rebelling against low expectations

Eva Vertes: An Uncommon Passion


Eva Vertes isn’t a normal young person. At least, that’s what our culture would tell us. Her discovery of a compound that inhibits brain cell death was regarded as a step toward curing Alzheimer’s and won her Best in Medicine at the International Science Fair at age 17. Quickly labeled a microbiology prodigy, Eva now aims to find better ways to treat — and avoid — cancer.

It All Started With A Book

“As I was reading that book I knew that I wanted a life in medicine,” says Eva. She was nine years old.

“I had never been a reader when I was young,” admits Eva laughingly, “My dad had tried me with the Hardy Boys, I had tried Nancy Drew, and I just didn’t like reading books!” That all changed when her mother bought her The Hot Zone, a medical thriller about an outbreak of the Ebola virus. “As I was reading that book I knew that I wanted a life in medicine,” says Eva. She was nine years old.

From that moment on Eva read every medical book she could get her hands on. For the next five years she was what she calls a “passive observer” of the medical world. “It wasn’t until I entered high school,” recalls Eva, “that I thought, Maybe now as a big high school kid I can become an active part of this big medical world.

“May I Use Your Laboratory, Professor?”

Dr. Michael Rathbone, head neurologist at Henderson Hospital and a professor in McMaster University’s department of medicine, was probably surprised to receive an email from a 14-year-old girl asking to work in his laboratory. But instead of dismissing the email, as several other professors had done, Dr. Rathbone was impressed enough to give Eva permission to work on her projects in his lab.

Dr. Michael Rathbone was probably surprised to receive an email from a 14-year-old girl asking to work in his laboratory.

Over the next year Eva bounced between the classroom and the laboratory. On top of her high school workload, she had to rush periodically to the university to check on her experiments — often during school hours. Her grades did drop slightly, but she wasn’t worried. “I was learning so much outside of school,” she says.

Finding A Cure For Alzheimer’s

Eva’s experiments and research soon brought her to Alzheimer’s. “I’ve always been interested in neurological science, and Alzheimer’s is a very important and relevant disease to work on,” explains Eva. “So many people in our aging population are being affected by it — not only the sufferers, but their families and caregivers.”

Eva threw herself into the study of Alzheimer’s, reading everything she could to familiarize herself with the current research.

Eva threw herself into the study of Alzheimer’s, reading everything she could to familiarize herself with the current research. One day, while reading in the medical library, she came across an article on something called purine derivatives that seemed to have cell-growth promoting properties.

“Being naive about the whole field,” says Eva, “I kind of thought, Oh, you have cell death in Alzheimer’s, which is causing the memory deficit, and then you have this compound — purine derivatives — that is promoting cell growth. And so I thought, Maybe if it can promote cell growth it can inhibit cell death too.

Best in the World in Medicine

Eva may have felt naive, but she was asking the right questions. Over the next year her research and experiments identified a particular purine derivative that inhibited brain cell death in fruit flies by over 60%. She presented her findings at the International Science Fair and was awarded Best in Medicine, at age 17.

She presented her findings at the International Science Fair and was awarded Best in Medicine, at 17.

This accomplishment opened many doors for Eva. That summer she was invited to England to study with other talented young scientists from around the world and her last year of high school was spent in Italy, where she continued her research at the Universita de Annunzio in Chieti, outside of Rome. She didn’t slack off on her school, though. She completed high school and took her SAT’s via correspondence.

Finding A Cure For Cancer

Even as her Alzheimer’s research continued Eva was drawn to cancer — the second leading cause of death in the United States and the disease that claimed her own grandmother and namesake years before. As with Alzheimer’s she began reading everything she could in order to get familiar with the field.

Even as her Alzheimer’s research continued Eva was drawn to cancer — the second leading cause of death in the US and the disease that claimed her own grandmother and namesake years before.

“I read in a textbook that cancer in skeletal muscle is extremely rare,” says Eva, obviously excited, “it was just a fact, it was just a given. So, no one really questioned it. But I guess that there’s an advantage to not knowing a lot because I said, Well, why doesn’t it go there? Why has no one looked into this?

