Singapore teen shines in US ‘junior Nobel Prize’ competition

Singapore teen shines in US ‘junior Nobel Prize’ competition

18-year-old emerged as finalist for research on superbug that causes pneumonia

Singaporean teenager Catherine Lai might have found new antibiotics for tackling multidrug-resistant superbug Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes pneumonia.

The 18-year-old, who started her research at 15, even cut off cable television and games such as Candy Crush, transforming her bedroom in New York into a laboratory, filling “every inch with computer servers and routers”.

She developed a software platform and a sequence of steps to screen millions of compounds that could combat the enzyme which allows the pneumonia bacteria to thrive in the human body.

Her research clinched her a spot as a finalist in a prestigious American competition last year, regarded by many as the “junior Nobel Prize”. Her prize money was US$7,500 (S$10,500).


Catherine is the most brilliant and creative science student that I have taught in my 24-year career. I know of no other student who has made such a significant contribution to medical science without the help of any scientific research supervisor.

DR JEAN S. DREW, Catherine’s mentor at The Brearley School.


The best thing about the Intel Science Talent Search competition is the publicity that it will give to my other work on under-researched diseases. ”



I remember enough about Singapore to still fantasise about durians, Yakult and potong ice cream.

CATHERINE, who returns to Singapore every year. She was born here and moved to the US with her family when she was five.

Based in the United States, the Brearley School student was one of 40 high school finalists in the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search.

The alumni of the competition, which dates back to 1942, have gone on to win distinguished honours, including 12 Nobel Prizes for the sciences.

Catherine described qualifying for the competition as a finalist as “a great honour”, adding that her “main goal was to find a potential cure” in an area the World Health Organisation (WHO) has described as being in urgent need of more research and development.

In February, WHO said new antibiotics need to be developed urgently to combat multidrug-resistant bacteria that pose a threat in hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities. These include Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and various Enterobacteriaceae that can cause severe and deadly infections such as pneumonia and septicaemia.

WHO has described these “priority pathogens” as the greatest threats to human health.

Catherine’s interest in such work was “fired up” at 15 after reading an article on how nose and throat cancer affects millions in Asia with a certain genetic make-up.

She said she learnt that few pharmaceutical companies invest in finding cures to these illnesses.

At around the same time, she was exposed to bioinformatics, which uses computers to solve tough biology problems, at her high school.

She then picked up programming and bioinformatic protocols on her own, and actively used Stack Exchange – an online platform where scientists help one another. She also got help from teachers, and scientists from Germany, China and the US.

With four published papers to her name, Catherine has also identified a set of disregulated genes linked to nasopharyngeal cancer. The results were published in the scientific journal Computers In Biology And Medicine.

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She said: “The best thing about the Intel Science Talent Search competition is the publicity that it will give to my other work on under-researched diseases.”

Her mentor at The Brearley School, Dr Jean S. Drew, said Catherine is an “independent and creative scientific thinker”.

She added: “Catherine is the most brilliant and creative science student that I have taught in my 24-year career. I know of no other student who has made such a significant contribution to medical science without the help of any scientific research supervisor.”

Born in Singapore, Catherine studied at Chiltern House Preschool before moving to the US with her family when she was five.

Her father Richard Lai was doing his doctorate at Harvard. The 54-year-old and his wife are managing partners in their hedge fund.

An only child, Catherine is also an athlete, and a pianist and flautist who performed at Carnegie Hall. She also knows six languages, including Latin and Korean.

She returns to Singapore every year to visit her extended family.

She said: “I remember enough about Singapore to still fantasise about durians, Yakult and potong ice cream.”

On his daughter’s success, Mr Lai said: “The initial feeling is one of vindication, because we resisted hiring tutors and coaches for Catherine. And as parents who’ve made this choice would know, there’s always a gnawing feeling that the kid might not get into a good college.”

Both he and his wife do not understand their daughter’s work as they are from different fields, so they “can only admire from afar”.

The Intel Science Talent Search – described as a forum and incentive for American high school seniors to complete an original research project that is judged by professional scientists, mathematicians and engineers – offers three top awards of US$150,000.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline ‘S’pore teen shines in US ‘junior Nobel Prize’ competition’

Ciancarelli: Yale an outlier as Ivy admit rates drop

Yale an outlier as Ivy admit rates drop


Application numbers across the Ivy League surged this year, with almost every school receiving a record number of applications. As a result, every Ivy saw a lower acceptance rate this cycle, with the exception of Yale.

