Malaria breakthrough has teen's magic touch

At first glance, David Reshef, a senior at Columbia's Atholton High, appears the typical 17-year-old.

He plays sports, hangs out with his friends, draws anime-style sketches and spends a good deal of time preparing for college.


What sets him apart is what he has accomplished at his part-time job. He is on the research staff at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in North Laurel, where he is working on a groundbreaking design for diagnosing malaria, which he first encountered as a small boy living in Africa.

David's invention uses a high-power microscope, digital images and a computer program to detect the disease, something previously done only by lab technician analysis. The process will make diagnosis 12 times faster than the current method and add a consistency that takes away the human error factor. His co-workers at the Applied Physics Lab say this new method will save time and could save lives.


"Malaria is one of the leading killers," said Andrew Feldman, who works with and mentors David at the Hopkins lab. "You really have to be an expert to diagnose it, and there are not a lot of experts."

The approximately six-minute process of David's Rapid Computerized Malaria Diagnostic Method involves snapping thousands of highly magnified pictures of a blood sample from multiple planes, organizing them into a three-dimensional matrix and subsequent video feed and using a computer program to find the same parasites that a lab technician might find in an hour.

"It will definitely make it a lot easier for people to get screened, and it's more cost-effective and faster," said David, who also sees military applications for his method. "Obviously, the earlier you catch the disease, the better."

David has spent hundreds of hours since he began in 2002 perfecting it, and he had to overcome major obstacles, including gravity, which pulled the microscope stage downward, making focusing difficult. (He dealt with it by creating an automatic focusing function that adjusts algorithm parameters.)

And it's not done. Applying for college -- at Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown and Tufts, among others -- relegated the project to the back burner for a while. But he is back at it now, spending 10 to 15 hours a week at the lab in an effort to finish before fall.

In a college application essay, David wrote that the experience has taught him to pursue his "dreams and ambitions." But the seeds for the project, and the type of person he has become, were planted years earlier.

David was born in Jerusalem, the third of five exceptionally bright kids, to Daniel and Shoshana Reshef, who are exceptionally bright themselves.

"Everyone supports everyone, everyone excels," David said. "We get our energy from each other."


His father is an eye surgeon working as the director of drug safety and risk management for a global pharmaceutical company. And his mother is a research coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, working on a study on the ocular impact of AIDS while earning her doctorate in epidemiology, a degree her husband has earned.

"Both of us are very much into education and learning and curiosity," Shoshana Reshef said. "It's almost like in our blood."

And they passed that on to their children, exposing them to books, music and the world.

"He grew up in this atmosphere of make-do, of initiative, of being determined, of doing what's right and goal-setting," Daniel Reshef said of David. "But not only of goal-setting, but actually pursuing those goals."

The family moved to Kenya when David was about 4 so his father could set up mobile eye-care units to serve rural residents. On one expedition, his team performed more than 700 surgeries in a week and tended to 10,000 patients.

"It was exciting to see what a difference he could make," David said. "And I wanted to make the same kind of impression."


So, David -- whose family moved to Maryland from Africa in 1994 -- tackled malaria, prevalent in Africa, while managing to put equal effort into nearly every other area of his life.

He doesn't just play baseball -- he lives it, practicing "above and beyond" the others, his coach Kevin Kelly said. He doesn't just do card tricks -- he does them all the time, sharpening his skills, friend Andrea Shaw said. He doesn't just perform well in school -- he gets straight A's, his former teacher Reg Hahne said.

And he finds time to volunteer. On a recent Thursday afternoon, Reshef the scientist was Reshef the magician and about to perform his first trick, "The Ambitious Card," standing before an audience of seniors at an assisted-living center in Columbia.

He shuffled a deck and snapped his fingers. Bam! The chosen card appeared at the top. He reinserted it and shuffle-snapped again. There it was -- no exertion, only ambition keeping it rising above the rest.

That's the illusion, one that some might mistakenly believe about David himself, whose achievements appear effortless.

But then, with an easy smile, the amateur magician let the audience in on the real secret behind all magic and illusion: control. And, many say, that's the secret behind David as well. He is in total control, but he also has the drive of a machine.


"He puts everything into anything, it doesn't matter what it happens to be," said Hahne, who teaches technology at Atholton and helped hone David's interest in it. "He has a very, very competitive nature. Whether that's good or bad, that's part of David. He wants to be perfect" -- at everything, even Frisbee, according to his friends.

"He had to be awesome at it even though it's a big, like, do-it-for-fun thing," said Shaw, a freshman at Cornell, who met David at Atholton. She graduated last year, a year early.

Daniel Reshef worries that that drive to excel could be troublesome for his son as he ages.

"His challenge would be to balance his life between his strong will to achieve," his father said, "between being an achiever and being a human."

But his mother sees him differently.

"I think inside him lies a very sensitive and soft person that doesn't get portrayed," Shoshana Reshef said. "When anything happens to me, all that sensitive core comes out and he shows concern and affection and care. That doesn't get diminished in spite of all the drive."