Detroit Teen Takes Home $100,000 for Her Work on Universal Flu Vaccine

"My own community in Detroit was particularly hard hit."

As Madeleine Yang watched the 2017 flu season devastate the United States from her home in Detroit, she knew she was in the right place. The historically severe flu season claimed an estimated 80,000 lives that year, and the flu vaccines were particularly ineffective against the season’s dominant influenza A H3N2 strain. Yang, just a junior in high school at the time, knew her hard work on a universal flu vaccine at the University of Michigan would be worth the effort.

Since her freshman year, Yang had been working under the tutelage of Fei Wen, Ph.D., whose lab at the University of Michigan works on building particles that could one day form the basis for a universal flu vaccine — one that one that works for any strain of the virus. Now a high school senior in Beverly Hills, Michigan, Yang won $100,000 with a fourth-place finish at the Regeneron Science Talent Search earlier in March. As she looks forward to a career in science, she tells Inverse that she’s constantly thinking about how to improve people’s lives.

“My own community in Detroit was particularly hard hit by this extremely virulent strain of type A influenza, and this put the lives of many children, and especially patients in nursing homes, at risk,” she recalls.

Yang has worked in Dr. Wen's lab for nearly her whole high school career.
Yang has worked in Dr. Wen's lab for nearly her whole high school career.

In Wen’s lab, Yang learned about M2, an influenza matrix protein, that could allow scientists to create flu vaccines more quickly than they currently can. More importantly, they could be used to make a universal vaccine. Learning under Wen, Yang has been inspired — not only to work in a research lab but to follow in the footsteps of a woman who’s achieved so much in her scientific career.

Learning under Wen, Yang has been inspired — not only to work in a research lab but to follow in the footsteps of a woman who’s achieved so much in her scientific career.

“As a girl, I really look up to her work and her dedication to improving the lives of a lot of people through healthcare and being able to persevere through all the challenges that come with being a woman in STEM,” says Yang. “It was an amazing thing for her to take on someone who was going into ninth grade and teach them all the skills necessary to conduct independent research.”

Madeleine Yang
Yang has been working in Wen's lab since her freshman year in high school.

It’s clear, talking to Yang, that her focus on science improving people’s lives is laser sharp. But when she talks about her education, she bubbles over with gratitude for the people who have helped her along the way. She talks excitedly about her teacher, Ross Arseneau, who not only has supported her in academic competitions but has made math and science cool. She’s grateful for Brad McNellen, her Latin teacher, whose career advice has been valuable.

Yang won fourth place at the Regeneron Science Talent Search in March.
Yang won fourth place at the Regeneron Science Talent Search in March.

When she isn’t in the lab or classroom, Yang is likely to be on the water. She’s been on her school’s sailing team for three years; her favorite boat, she says, is the small, agile 420. She’s also a musician, playing classical violin and piano in her school’s orchestra as well as in several smaller ensembles.

But the pull of STEM is strong, even when it comes to Yang’s extracurricular activities. She co-chairs her school’s competitive math team, where she’s had the opportunity to pass on some of the mentorship she’s received.

“I was in it a number of years ago, and I hope to pull a lot of young girls and keep them going strong in STEM,” she says. “I can see in them what I was like years ago. I had people who inspired me to continue what I did, and I hope I can do that for them, too.”

Yang is going to college next year, and she’s currently deciding from among Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. The most important factor in her decision, she says, is that the school she attends must conduct— and apply — research that will improve people’s lives. After college, she hopes to go into the pharmaceutical industry to translate groundbreaking research into real-world solutions.

As far as the research goes, Yang is under no illusions that the universal vaccine will be on the market in time for the next flu season. That’s just not how these things work. If a medication or vaccine even works — and that’s a big if — it will easily take seven to ten years for it to go to market. But despite the long timeline, she’s optimistic about the future of the project.

“I’ll be out of grad school by that time, but we’re hoping to start animal testing within the next year.”