Yale had a record-breaking 32,900 applicants for the class of 2021, a 5 percent uptick from last year. In preparation for the opening of two new residential colleges, Yale accepted 2,272 students from this pool, 300 more students than last year. Yale was the only school in the Ivy League to see its acceptance rate increase, moving from 6.27 percent to 6.9 percent this year.

Harvard University, however, maintained its 5.2 percent acceptance rate, accepting 2,056 students from a pool of 39,506, according to the Harvard Crimson.

Five Ivy League schools posted record-low acceptance rates this year, continuing a trend of falling acceptance rates at selective universities nationwide. Brown posted a record-low acceptance rate of 8.3 percent, according to the Brown Daily Herald. Columbia, whose applicant pool was the largest in its history, set a school record with an acceptance rate of 5.8 percent for Columbia College and Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Cornell also had a record number of applicants and a record-low acceptance rate, with 12.5 percent of applicants accepted out of 47,038.

The University of Pennsylvania admitted 3,699 students from a pool of 40,413 applicants, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian. This 9.15 percent admissions rate is the lowest in the school’s history, and the number of applicants represents a substantial increase over the 38,918 for the class of 2020.

Princeton University received a record-breaking 31,056 applicants for the class of 2021 and admitted 1,890 students, a 6.1 percent acceptance rate, the lowest in school history.

Dartmouth was the only Ivy League college to receive fewer applications than last year, with 20,675 applications to the class of 2020 and 20,034 applications to the class of 2021. Dartmouth accepted 2,092 for an acceptance rate of 10.4 percent, the college’s lowest admissions rate since 2013, The Dartmouth reported.

High school seniors interviewed said they have felt the effects of an increasingly competitive Ivy League admissions process.

Cassandra Hsiao, a high school senior from Los Angeles who was accepted by all eight Ivy League schools, said she thought the country is increasingly valuing higher education. But in Ivy League admissions, she thought these national trends had made the process “cutthroat.”

“Many students feel that getting into an Ivy League nowadays is a lottery game,” Hsiao said. “Thinking of it in that way removes the sting if it’s a denial and humbles students when it’s an acceptance.”

Charlotte Buck, a senior at Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey, said many of her peers viewed the Ivy admissions process as a “crapshoot.” She attributed the increased number of applications to the perceived prestige of the eight Ivies.

“A lot of people apply just to apply on the off chance that they get in,” Buck said.

And Adam Wolnikowski, a Yale-admitted senior at Eastern York High School in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, said he believed the record-high Ivy League admissions rates could be attributed to the increasing ease of applying to multiple schools through standardized applications like the Common App.

Yale released admissions decisions for students applying regular decision to the class of 2021 on Thursday, the same day as the other seven Ivy League colleges.

Indian-American teen wins top science award worth $250,000

Indian-American teen wins top science award worth $250,000

Indian-American teen wins top science award worth $250,000

PTI | Mar 16, 2017, 07.25 PM IST

Indrani Das (Centre), 17, of Oradell, New Jersey, wins top prize and $250,000 in Regeneron Science Talent Search. (Photo courtesy: Das (Centre), 17, of Oradell, New Jersey, wins top prize and $250,000 in Regeneron Science Talent Sear… Read More
WASHINGTON: An Indian-American teen has won the top award, worth $250,000, in the oldest and most prestigious science and math competition in the US, for her research on preventing death of neurons due to brain injuries or neurodegenerative diseases.

Indrani Das, a 17-year-old resident of New Jersey, and four other Indian-origin students were among the top ten finalists to be honoured at the annual Regeneron Science Talent Search Awards Gala for their research projects demonstrating exceptional scientific and mathematical ability.

Forty finalists took home more than $1.8 million in awards.

A contributor to neuron death is astrogliosis, a condition that occurs when cells called astrocytes react to injury by growing, dividing and reducing their uptake of glutamate, which in excess is toxic to neurons.

In a laboratory model, Das showed that exosomes isolated from astrocytes transfected with microRNA-124a both improved astrocyte uptake of glutamate and increased neuron survival.

Arjun Ramani, an 18-year-old student from Indiana won the third place honours worth $150,000 for blending the mathematical field of graph theory with computer programming to answer questions about networks.

Typically, these questions require statistical comparisons to hundreds or thousands of random graphs, a process that can take a relatively long time.

He developed an algorithm that greatly accelerated the process by reducing the time required to generate these graphs.

“Congratulations to the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2017 top winners,” said George D Yancopoulos, president and chief scientific officer of Regeneron.

