechanism of unknown methods that lengthens telomeres without the assistance of an enzyme called telomerase. We are looking at genes that could have a positive or negative effect on ALT activity. I'm specifically looking at POT1, a protein that could negatively affect ALT activity due to its role in the shelterin complex.

I enjoy working together with great minds who have the goal of understanding and curing cancer. It’s incredibly inspiring to contribute to stopping one of the greatest killers of all time.

What's your favorite part of working for SRF? And what else do you do for fun?

I love the unique opportunities here at SRF. I've been able to do tests and procedures that I'd never heard of let alone used in an experimental study in my old high school. I've also learned a lot about molecular biology as well as gained a better understanding of the concepts behind curing age-related diseases.

I also love working with the people in SRF. When I began as a young intern, they were friendly, helpful, and forgiving of my lack of knowledge in the field. It has been a great community to work with.

Outside of SRF, I still learn through self-directed homeschooling. Even outside of science, my homeschooling gives me a great deal of independence. I enjoy spending my time reading in detail on topics of interest, and understanding the chemistry of cooking.


Thomas baking with 2012 Thiel Fellow Kettner Griswold. Photo credit: 2013 Thiel Fellow Riley Drake

You are the youngest Under20 Summiter ever to make it to the Thiel Fellowship Finalist round. What are Under20 Summits like? What was it like to become a Thiel Finalist?

Going to an Under20 Summit and then applying to and becoming a 20Under20 Finalist over the last year has been full of exciting moments. I was not ultimately chosen during the final round for the Fellowship this year, but the exposure to other stupendous individuals who were also dedicated to powerful, life-changing projects was an incredible experience. It was the first time I'd met people near my age who were as passionate about big-impact ideas as I am, and I really appreciated the help and connection with former or current fellows like Laura Deming, Darren Zhu, and Kettner Griswold. It was also great to get amazing advice from Thiel judges Danielle Strachman, Mike Gibson, Jonathan Cain, and Jim O'Neill.

Since I'm young enough to enter again, I definitely plan to re-apply at the end of this year. I've had several months to research and finally test samples for my project. Because of this, I will not only be ready for next year’s 20Under20 competition but also prepared with valuable new data to bolster my application.

Thomas is bright young scientist and valuable member of the SRF Research team. His pursuit of cures for cancer will undoubtedly have a profound effect on all of our lives one day. We're proud to continue supporting Thomas's scientific explorations and development here at SRF.

Thomas at work with SRF oncology team: Dr. Haroldo Silva, David Halvorsen and Navneet Ramesh