Expert-mentored Bioscience Contest Proves a Powerful Vector By 'Inspiring' Teens With 'Research Virus'
Testimonials and responses to a survey from 375 past teen participants in a Canadian biotechnology competition show a majority of respondents were influenced by the experience to pursue science research studies and careers, offering a model for countries worldwide to advance their health and economic interests. The competition was mentored in professional labs by expert scientists.
In a survey of 375 past participants by Bioscience Education Canada, which runs the "Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada," 84% said their participation helped determine their field of study or career plan; 74% were pursuing biotechnology-related education or professions, with 12.5% undecided. Some 55% were current university students, 24% planned to apply after high school, and 21% were post-secondary graduates now in the workforce. Nearly 60% of respondents were female and 79% had or have bursaries and/or scholarships.
"This program has been infecting teens with what one mentor calls the 'research virus' and inspiring bioscience careers since 1994," says Jeff Graham, who Chairs the Board of Toronto-based BEC. "And with hundreds of dedicated partner organizations and mentors nation-wide, we are extremely proud of the success achieved so far as we mark the 20th annual competition in 2013."
Unexpected bonus benefits from the competition experience for many teens over the past 20 years have ranged from six-figure scholarships, a fast track to medical school, valuable networks and commercial patents to peer-reviewed journal citations and international conference invitations.
But the reward cited most often by SBCC alumni is the eye-opening experience of watching their inventive ideas succeed and being encouraged in a professional lab, creating in many a career-shaping passion for science.
"That's a benefit shared throughout Canada's economy, which has a growing, $86 billion biotechnology sector, as well as with people worldwide," says Mr. Graham.
Life-changing impacts of major-league mentors
Among the latest bonus prize winners are Jeanny Yao, 18, and Miranda Wang, 19 of Vancouver, invited last summer to describe their SBCC-winning project at TED@Vancouver. They were among a handful picked to reprise their presentation at the prestigious global TED 2013 conference in California. They'll describe how they identified a species of bacteria from the Fraser River's muddy banks that helps decompose plastic at TED Feb. 27.
Sharing a stage with fellow speakers like U2's lead singer Bono and PayPal Founder Peter Theil is a five exclamation mark adventure for a couple of university frosh.
"We are extremely excited about this opportunity...!! We couldn't have done this without your help!!!" Miranda wrote, announcing the news to SBCC's Vancouver coordinators, LifeSciences BC.
Jeanny, Miranda, and many other SBCC student alumni illustrate the varied, sometimes profound life-changing impacts the mentored competition has had on many of the estimated 4,500 teens who have taken part since 1994.
Examples of other life-changing experiences:
- Ottawa's Maria Merziotis, $5,000 first place winner in the national 2008 SBCC, found her prize included an academic fast track. At 21, when those her age at university typically complete an undergrad degree, she's finishing second year at the University of Ottawa's medical school, with papers about her flu-related research in preparation for academic publication.
And, just seven years after he first impressed SBCC's august panel of national judges as a Grade 11 student, Ottawa's James MacLeod, now 23, is completing a Queen's University master's degree in pathology and molecular medicine and applying for early acceptance into the department's PhD program.
Both credit SBCC with helping them reach medical career doors unusually soon. Says Maria: "The SBCC competition is the main reason I stand where I am today. It allowed me to explore the field of research, and through the doors it opened, gained me early acceptance into medical school."
- Says Rui Song of Saskatoon, who in Grade 9, age 14 (a veteran of Saskatchewan's unique SBCC program for kids in Grades 7 and 8) prevailed over much older teens to win the #1 national award in 2010: "Before the SBCC, I hadn't even considered being a researcher. I now hope to continue my research journey in university and in my career to continue creating beneficial change in the world."
Her 2010 work to genetically fingerprint a lentil crop-killing fungus left the expert national judges "astonished." She also placed 2nd in last year's national competition, accepted an offer to spend last summer doing research at Harvard, and today, in Grade 12, is weighing full-time university offers.
- The 2012 top national winner, Janelle Tam of Waterloo, Ontario, says "SBCC was a huge part of why I started laboratory research at the university in high school, which was instrumental in my decision that I want to be a professor."
Janelle, completing Grade 12 with studies at Princeton University ahead this fall, detailed the anti-ageing potential of a nano compound found in wood pulp, capturing media attention in at least 36 countries , including a social media blog by then-Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. Last summer in Québec she detailed her findings to staff and researchers of CelluForce's, Domtar Corp. and FPInnovations -- Canadian firms leading the commercial development of nanocrystalline cellulose.
- At 17, Sarai Hamodat of St John's, Newfoundland, entered a prize-winning SBCC project showing that a traditional Asian oil remedy could ease the suffering of asthma patients, a project inspired by her hope of helping her asthmatic uncle.