“My experience as a Science Talent Search winner led me to embark on a career in science, and I hope it will inspire these exceptional young scientists to become the next generation of innovators that will improve the world and solve some of our most pressing challenges as a society,” said Yancopoulos.

Archana Verma, 17, from New York, received a $90,000 award for her study of the molecular orbital energy dynamics of dyes, which may someday result in windows that produce solar energy.

Prathik Naidu, 18, from Virginia, received a $70,000 award for his creation of a new machine learning software to study 3D interactions of the human genome in cancer.

Vrinda Madan, 17, from Florida, received a $50,000 award for her study of 24 potential compounds for the treatment of malaria, in which she found two potential candidates that appear to target the disease-causing organism in a novel way and may warrant further study.

Of more than 1,700 high school seniors who entered the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2017, roughly 300 were named scholars in January.

Of those scholars, 40 students were named finalists and invited to Washington, DC to compete for the top 10 awards

Vanderkam: How These Parents Work And Homeschool Too

How These Parents Work And Homeschool Too

It’s the ultimate second shift: Here’s how some parents teach their kids at home while building their careers.

How These Parents Work And Homeschool Too

Homeschooling has become increasingly popular in the past few years. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 3.4% of Americans aged 5-17 were homeschooled in 2012. While that’s not a huge proportion, it’s a more than 50% increase from 2003.

Plenty of families would like to try it. However, many are held back by the assumption that one parent (likely Mom) would have to stop working. But talk to homeschooling parents and you find that a number are attempting the ultimate “second shift”: building a career while running a small school operation at the same time.

It sounds crazy, but it’s doable for people committed to the approach. Catherine Gillespie, a marketing consultant, says that combining the two means she earns a good living while “getting to give my kids individualized educations that really meet their needs.”


Parents who make it work embrace a few ideas.

First, they realize that all working parents need some sort of child care, even parents who work from home. Traditional schools serve this function for some families, but “education” and “custodial care” can be unbundled.

Second, core learning comprises fewer hours of the traditional school day than you might think. A school day that runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. includes lunch, transition times, and classroom management. One-on-one instruction is a lot more efficient. Twenty hours a week would match what most schools offer, and most schools only run for nine months a year. Gillespie says homeschooling runs from 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. to noon or 1:00 p.m. in her house, with some extra reading time. “School does go faster when you are teaching a smaller class,” she says.

Third, homeschooling parents can share the load. Two parents can divvy up subjects and instructional time. Many hire tutors for individual subjects. Carrie Beam, an engineer who works in an office Monday through Thursday, told me that her daughter goes to tutoring for a few hours per day. On Fridays, Beam teaches math to her daughter and several other homeschooling students. Many homeschooling families belong to such co-ops or programs that provide group learning or specialized instruction at least one day a week.

These co-ops and programs mean students don’t just stay home. They also go to college classes, or do intense athletic endeavors, or swap time at friends’ houses, all of which gives parents time to work.


This is important for the final concept: there are 168 hours in a week. “Their school day and your work day do not have to mirror each other exactly,” says Pamela Price, author of How to Work and Homeschool. Work doesn’t always happen from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday to Friday in an office (even a home office), and schooling need not happen during these hours either. Once you wrap your head around that, the math makes sense. You can work 40 hours and homeschool for 20 hours, sleep eight hours a night (56 per week), and still have 52 hours for other things. The key is moving the pieces around.


So that’s what many families do. A nurse might work Monday, Thursday, and Saturday from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. She homeschools on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. If the kids go to a homeschool co-op on Thursday, that leaves just one weekday for coverage. Maybe her partner can take that day, or she hires a sitter.

Tera Gall, who works in teacher professional development, homeschools her 7-year-old son. He does an online learning program while she works from home. She travels twice a month for several days, and during those times a sitter comes from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. to supervise while her husband is at work. “The people who are coming in are mostly graduate students or college students, and they have no issue with it,” she says. She leaves detailed instructions, but they understand the concept: “They’ve all taken some sort of class online.”

Shelly Lynn Nellis, a serial entrepreneur and editor-in-chief of Fresh Vancouver magazine, had always been interested in homeschooling. “Just because the majority of society does something does not mean it’s the optimal way for you,” she says. “That’s being an entrepreneur–always thinking there’s another way to do it.” That turned out to be a useful mind-set when her now 9-year-old daughter was diagnosed with severe allergies that made school attendance dicey. These days Nellis gets up early to work from home and do phone calls with people on the East Coast before starting homeschooling. She has a nanny come one day per week, and her daughter is in an all-day homeschool program one other day. These allow her to attend meetings. Coupled with some evening time–her daughter dances five days per week–plus her husband’s flexible schedule, she has time to run her businesses.