For the last several years that’s exactly what Eva has been doing. “There’s a lot of tedious stuff you have to go through,” she admits, “but I just love it. I really do. I’m not getting paid for this. I’m just doing the research on my own. I hope we will see a cure for cancer in our lifetime.”

Eva Vertes: Prodigy or Passion?

Eva Vertes has done more in the first twenty-two years of her life than most people will do in a lifetime. It would be easy to label her, as many have already done, as a prodigy — someone who is so-smart-it’s-disgusting. But her accomplishments reflect so much more than just some genetic propensity for neurology.

To us, Eva’s life sounds less like prodigy and more like passion.

They reflect five years of delighted study before high school, countless afternoons biking back and forth from Highland High to McMaster University, hours and hours spent in the lab, stacks and stacks of medical reports and journals, and night after night lying in bed thinking about cancer and Alzheimer’s. To us, Eva’s life sounds less like prodigy and more like passion.

The Problem With Prodigies

Alex and I don’t like the “prodigy” label. Mostly because it implies that the young person’s performance is super-human — beyond the ability of “normal people” to understand or replicate. Once we label someone as a “prodigy” we usually cease to feel the need to learn from them or to be challenged by their example.

Once we label someone as a “prodigy” we usually cease to feel the need to learn from them or to be challenged by their example.

Not surprisingly, our culture is quick to label young people like Eva as exceptional — possessing magical qualities beyond what we could ever hope to achieve. It’s as if we’re afraid to see ordinary people do extraordinary things because it would burden us with some sort of obligation to do hard things ourselves.

Can We Learn From Eva Vertes?

We can learn from Eva Vertes if she is normal. And we don’t mean that her accomplishments are normative for teens, but that she, personally, is normal. Is she an extra-ordinary person or does she just have an extra-ordinary passion? Or is it her uncommon passion that makes her an uncommon person?

If Eva is a prodigy then we can admire her but not emulate her. But if she is simply a passionate young person with a “do hard things” mentality, we can be convicted. We can learn from her. And we should.

Ultimately, the question becomes whether our generation truly lacks potential or whether we simply lack passion. If Eva is a prodigy then we can admire her but not emulate her. But if she is simply a passionate young person with a “do hard things” mentality, we can be convicted. We can learn from her. And we should.

From what we can gather, Eva is not a Christian. Yet we can still applaud her work ethic, the commonsense approach she brings to the field of medicine, and her compassion for the sick and dying. There is much to commend in Eva Vertes. She is a picture of God’s common grace. And we should pray that she would come to know the God who gave her life and who designed the intricate systems she studies.

Why We Do Hard Things

This is how rebelutionaries differ from the Eva Vertes’ (or the David Banhs’) of the world and why we pray they will be far less rare. As Christians, as rebelutionaries, we have far better reasons to passionately do hard things. Here are three of them:

1.) A higher purpose: To glorify our Creator. It’s not about us.

2.) A greater strength: The work of the Holy Spirit. Not our own strength.

3.) A sweeter joy: Knowing Christ as Savior. Saved by grace alone.

Friends, these are priceless biblical truths. Stories like Eva’s turn our society’s expectations of teenagers upside down. They demonstrate how capable young people can be if they apply themselves. They prove the power of a young person dedicated to a dream. But friends, as Christians we have a calling that is higher than any earthly dream and a power beyond any human strength.

Let us then continue to earnestly challenge one another to “do hard things” for the glory of God.

Let us then continue to earnestly challenge one another to “do hard things” for the glory of God, developing and using our gifts to their full potential wherever God has called us, never content to give up, coast, or “just get by.” And let us be willing to sacrifice anything that would distract us from that calling.

This is a call to the sold-out Christian life, or what G.K. Chesteron calls the ‘Christian ideal’. This quote by him is one of our favorites: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” — G.K. Chesterton

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” — G.K. Chesterton

For God’s glory and by His grace, may we be dedicated and passionate, not just like Eva, but like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May we be a generation of Christian young people who find it difficult and yet still try.

