rebelling against low expectations

Eva Vertes: An Uncommon Passion

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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


About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of TheRebelution.com 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.

rebelling against low expectations

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