Many parents swap shifts. Ali Davies and her husband share the homeschooling of their 12-year-old son. Her husband works fluctuating hours. She runs a training company, and schedules client meetings during the hours he’ll be available. “I get what I can done in 20-25 hours,” she says. “I always have another bonus five to 10 hours, I just never quite know when it’s going to be.” She maintains a list of tasks she can do when these bonus hours appear. Working opposite shifts as a spouse can be tough on a marriage. “We made the mistake of letting those things go the first few months,” Davies says. But now they’re mindful of scheduling couple time when their son will be gone, such as during an upcoming scouting trip.


Gillespie homeschools in the morning, then works when a nanny comes three afternoons per week. The kids are in a homeschool program one afternoon a week, and she works on Saturdays when her husband covers. Since email–which one study found consumes 28% of the average workweek–can be snuck in here and there while the kids are occupied, there winds up being space for everything: a job and school too, she says. Consequently, a lot of parents she knows are giving it a whirl. “They are passionate about giving their kids a great education, but they also have their own interests and passions outside of school,” she says.


Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010).She blogs at

Hempel: The Peter Thiel Pedigree

Jesse Leimgruber has 22 employees, and every last one is older than him. He tells me this over coffee at a downtown San Francisco Starbucks that is equidistant from his company’s coworking space and the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his girlfriend. Leimgruber is the CEO of NeoReach, a digital marketing tools firm he started in 2014 with his brother and a friend; they have raised $3.5 million so far, and last year they did over a million dollars in sales. He is 22.

Leimgruber is one of 29 people who make up this year’s class of Thiel Fellows — the crazy smart youth paid by Peter Thiel to double down on entrepreneurship instead of school. Leimgruber has dramatic eyebrows, longish hair, and the kind of earnest perma-grin that creeps across his face even when he’s trying to be serious. He speaks with the authority of a three-time CEO who has learned a lot on the job, explaining a challenge particular to fellows like him: “A common piece of advice is, don’t hire your peers; They probably aren’t qualified.”

Welcome to the 2016 version of Peter Thiel’s eponymous fellowship. What began as an attempt to draw teen prodigies to the Valley before they racked up debt at Princeton or Harvard and went into consulting to pay it off has transformed into the most prestigious network for young entrepreneurs in existence — a pedigree that virtually guarantees your ideas will be judged good, investors will take your call, and there will always be another job ahead even better than the one you have. “We look for extraordinary individuals and we want to back them for life,” says executive director Jack Abraham. He speaks with the conviction of a man who sold a company by age 25, has spent the entirety of his professional life in the cradle of the upswing of the technology revolution, and only just turned 30. With no irony, he adds: “We consider ourselves a league of extraordinary, courageous, brilliant individuals who should be a shining light for the rest of society.”

This is not what Thiel endeavored to build. In 2010, when he set out to take down higher education by plucking kids from the ivory towers of the Ivy League and transporting them to San Francisco, he had his eye on teenagers. In a hastily conceived plan that he announced at a San Francisco tech conference, Thiel said he’d pay $100,000 to 20 people under the age of 20 to drop out of school for two years, move to the Bay Area, and work on anything they wanted. His goal was to jumpstart the kind of big tech breakthroughs — walking on the moon, desktop computing — that he believed the contemporary Valley lacked. He also meant to prove that college was often counterproductive; it required kids to take on debt while laying out a set of overly prescriptive options for their futures. A college diploma, he once said, was “a dunce cap in disguise.”

In the first years of the program, Thiel’s fellows were a hodgepodge group of searching teens, many of whom didn’t yet have clearly defined projects or end up becoming entrepreneurs. Some even went back to school. His first class, in 2011, included a fellow who had begun studying at MIT when she was 14, and another who, at 19, was in his fourth year of a Ph.D. program in neuroscience. Six came directly from high school.

Jesse Leimgruber, a Thiel fellow and CEO at NeoReach.

Six years later, the fellowship looks quite different. To a person, the fellows are entrepreneurs, and for the most part, they are already successful. They include founders who have already built and sold multiple companies, or made so much money they are acting as angel investors on their own. They have raised a collective $409 million dollars in funding and had $40 million dollars in exits so far. Most are now older than 20 and some have even graduated college. Instead of supplying bright young minds with the space and tools to think for themselves, as Thiel had originally envisioned, the fellowship ended up providing something potentially more valuable. It has given its recipients the one thing they most lacked at their tender ages: a network.