Watch Eva Vertes At TED 2005

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About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of and co-authors of Do Hard Things and Start Here. They have a passion for God and for their generation. Their personal interests include politics, filmmaking, music, and basketball. They are both graduates of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.


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  • Wow, that’s cool.. I’ve always wanted to get good at the things I enjoy, but a lot of times it seems like I’m just not good at it. I’ll be trying harder though! 🙂 Thanks for this article!

  • I’m at a loss for words. Thank you so much for sharing Eva’s story, but most of all for stopping the “prodagy” syndrome before started and giving us all a vision to better honor our Master with our lives! I can’t thank you enough. Keep on!

  • I’m so proud of her! It’s a huge encouragement to me to see someone as young as her excel in the medical field (which is where I want to be in a matter of years).

    P.S. There were a few misspellings in the post. In the fifth paragraph ‘unversity’ needs an ‘i’, and I believe you meant to say ‘demonstrate’ instead of ‘demonstrates’ in the fourth last paragraph. (It feels so strange correcting your writing.) 🙂

  • That is awesome! God bless her! Thanks for sharing guys! This was the perfect thing to read before a long afternoon.

  • Wow. That is inspiring.

    I have a friend who feels like God may have called her to be a medical missionary (she picks up medical terms etc SO fast, and actually REMEMBERS them), and I think this post may encourage her.

    See you at New Attitude!

    ~Lady Tai

  • “Let us then continue to earnestly challenge one another to “do hard things” for the glory of God, developing and using our gifts to their full potential wherever God has called us, never content to give up, coast, or “just get by.” ”

    So true. The hardest thing for me right now as a music student is … to practice my instrument! I also have trouble having faith that my music is a calling which God can use for his glory. Thanks for the encouragement!

    Also, I appreciate your bursting the “prodigy” myth. I won’t say there aren’t geniuses out there, but we should remember that an individual’s achievements and aptitudes have a lot to do with the environment he has had and the work he has put into learning. I get tired of people talking about “Musical Talent” as if it was some strange gene. No, musical ability is the result of a musical enviroment, good teachers, and encouragement. Some musicians are specially gifted mentally and physically to excel, but almost anyone can learn to make music.

    I’ve heard this quote from Thomas Edison: “Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.”

    Soo… I’d better go practice!

  • That was really amazing! It is truly unbelievable all the work she has done and time she has dedicated. She is an inspiration. I will for sure be praying for her work and for her to realze she needs God in her life.

  • I have to say, this blog post wins the award for my absolute favorite, ever. =) Perfect timing, and just the encouragement I needed. Yesterday, I visited Duke University (the college and the med school) and Wake Forest (we’re on the college visits circuit!), and on the way back home (hours and hours and hours of driving…) I had lots of time to think, and talk with my parents about what my future holds. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to become a doctor, and I’ve spent lots of time at my local hospital, volunteering and reaching out. So yesterday, all I could talk about was how I couldn’t wait to get on with college and go to medical school, and eventually fulfill my dreams of being a physician. I’ve prayed so much about my future and what God is calling me to do, and yesterday was only so much more a confirmation that, yes, this is absolutely what God has for my life.

    Anyway, to the point… 😉 My mom finally said, “You know, talk is cheap. We all know you’re in love with medicine, but the real test is how much you’re willing to sweat during the next nine years: your senior year in high school, the college admissions process, four years of rigorous college coursework required for premed, studying for and taking the MCAT, the med school admissions process, and four grueling years of medical school. (Not to mention the internship, residency, and fellowship after that…)

    No matter what our calling is, whether its to be a wife and homeschooling mom (both of which I also aspire to be!), or to teach violin lessons, or to be a foreign missionary, a surgeon, an evangelist, writer, pastor… whatever it is, God calls every single one of us to GREATNESS. To the pursuit of excellence in all we do – from cleaning up the kitchen after supper, to everyday schoolwork, to our career.

