Los Altos High student works on developing celiac disease treatment

Brian Siesel/Special to the Town Crier
Los Altos High School student Alex Guh-Siesel, left, met Nobel laureate Frances Arnold after hearing her speak at the California Science and Engineering Fair.

Los Altos High School student Alex Guh-Siesel recently discovered that awarding medals in the California Science and Engineering Fair is not an exact science. When he walked on stage last spring to accept his first-place medal in the biochemistry category, he was handed the medal for computer science instead.

Guh-Siesel found humor in the error, which he called “a technical difficulty.” The mistake was quickly corrected and the senior stood grinning ear to ear with his gold medal around his neck.

“It was just an amazing feeling to win,” the Los Altos resident said.

Guh-Siesel received the award for his efforts in developing a treatment for celiac disease, which his younger sister suffers from. He’s been working on the project since last fall in his Advance Science Investigation (ASI) class at Los Altos High. He created a synthesis of small-molecule inhibitors of the HLA-DQ2 receptor, which prevents certain receptors from binding to a protein in gluten that causes the autoimmune response associated with celiac disease.

Although he received some guidance from adviser Darren Dressen, Guh-Siesel conducted most of the research and experiments himself.

“Working in a high school lab – while nine of 10 projects were done in professional laboratories – and being able to obtain (nuclear magnetic resonance) data even though we don’t have an NMR machine was a challenge,” he said. “Talking to the judges and making it clear that I had to take a lot of initiative with this project and do a lot of the work on my own helped a lot.”

Even without the same accessibility and only an untested molecule, Guh-Siesel said he impressed the judges by engaging them in conversation and explaining his approach to solve the problem rather than focusing on the end results. But Guh-Siesel said the science of his project is only part of the reason he won. Using skills he has accumulated throughout his life – such as reaching out to others through humor and communicating his passion through tone – enabled him to connect with the judges.

“Seeing how everything connects together and having a diverse array of experiences has made me less unidimensional,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have won first place if I didn’t have the skills to communicate or socialize with the judges.”

While at the fair in Southern California, Guh-Siesel listened to a speech by Nobel laureate Frances Arnold and scheduled an appointment with her. When they met, Guh-Siesel told her about his research and how the project was based on papers by Stanford University professor Chaitan Khosla – one of Arnold’s past graduate students. After establishing contact with Khosla through Arnold, Guh-Siesel secured an internship at Dr. Calvin Kuo’s lab at Stanford this summer. Guh-Siesel said he is learning about culturing intestinal organoids and working on general stem cell projects.

Driven to help

Despite his busy schedule, Guh-Siesel finds time to give back to his community – from guiding a lost freshman on his first day of school to volunteering in Tanzania. He also regularly volunteers as a peer tutor, has been a part of student government for the past two years and runs on the cross-country team.

“I’m a very empathetic person, and that can be a burden and a gift. I feel everyone’s happiness, but also feel others’ pain, struggles or anxiety,” he said. “It brings me innate joy or happiness to help others. It could just be making others who might be in my shoes more comfortable or being a friendly face in the hallways.”

Combining his desire to help others and his passion for science, Guh-Siesel wants to pursue a career in medicine. He plans to apply to universities with a combined bachelor’s-M.D. program that grant students conditional acceptance to medical school.

“(Programs like this) would allow me to spend my undergrad just exploring and discovering more passions and not having to focus so much on the application to graduate school,” he said.

In the future, Guh-Siesel also hopes to use his medical expertise to help the less fortunate by participating in programs and projects abroad.

“I want to be able to use my medical or research background and skills to do programs like (Doctors Without Borders) and maybe go to other countries and live there for a few years,” he said. “Maybe spend a few years (working) to pay off student loans, but afterwards, I want to spend a few years in other countries, as well as just serving underprivileged areas in the U.S., providing free or more affordable care.”

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