Think of it as a kid version of the Young Presidents’ Organization; it’s a group whose network has grown to include 123 past and current fellows. I’ve now spoken to two dozen of them. And sure, most of them have stopped out of school for some period of time (it does remain a requirement of the fellowship). Yes, the money’s helpful. But the network? That’s everything. The fellows lean on Thiel’s name to open the Valley’s doors (though in the aftermath of the presidential election, it’s not working quite as well as it once did). As important, they lean on each other. After all, the set of challenges you face when you are young — say, young enough that you’re employing people with mortgages at the same time as you’re signing your first lease — are unique. And the types of relationships you cement in adolescence, when you are still forming your ideas about the world and your role within it, are uniquely strong. For Leimgruber, as for many of his peers, Thiel fellows are the first call you make when you have to figure out, say, whether you should hire your friends. Or whom you should ask for money. Or which reporters you should talk to.

“It’s a really strong group, way stronger than even, like, VCs,” Leimgruber says. “If you make friends with three or four fellows, these people are way more likely to have a higher conversion rate on intros than investors do. They’re your friends, whereas with investors, it’s always a favor.”

Like many of the 2016 fellows, Leimgruber didn’t apply. He had grown up in Orlando, where his dad owned an auto shop and his mom worked as a customer account manager. Neither had college degrees. He built his first website at 10, and started an ecommerce site at 15. (Among the most popular products were bright neon hats that said “Rage” and “Party” and became a staple at music festivals.) During his senior year of high school, Leimgruber worked with his brother to start a small digital marketing agency.

By the time he showed up for his first computer science class at Stanford University in 2012, Leimgruber’s businesses had pulled in a million dollars in revenue. One of his advisors suggested he think about building software tools for digital marketing, instead of a traditional agency. So, he teamed with his older brother and a friend to start NeoReach. He joined a student accelerator, squeezing his classes in on the side. An older student mentioned the fellowship to him that year, but Leimgruber wasn’t interested in leaving school. He’d worked too hard to get there.

President of the Thiel Foundation and Principal at Thiel Capital Blake Masters in his office on Oct. 4, 2016.

By sophomore year, Leimgruber shared a campus apartment with five friends, all of whom were working on startups. All were raising money. “It was crazy,” says Leimgruber. “We raised millions of dollars between four companies!” One by one, they began to drop out so they could focus on their companies. One roommate left to become a Thiel fellow. In the fall of 2014, as NeoReach closed in on a million dollars in revenue, it got too hard to manage the company and stay in school. So he took a leave of absence.

Leimgruber had been working from San Francisco for nearly a year when an email arrived from Thiel Foundation president Blake Masters. Masters invited him to a two-day conference in San Francisco. The invitation was a bit last minute, with only two weeks’ notice, but he wouldn’t even have to travel. He figured, why not?

When Leimgruber arrived at the conference, he figured out quickly that the event was actually a finalist round for the fellowship. He was one of about a hundred people gathered at Thiel’s offices, which are in the same set of buildings that houses Lucas Films on a leafy campus in the Presidio. Outside, a bronze Yoda statue anchored a fountain in the center of the complex. Inside, supremely young founders from across the globe compared fundraising tips and commiserated on hiring. “It was the first time I met a lot of other young dropouts outside of my Stanford network,” Leimgruber said. Many appeared nervous, he remembers, but he wasn’t. “I was pretty sure that if I wanted it, I would get it,” he said. He had, after all, been recruited. When he got home, he filled out a brief application — it maybe took ten minutes — and then he waited.

Last January, he got the call. It lasted less than ten minutes. Leimgruber had been accepted.

Leimgruber happened to work from the Bay Area, but these days, more than half the fellows don’t. In Boston, Grace Xiao, 20, is working on Kynplex, a social networking software for scientific innovations and Brian Truong, 23, is building software that replaces ads with questions for online publishers. In Durham, North Carolina, Ivonna Dumanyan, 22, is building wearable sensors for athletes. In Los Angeles, Anthony Zhang, 21, is building an on-demand food delivery app for college kids.