    I’ve been thinking a great deal about the Rebelution’s mantra, “Do Hard Things”, and I decided that I’m not content with the B I have in physics this year, because I honestly haven’t given it 100% this year. So, this summer, I’ll be taking myself through physics once more, zealously this time. Whenever I get discouraged about the number of hours it takes, I’ll have Hebrews 12:1 to give a renewed zest to my heart!

    Let us do everything, from the most menial tasks, to the most extraordinary, for God’s glory alone – that we might pursue a divine passion in all things!

  • Amen! I really needed to hear this story tonight…I too am passionate about medicine, but I’ve been getting discouraged and lazy. I’m re-inspired! Praise the Lord, who allows us to “Do Hard Things” for HIS glory. What an amazing calling we have!

    Olivia, thanks for your testimony. I feel like we’re in the same boat. Sometimes it is a rocky ride, but in the end isn’t it a great one?!

  • Fantastic spotlighting of true accomplishments guys! This article truly is motivating and inspiring. Thank you.

    … let’s add to our prayers for Eva (as for all medical researchers of good will) that she will STOP using embryonic stem cells in her work and research, and thus uphold the dignity of human life with true integrity.

  • Thank you so much for posting this! I am working on my ungraduate biology degree and plan to go to medical school and become a medical missionary. Funny, books are what triggered my interest to this field as well, but now I can see God’s calling.
    Eva’s story is an inspiration and encouragement to me. Thank you again!

  • I was really touched by this. I thank God that now this may help people with Alzheimer’s. I have felt the affect of it; my own great grandfather suffered from it until his death. Alzheimer’s is a terrible diesese. (sp?) I know the feelings of everyone who has a family member who has this. It’s heart-breaking…to see the ones you love slowly, just, slip away from you. They forget who you are, who they are. They forget how to eat, how to swallow, how to use the bathrom, how to get dressed. Before my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s got too bad he kept on saying to my g-mother, “I keep on forgetting. I don’t want to forget, I don’t like it.”
    Since my g-father contracted it, I’ve prayed that someone will find a cure. Perhapes we will someday, and then no one will have to feel the terrible pain of seeing your father, husband, brother, sister, cousin, wife, daughter, grandmother, or uncle slowly become someone that you love and look up too, fall apart and become that of an infant; unable to do anything.
    This subject has brought up so many, many memories…some of them horrible, some of them bitter-sweet.
    I hope no one on that reads this has to go through what my family and I have suffered.

  • Amazing! It is so great hearing about people that just put their head and heart in to what they felt inspired by. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us and your view about the term prodigy.

  • Every tim I read this (This is only about the 4th time!), i become so inspired ot do hard thigns in the area of acedimics (If only I could spell the word…) Thanks!

  • Wow – I’m 54, and have never come across the idea that a prodigy could very well
    be someone as normal as my own children! This was a breath of fresh air. Prodigies
    DON”T have it all (unless they are in Christ, of course…)!!! This was a wonderful read.

    One thing I noticed… it would be great to hear from more guys… this must
    be something worth praying about. Just like in our churches, men are not
    as prominent as they should be, maybe the Rebelution can make a difference
    about that! It sure seems like it will… and starting with the Harris boys…
    I need to expose my 12 year old son to Rebelotion, as well as his dad… hmmmm

    God Bless You as you Bless Him!!!

  • The article about Eva Vertes is a present from God to encourage us to lead our children in the direction that goes to the path to “Do Hard Things”. Alex and Brett were escorted to that place by their father and mother. The whole family is moving in that direction and the Lord is being glorified by the good fruit that it produces. I will likewise be encouraging my 16 year old daughter and 12 year old son to walk this path with them. There are enough hard thing out in the world to go around and more than enough young people to do the needed work. Thank you Alex and Brett you are such an encouragement.

  • In the video, she talks about her grandmother narrowly avoiding a Nazi death camp, so I’m pretty sure she’s Jewish. Instead of praying that she finds Jesus, you rebolutionaries would do well by her cause to speak out against fundamentalist Christians who are restricting stem cell research. Or would that be too hard a thing to do?

