Minnetonka Student Works With Scientists to Unlock Disease

Student Spotlight: Charles Du was awarded a research apprenticeship at the Lillehei Heart Institute

For most teenagers, a summer job means waiting tables or lifeguarding.  Charles Du worked in a lab alongside scientists and researchers. 

Du was one of two students awarded a position through the Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (REAP) sponsored by the Minnesota Academy of Science and the U.S. Army.

“I am working for a $1,300 scholarship,” Du explained of his position at the Lillehei Heart Institute at the University of Minnesota this summer. He continues to work at the Institute part-time during the school year. 

His duties at the Institute vary. “Every day is different,” said the senior. 

One project Du is excited about involves a disease known as FSHD. FSHD is the most prevalent type of muscular dystrophy, which causes progressive muscle weakness. 

“Not much is known about this disease,” Du explained. “We are looking at which genes may be related to the disease and whether taking a gene out of the pathway could allow muscles to grow normally.” 

Overseeing him on the FSHD project are research associates Lynn Hartweck and Abhijit Dandapat. “They supervise my work, give me feedback on my results and help me decide the next steps to take,” he said. 

Du also credits Minnetonka teacher Dawn Norton for enhancing his interest in science.

“Mrs. Norton has helped me develop an interest in biology because of her enthusiasm for science and little talks on its importance in our lives,” he said. 

But economics ranks as his favorite high school class so far. “Mr. Pears is great, and I like the real world application of how our economy works,” Du said.  “People had different opinions, and there was a lot of discussion in class.”

His economics class participated in a contest called the . Students competed by analyzing typical retail issues involving pricing, promotion and inventory. 

Du and his team partner, Duncan Hurrelbrink, were among the top five teams in the nation and each won a $1,500 scholarship and a trip to New York to compete at the NASDAQ.  

“I learned a lot about the stock market and what people in the financial market do for a living,” he said. 

Du plans to merge his interests in science and economics into a career one day.

“Hopefully I will have a job in some science-related field,” he said. “I would like to eventually get involved in management so I may work towards getting an MBA.”

Du says education is a “huge focus” in his family.

His parents, Huajun Cao and Dianhai Du, are Chinese. Du has traveled to China a few times and can speak Mandarin. “Enough to understand a conversation,” he said.

“Almost all the food cooked in my house is traditional Chinese dishes,” Du said. Other than that, “I don't think there's anything glaringly unique about my upbringing.”

This fall, Du will apply to several colleges, including MIT, Caltech, University of Chicago, University of Minnesota, Stanford, Harvard and Yale. Du’s sister attends MIT and encouraged him to apply there.

“I'm looking forward to college, to finally be on my own and essentially start my own life,” he said.

Du is already acquainted with life on a college campus: he is taking a full load of classes at the University of Minnesota this semester. 

“Charles is taking advantage of PSEO (post-secondary enrollment option), so that he can attend the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota will pay the course tuitions,” explained Phil Trout, college counselor. “Charles is still a Minnetonka High School student, but he won’t be taking any classes here this year. In a typical year, we have five to eight students who do PSEO full-time.”

In addition to science and math classes, Du’s course load this semester at the U includes British Literature. Du admits he doesn’t have much time to read. 

“I am so busy, it is hard to get invested in a novel,” he said. His favorite book is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. 

The age gap between himself and his classmates at the U doesn’t bother him. “I've taken some classes at Minnetonka with students older than me for the past two years, so being with older students isn't really new to me,” he said.

When he isn’t at school or in the lab, Du prefers to be outside. “I like fishing and hiking,” he said. 

Though Du won’t be attending high school classes, he will still be active at Minnetonka. Du is president of the school’s National Honor Society, which requires running meetings and organizing events.   

He is also captain of the Quiz Bowl and Science Bowl teams and is on the varsity tennis team.

Du volunteers as a writing coach in the school’s writing center, and he is a first mate leader for the incoming freshman class.

His advice to freshmen?

“Take every opportunity that comes your way,” he said. “And sleep actually is very important.”

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