These fellows are very different than their predecessors. They are older. They are often members of founding teams, and occasionally the fellowship will be awarded to more than one founder on a team. (More often, the other founders have aged out; Leimgruber’s cofounders, for example, are 23 and 28.) No one is trying to do anything as impractical and far-reaching as mining space asteroids; their endeavors are scrappier, and more readily turned into the types of businesses that see profit on the horizon. Many come to the fellowship with tech street cred already. Truong managed Boston deal flow for a venture fund while at Harvard, the college from which he graduated in May. Zhang and his cofounders have funding from the accelerator 500 Startups, where they completed the summer 2015 program.

Many fellows, like Sohail Prasad, have completed Y Combinator, or are currently enrolled. A Texas native, Prasad, 23, left Carnegie Mellon’s computer engineering program after his first year. He’d taken a summer internship working on speech technologies at Google. After that summer, he took a startup job and stuck around San Francisco. His YC project was an ebooks company that he later shut down. A couple years later, however, Prasad and two friends started Equidate, a stock market for private tech stocks. One of his YC batch mates was a Thiel Fellow alum (class of ’12) and suggested he apply; he was accepted last May.

Prasad said that while YC offers a larger network, Thiel’s network consistently delivers peers whose companies are more advanced. Also, while YC — and nearly every other accelerator — accepts companies in exchange for a slice of equity, the Thiel Fellowship isn’t interested in profiting from the companies its fellows start. It takes no equity, and even Thiel’s personal funds and the venture firm he founded, Founders Fund, shy away from backing the fellows.

Once a year, the fellowship gathers all its members for a retreat. This year’s retreat was held in September in Los Angeles. Attendees were treated to a tour of SpaceX, and got individual sessions with executive director Jack Abraham to review any challenges they faced. Everyone received black Everlane backpacks and sweatshirts with “Dropout” written in black letters.

One figure who was noticeably absent was Thiel. In fact, Leimgruber said that in the nine months he’d been a fellow, he’d only crossed paths with Thiel a couple of times, and then, only in group settings. “I don’t think he would know me,” says Leimgruber.

Founder & Co-CEO at Equidate and Thiel Fellow Sohail Prasad.

Inlate September, Thiel invited current fellows and a few alumni over for dinner. It was one of those rare hot San Francisco evenings when the fog fails to roll in, and many visitors were still in short sleeved t-shirts bearing startup logos as they climbed the steps to his front door. Pizzamakers had set up an oven in the driveway to bake gourmet pies that were whisked through the garage, to the kitchen. From there, servers brought them out to the dining room, placing them between pasta dishes and salads on a large oblong table.

The room resembled a dorm party in which someone had transported all of the sleep-starved, pizza-munching adolescents to Oliver Warbucks’s penthouse. There was Riley Ennis, a lanky 2013 alum, standing in front of a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass that looked out over the bay. Ennis, 22, had recently landed an investment led by Andreessen Horowitz for his third startup, a genomics company called Freenome that screens blood for early cancer detection. There was Megan Grassell, 20, who had flown in from New York, where she runs a tween bra company. Leimgruber was there. And there, off to the left, was Thiel, hair cropped short, aquiline nose, dressed in light blue jeans and a plaid button-down, chatting with Abraham.

None of the fellows had yet approached Thiel, so I went over to say hello. I asked him how he felt about the fellowship, and he said it had accomplished one of his primary goals: promoting entrepreneurship as a viable alternative to college. Today, there are university-oriented venture funds (like the Dorm Room Fund), college entrepreneurship programs, and hackathon conferences for teens. Thiel takes some credit for this. “Entrepreneurship has become a line you put on your resume,” he said. But it’s also a reason the fellowship has doubled down on more advanced entrepreneurs in recent years. Thiel never likes to do what everyone else is doing.

Thiel is a busy guy, and the fellowship is not his first priority. Apart from parties like this, he doesn’t interact with the fellows too much. For one, he is conscious of the optics of the relationship between the Thiel Fellowship and the Founders Fund. He says he wants to avoid any suggestion that he is creating a training program for his own investments, which is why he almost never invests in current fellows. But he also has a laundry list of obligations. Chief among them, now that Donald Trump has become the United States president elect, is that Thiel is advising him. While he has said that he doesn’t intend to take a formal role in the new administration, Thiel is helping Trump to build up tech policy advisors. Add that to his other obligations, which include his commitment to Founders Fund and his personal fund, Thiel Capital; his foundation’s program to fund early-stage scientific research called Breakout Labs; and the board seats he holds on Palantir Technologies, and Facebook. The fellowship certainly holds his name, and arguably, his interest—but that’s about it.