  • Stem cells is a whole different subject we are not going into here. However, let me clarify, again, that we greatly admire and support Eva and the work she is doing. We also have a very deep love for the Jewish people and their religious heritage. Praying that she comes to know Jesus is not at odds with that. 🙂

  • “Stem cells is a whole different subject we’re not going into here”

    Did you watch the video? I dare say that it is the very subject that this goes into. You say that you “greatly admire and support Eva and the work she is doing”…

    Act like it, instead of just using her work to inspire your readers. You do a disservice to Eva by excluding an intelligent, reasoned dialogue about the controversial issue that is central to her research.

    I respect your faith; I only hope that you can show the same respect to those who are concerned with more important things.

  • Yes, I’ve watched the video multiple times. Eva is not talking about embryonic stem cells. Instead, she is talking a specific kind of adult stem cell: cancer stem cells. If you read this article from the New York Times and this article from the Genome News Network, you’ll notice that the “controversial issue” doesn’t come up. To explain why, let me excerpt a mini-sidebar item from the second article:

    Normal Stem Cells vs. Cancer Stem Cells

    “The stem cells in tumors discovered by researchers at the University of Michigan are not the same type of stem cells being explored as potential therapies to treat degenerative diseases. Both normal embryonic and adult stem cells are being actively studied for their ability to proliferate and replace damaged cells in diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and heart disease. But stem cells in tumors develop because of mutations that accumulate over years and often decades. The mutations are thought to promote the tumor stem cells’ ability to proliferate, eventually leading to cancer.”

    So again, we greatly admire and support the work Eva is doing. The stem cell debate is not something we’re getting into here, because that is a whole different subject. Thanks for understanding.

  • Note from Administrator: Burton, we appreciate the comments and your concern, but not your failure to respect our request to cease discussion of an off-topic issue. Eva is not working on embryonic stem cells (the only stem cell research we or any of our readers would oppose) in her research, so there is no applicability to this post or our telling and support of her story. Thanks for understanding.

  • Thanks for censoring my comments. Very classy.

    But you’re right, and I learned something about the differences between stem cells and embryonic stem cells. I was channeling my ire into a place that it didn’t belong. I apologize.

    You draw attention to a Princeton undergrad that is making significant strides in understanding the nature of cancer. She is well spoken, and has some great insights to offer the field of cancer research.

    What the posted article did, though, does a horrible disservice to Eva, and, indeed, to science as a whole. To attempt to co-opt her and her work and to inspire your readers for the WRONG reasons is an example of everything that is wrong, unethical, and sad with modern Christianity.

    It’s time that you and your readers realized that science and faith are diametrically opposed from one another. They define one another insofar as they are opposites.

    The very definition of Faith is choosing to believe something without proof. And the very definition of Science is refusing to believing something without proof. I think that it’s nice that you liked Eva’s talk. Just stop trying to claim her as your own, when she’s clearly on the other side of the fence, on the side of reason.

    And I know that you’ll smugly say that you’re not claiming her as your own, that you’re just praying that she’ll find Jesus.

    Well, it’s in that vein that I sincerely hope that you and your readers wake up to realize that they have been believing in a mythology, one that, I fear, is finding it’s way into public policy.

    I hope some of your readers will take the time to watch this talk from the TED conference, as well:

    I’m not decrying your point of view; it’s just food for thought.

  • Don’t worry, we don’t censor comments because people disagree with us or say something we don’t like, otherwise, we could have removed your first comment and saved the trouble of this whole discussion. However, we do remove comments where readers intentionally disregard a repeated, clear request. 😉

    With that aside, thank you for the apology on the issue of stem cells, Burton. I appreciate that.

    I think part of the problem you have with this article is based on a misunderstanding of what this website is all about. The Rebelution is defined as “a teenage rebellion against low expectations.” We share Eva’s story because it is an example of a young person using their teen years as a launching pad, rather than as a vacation from responsibility.