Says Sarai, now 23 and a medical resident in pharmacology at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax: "SBCC was my first real introduction to what the world of science has to offer."
- Taneille Johnson entered the regional SBCC competition in 2009 from Fort St. John (pop. 22,000) near the Alberta border in northern British Columbia. At 16, she lived alone for a summer to work with a University of Calgary mentor in a quest to decipher DNA mutations that may lie behind a rare disorder which causes early onset aging and progressive bone marrow failure.
Taneille, the first student from northern BC to enter the regional event, won it in 2010 and placed third overall at the national finals in Ottawa. Now 20, she's a second year BSc student of immunology at McGill University, Montreal, with a goal of medical school studies at the University of British Columbia.
"Not many first year university science students can approach their professor and show them the amount of lab experience I had from the SBCC," she says, adding "I really cannot overstate how unique the SBCC experience is for high school students."
- A year after his first place national win in the 2011 SBCC, Toronto's Marshall Zhang faced a tough decision: offers from three of the world's most prestigious Ivy League universities -- Yale, Harvard and Princeton.
"The SBCC changed the course of my life," says Marshall, now a Harvard freshman, who at age 16, and mentored at the Hospital for Sick Kids, used a powerful supercomputer cluster to create a potential new treatment for cystic fibrosis.
On CBC's "The Nature of Things," host Dr. David Suzuki cited Marshall and his ideas as an example of the marvels of uninhibited teenage thinking. CF patients and their parents from across Canada and elsewhere wrote or called out of the blue to congratulate and thank Marshall for his efforts on their behalf. He was in Grade 11.
"I'd never met a CF patient before then," he says, adding that the most memorable part of the entire adventure was realizing the real impact his research could have on people.
- At 17, Ted Paranjothy of Winnipeg, Manitoba, inspired by a memory from five years old of a friend who died from leukemia, invested 3,000 research hours over two years after school with a mentor at the University of Manitoba, developing innovative ideas for cancer treatment. Ted's framework for an anti-cancer agent able to kill human cancer cells without harming healthy ones is an innovation on which he now holds a patent.
His Grade 12 project earned a triple crown of high school biotech science: a first place sweep of the 2007 SBCC regional and national competitions, as well as the Sanofi-sponsored International BioGENEius Challenge -- the only Canadian to achieve that distinction so far. The three first prize cheques totaled $15,000.
Later awarded some $150,000 in scholarships from other sources, Ted continued work with his distinguished mentor, Dr. Marek Los, and had three papers in peer-reviewed journals by the end of first year at UofM. Now 22, Ted is an independent researcher in cell science at UofM. He credits SBCC with enabling his university graduate-level research while still in high school, and says it "inspired me to pursue a career in biomedical research."
- In 2011, a trio of Montreal students entered the national SBCC with their new sorbet for vegetarians, having discovered a substitute for animal-based gelatine normally found in the frozen dessert. They won 2nd prize overall, a special award for that year's project with the greatest commercial potential, and a lot of public attention, which helped create connections with several patent lawyers.
Today, all three are at universities studying science. "The SBCC definitely pushed to me to explore research opportunities in medicine," says one team member, Simon Leclerc, adding that feedback from top scientists who evaluated their project and the experience gained was "inestimable... The SBCC is of great help for young, otherwise non-connected students to push their projects forward."
High fives in lab a mentor's delight
"Thanks to hundreds of top scientist mentors who have shared their expertise and lab space with the student competitors, we've discovered and nurtured incredible talent in high schools and CEGEP classrooms nation-wide," says Rick Levick, Executive Director of BEC and head of the national competition since its inception,
"The mentors are the unsung heroes of the SBCC program. They often bring out a passion for science and talent for research in kids who didn't know they had any."
Dr. Gavin Clark, the respected, now-retired U of T microbiology professor, when first asked to mentor students in early competitions, recalls being a little overwhelmed by the idea of adding "free range" high school teens to his low key lab which specialized in food poisoning bacteria.
In the end, though, he found "it's rather refreshing to have them around. We don't usually do high fives in the lab."
Among many other exemplary long-term, all-star SBCC mentors:
- Dr. Ben Alman has likewise mentored many SBCC competitors over the years, despite his many roles: head of orthopaedics and a senior scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children, the University of Toronto's chair of orthopaedics and vice-chair of its Department of Surgery, and a practicing MD specializing in child syndromes, spinal deformities, neuromuscular disorders, and tumors.
So why spend time with high school kids? "If just 10% of them catch fire," he says, "that helps create Canada's next generation of scientists," he says.
- For 10 years Dr. Stephen Westcott, a professor at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, has mentored local high schoolers through the SBCC and loves to see kids get hooked on science. One student's SBCC research found its way into a peer-reviewed academic journal.
He calls the SBCC "a fantastic experience" for students and "a great way to grow new Canadian researchers."