The day-to-day responsibility for the fellowship falls to Abraham along with Blake Masters, who is president of the Thiel Foundation and also a principal with Thiel Capital. Both guys do a slew of other things at the same time. Both have been rumored to be people Thiel has tapped to share ideas with Trump’s transition team. They both have experience at startups. Abraham dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania to run Milo, which sold to eBay by the time he was 25. Masters cofounded a legal startup called Judicata, and he was employee number 31 at Box, where’d he’d often spend the night in his office (he kept a George Foreman grill and a blow-up mattress there). But he also has a law degree; he got to know Thiel after he took Thiel’s Stanford law class. Masters’s notes on the class became the viral success that led to Zero to One, the startup handbook that he cowrote with Thiel.

The first time I stopped by the foundation, in August, Abraham was on the road in Europe somewhere, fundraising for his new company. I followed Masters past a counter holding a copy of a book with Donald Trump’s image, and into his office, which had a glass door that slid shut at the press of a button, straight out of Star Trek. There was a couch and a chair, but no desk. Instead, a bookshelf stretched from floor to ceiling, holding titles like The Power Broker and Immortality.

Masters and Abraham assumed control of the fellowship about 15 months ago, and they’re responsible for its current direction. They did away with large annual summits that had grown to include fellows but also hundreds of other entrepreneurial hopefuls, because they felt these summits were too mainstream. They’d become a stop on the party circuit for entrepreneurial youth. “I remember we had to coordinate with Major League Hacks, which is the organization for all the hackathon stuff, to make sure it wasn’t on the same weekend,” says Masters. Instead, the fellowship now holds occasional smaller events for finalists.

In the early years, fellows needed more structure and guidance; they often lived together, and their attendance was expected at more frequent events. Because they were younger, and their projects were nascent and sometimes unwieldy, they needed more support with the basics. In addition to helping with tips on fundraising or hiring practices, the fellowship’s former directors also lent dating advice, advised on table manners, and generally played a more parental role. Now that the fellows are further along on their entrepreneurial endeavors from the outstart, their needs are different, and often fewer; a central draw for the most accomplished fellows — people like Leimgruber whose schedules are tight already — is that the fellowship won’t be work; it will help.

The central tenet to the contemporary version of the fellowship is that there are no real requirements. Masters and Abraham make themselves available to advise founders. Abraham keeps a rigid schedule and carves out set office hours to meet. Masters tends to be more fluid; fellows can text him, and he usually manages to get back to them within the day. “I have babies that wake up and yell in the night. So I am around to do email at 2 a.m.,” he said. Fellows receive books — and payments — in the mail each month, and the fellowship connects with them to see how things are going. The fellowship also holds regular informal dinners in San Francisco, and sometimes New York. But the fellows don’t have to come.

Masters and Abraham also instituted some changes in the selection process. They added three years to the age limit so they could access stronger candidates. These days, they accept new fellows on a rolling basis, allowing the foundation to add a couple each month, and announce the full year’s fellows— now as many as 30 — each June. Early on, the application was onerous, including essays and test scores. “We’ve changed the application five times,” says Masters. “Each time, we decided it was really long, and cumbersome, and we weren’t getting the information we wanted.”

They got about 6,000 applications for this year’s fellowship, but 60 percent of the current crop of fellows didn’t apply. Instead, Masters and Abraham have tapped their networks for referrals, and recruited them. One such example is Boyan Slat, a long-haired European who founded The Ocean Cleanup at age 17 and became the youngest recipient ever to receive the UN’s highest environmental award. Slat presides over a team of more than 40 people at a Dutch foundation he started to develop technology to clean up the massive plastic garbage dump that rests atop the Pacific Ocean, between California and Hawaii. Masters met him last year when he came by the foundation to request a grant. Slat, now 22, seemed older than his years. Thiel’s team passed on the opportunity to fund him, but Masters remembered him. Earlier this year, when Slat was in San Francisco for a fundraising trip, they met up again. “I wasn’t expecting much but I took the meeting because of whoever introduced us,” says Masters. “Immediately, he was impressive.”

Masters asked him if he would like to be a fellow. “He was a little bit like, ‘I didn’t apply. What’s going on?’” Masters remembers. But he accepted the fellowship, and the $100,000 grant became a donation to his foundation. (I reached out to Slat to learn more, and a spokesperson responded that he was too busy for an interview.)

Jack Abraham is the executive director of the Thiel Fellowship. Abraham is photographed at the Thiel Foundation on Oct. 4, 2016.