    I would assume you don’t have a problem with any of that—the primary thrust and purpose of the article. What you do have a problem with is that we brought in God, Jesus, and the Bible as a reason for our reader’s to follow Eva’s example.

    You claim that science and faith are diametrically opposed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even secular scientists Whitehead and Oppenheimer said that modern science couldn’t have been born apart from the environment created by Christianity. Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, all the way up to Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell, ushered in the modern scientific era by understanding that there was a universe because God had made it and that because God was a reasonable God, man could discover the truth of the universe by reason.

    So no, there is no conflict between science and Christianity, between reason and faith. The conflict here is between a biblical worldview, which believes there is a God, and naturalism, which believes there is not. Biblical Christianity provides a foundation for scientific endeavor — a reasonable God who created a reasonable world and gave us rational minds with which to accurately reason and arrive at truth. Naturalism does not provide that foundation — implying rather an unguided evolutionary process and a high unlikelihood that our cognitive faculties are consistently reliable. In that, it is a self-defeating philosophy. This isn’t to denounce the work of non-Christian scientists, only to point out that they must necessarily borrow from the Christianity to avoid the logical end of their worldview: Hume’s skepticism.

    It is interesting that you bring up Dawkins. I watched the TED video (all 29 minutes and 22 seconds of it), and had already read detailed synopses of The God Delusion, which is, pretty much, the expanded version of his talk. His increasingly “religious” hatred of religion (and Christianity in particular) is far less scientific than it is personal, as well as philosophic, which certainly isn’t his forte. Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, wrote about The God Delusion:

    “Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he’s a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.”

    Of course, and Plantinga would heartily agree, none of this is to say that Dawkins is a lousy scientist or an unintelligent person. Either would be a ridiculous argument. But it is to say that the philosophical assumptions that guide and shape his scientific aims and stated life purpose (curious, wasn’t it, how he talked about being put on earth for a purpose — whose purpose?) are fundamentally skewed.

  • What an inspiration! Reading about Eva Vertes and watching the fascinating video motivated me to study chemistry with extra vigor today. Her ideas on cancer and specifically the idea about “manipulation” instead of “elimination” are thought provoking indeed.

  • Eva Vertes is obviously a passionate reader. I wonder if she has read “Protector” by Larry Niven. It’s a science fiction story about the first human to find and consume a catalyst that turns him into a Pak Protector. The unknown 3rd stage of humans.
    “At about middle age, homo habilis was supposed to eat a certain plant that would trigger the change to the sexless, armored, highly intelligent protectors that defend the human race.”
    This is analogous to her theory that cancer cells are suppose to end up differentiating into healing tissue instead of rogue harmful cells. What is the trigger?

  • wow. it just goes to show you what a young person can do when they actually WORK for something. we, as christian young people can do so much more if we apply our hearts and minds. if allow Christ to be our driving force we can accomplish much in life.

  • You may “not like the ‘prodigy’ label”, but neurologically, there are some individuals whose cognitive processes (with which the frontal cortex is associated) develop at an advanced rate, beyond the norm. There are a whole list of characteristics associated with genius that high intelligence does not share. There is a difference between the “bright” child and the “gifted” child. I know that for a fact, as I have spent a months studying about it. I know gifted people, and I know bright people. There is a difference.

    This article was an inspiration to me, as I feel God has called me to science.

    Everyone is talented.

    Not everyone is a genius.

    Everyone has some little bit of beauty.

    Talent is precious, genius more so.

    There is a difference between genius and high intelligence.

    I believe that God has given talents to everyone, and I hope to encourage and inspire people to use those talents. Hard work, determination, ambition, faith and passion will get you further than talent alone. Talent is a booster. Combined with the above character traits is can go to the stars, but is nothing without God. God, talent, hard work, passion, faith and determination can get you anywhere!

  • I greatly admire Olivia’s drive, passion and determination to be a doctor. What she said was so wise and encouraging. God bless her and praise God!

  • this is great! thx for posting… im praying that she comes to know Jesus as her Savior and gives him credit for her amazing abilities!! God bless…

rebelling against low expectations

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