- In the corridors of the University of Calgary, there's a scene familiar outside hockey rinks and dance studios across Canada: Parents waiting to drive their kids home. These parents, however, are sitting outside the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology lab of Dr. Morley Hollenberg, MD, PhD, an all-star SBCC mentor for the past 10 years.
"I think it's important to catch students early on and infect them with the research virus," he says, adding that "the science they do is way beyond what I did in high school."
"For me, it's the pleasure of passing on what was passed on to me. Mentorship was very important in my own career," he says. "Quite a few SBCC competitors end up in graduate or medical school. You never know what one of these students will be able to do in the future."
- Says Dr. Kurt Haas, a scientist at the University of British Columbia's Brain Research Centre and tutor of SBCC contenders for the last eight years: "Mentoring is the most rewarding part of my job."
"My lab is here to produce solid science and the high school students actually make a contribution," he says. "When teens are exposed to real research, they're excited by learning. These are the kinds of kids Canada needs."
- Of all the images a visitor might expect at Agriculture Canada's research lab in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, its unlikely they include a trio of Grade 8 pupils testing biological herbicides. But that's where three Montgomery Public School students are this winter, preparing their project for this year's Junior SBCC, Saskatchewan's unique elementary school program for kids in Grades 7 and 8.
Pre-teens "have very open minds and see things differently," says their mentor, Research Scientist Dr. Karen Bailey. "A lot of science is about looking for things that don't fit the norm and asking 'why is this different?'"
"The kids bring a level of excitement to the lab," Dr. Bailey adds. And she chuckled recalling one young ward last year who told her: "It was fun doing this, but I'm not going to be a scientist. I think I'll be a doctor."
This year's SBCC competitors weren't even born when the first competition was held, notes Jeff Graham of BEC, adding that "thanks to the support we've received from our mentors and our many regional and national partners, we have together been able to inspire a generation of young Canadians to pursue careers in biotechnology and biosciences."
The original "BIO-Connaught Student Biotechnology Competition" featured local high school students vying for prizes in a side event to the 1994 international BIO conference hosted in Toronto.
It became an annual feature of BIO the next year (pitting top Canadian winners against those of a new counterpart US competition, organized by the Washington-based Biotechnology Institute).
SBCC in 2002 expanded Canada-wide, with regional competitions leading to a national final. And in 2008 Western Australia created a program for local students, the winners of which compete at the global BIO event.
Supporters and judges
Sanofi Pasteur Ltd. and Sanofi Canada Inc. are the SBCC's founding sponsors and have generously funded the competition since 1994. Other national sponsors so far this year include the National Research Council Canada (NRC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, York University, Genome Canada and Genzyme Canada.
Many eminent Canadian scientists have devoted a day as judges at NRC headquarters, headed by Dr. Luis Barreto (Chief Judge), Senior Advisor, Vaccine Program, Human Health and Therapeutics, National Research Council Canada; and former Vice President, Immunization and Science Policy, Sanofi Pasteur Ltd., and honorary patron of the BEC.
Student project results are secondary marking considerations; the competitors' presentation, method and depth of understanding are key, says Dr. Barreto.
"Since SBCC's creation in 1994, we've been committed to inspiring young Canadians to pursue future studies and careers in biotechnology and related sciences," he adds. "At the same time, all our program supporters - sponsors, mentors, judges and many others -- have been inspired, indeed often awed, by the young competitors' innovative research and enthusiasm for science."
Many find it an uplifting event. Commented Dr. Roman Szumski, NRC's Vice President, Life Sciences at a dinner for the judges a few years ago: "I was thinking of all the challenges and troubles in the world today. After listening to those bright young people today, I feel much more optimistic about the future."
And there are typically delightful lighter moments. One year, for example, a national competitor entering the oak-paneled conference room at NRC's Headquarters where distinguished leaders of some of Canada's foremost science organizations awaited his presentation, earned a chuckle with his wonderfully self-possessed teen greeting: "How's it going, guys?"
Among many leading experts who have served as judges over the years:
- Dr. Alain Beaudet, President; Dr. Marc Ouellette, Scientific Director, Institute of Infection and Immunity; and Dr. Alan Bernstein, former President, Canadian Institutes of Health Research;
- Dr. John Dirks, President, and Dr. Ron Pearlman, Associate Scientific Director, The Gairdner Foundation;
- Dr. Pierre Meulien, President and CEO, and Dr. Martin Godbout, former President, Genome Canada
- Dr. Janet Rossant, Chief of Research, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto
- Dr. Peter Hackett, former President & CEO, Alberta Ingenuity Fund, now Executive Professor, School of Business, University of Alberta
- Dr. Denis Kay, Chief Scientific Officer, Neurodyn Inc. PEI
- Dr. Eliot Phillipson, former President and CEO, Canada Foundation for Innovation