Thiel’s dinner party concluded abruptly at 9 p.m. He didn’t kick anyone out. But the food stopped coming out of the kitchen, and when I looked up, Thiel had absented himself. We continued to mill around for awhile. I saw Leimgruber, and edged my way over to say hello. He introduced me to Kieran O’Reilly, who’d left Harvard in 2014 to run his GIF-making company, and John Backus, a ’15 fellow who’d been one of Leimgruber’s Stanford roommates during his epic sophomore year, and now is a cofounder at the software identity company Blockscore.

By then, I’d known Leimgruber for a few weeks, and we’d discussed many facets of the fellowship. “C’mon, aren’t you going to ask about dropping out of school?” said Leimgruber. I took the bait.

“Do people ask you guys that a lot?” I said. All three nodded.

“It’s really the worst when school comes up,” Backus said. “It’s offensive, the way people ask about it.” Backus was a tall, highly likable guy with a slightly lopsided face and the hint of a lisp. He explained that none of the successful dropouts ever went back to school. Bill Gates didn’t go back. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t go back. To go back would imply personal failure. Why would he ever do that? He had his network started already, and clearly the opportunities came through the network.

Sure, I conceded, but what if his company failed?

There was a look he shot me then, a look I’d come to recognize. It was the look that said, you don’t get it. Maybe his idea wouldn’t work, he said, and his company would fail. That happened. But there would be a half-dozen more ideas that he’d reach for, and after that, a half-dozen more. Each idea was just practice for realizing the next idea. And thanks to Thiel, he’d know the people — funders, engineers, advisors — that could best help him translate those ideas into companies. Yes, he could go back to Stanford any time. But why would he ever turn away from the thing that he’d started to build, which was not a company, but a network — and start all over again? This network, he contended, was far more valuable than any he could build in college — even at Stanford.

Thiel set out to disrupt the existing educational institutions. He suggested he could do a better job at training a small cohort of gifted individuals, and that once free of the shackles of a conformist degree-making institution, these fellows would be capable of jumpstarting human progress. Fellows have not yet spurred the type of innovation that has led to flying cars. Or even, yet, 140 characters. Instead, Thiel has manufactured a pedigree that is starting to look, in many ways, as elite as the one he endeavored to replace. For a select group of already successful entrepreneurs, it’s the ultimate credential.

Vaccines Produce Homosexuality, Says Italian Scientist Gian Paolo Vanoli

An Italian scientist is arguing that vaccinations produce homosexuality.

Gian Paolo Vanoli, a 70-year-old scientist, journalist and opponent of vaccinations, says that vaccines make people gay.

Vanoli, who’s a proponent of alternative medicine, recently spoke with Vice Italy’s Matteo Lenardon about his ideals.

Via a Huffington Post translation of the Vice interview:

The vaccine is introduced into the child, the child then grows and tries to find its own personality, and if this is inhibited by mercury or other substances present in the vaccine which enter the brain, the child becomes gay. The problem will especially be present in the next generations, because when gays have children, the children will carry along with them the DNA of their parent’s illness. Because homosexuality is a disease, even though the WHO has decided that it is not. Who cares! The reality is that it is so. Each vaccination produces homosexuality, because it prevents the formation of one’s personality. It is a microform of autism, if you will. You will see how many gays there will be in the next generation, it will be a disaster.

Despite these views, Vanoli insists he supports same-sex marriage and gay adoption. He doesn’t “blame” gay people for their “illness,” just as he wouldn’t blame someone who “suffers from cancer or a heart attack,” he told GayStarNews.

“But we have to say that it’s an illness, something that does not respect the order of life,” he told the outlet. “One of the main causes is represented by vaccines, which go against life, disturbing our mind and our spirit. The proof of that is the big increase in the number of homosexuals. Since mass vaccination began, this is the result.”

Some of Vanoli’s arguments, however, have been disputed for more than 30 years.

In 1975, for example, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, citing that “research has found no inherent association between any of these sexual orientations and psychopathology.” The APA goes on to say that “no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors.”

Gay rights in Italy continue to lag. Same-sex marriage is not legal in the country, and at least one top politician has publicly likened it to supporting pedophilia.

Chougule: Why the Kennedy-De Niro Vaccine Challenge Matters

Why the Kennedy-De Niro Vaccine Challenge Matters

A presidential commission led by Robert Kennedy Jr. could raise uncomfortable questions about the incentives driving vaccination recommendations.