Education

Pioneering teenagers

Young scientists make waves

ROBERT SHEPPARD May 25 1998
Education

Pioneering teenagers

Young scientists make waves

ROBERT SHEPPARD May 25 1998

Pioneering teenagers

Young scientists make waves

Education

Three years ago, Julien Brazeau’s younger brother decided to put saltwater plants in his freshwater aquarium and was baffled by the white fuzz that drifted to the top of the tank. With those humble beginnings, Julien, now a 17-year-old high-school senior at Collège catholique Samuel Genest in Ottawa, began a three-year science experiment that may take him halfway around the world. Brazeau and fellow student Jean-Sebastien Ledoux this month won first prize at Ottawa’s Connaught Student Biotechnology Exhibition for isolating a bacterium that appears to help plants cope with the effects of salt. But perhaps more important than the $2,000 prize was instant recognition: corporate scientists have been requesting samples of the culture; one of the judges urged the students to get a patent on their discovery as quickly as possible; and a food agency in the Philippines has invited the boys for a week, all expenses paid, to explain their research. “These guys were thinking of something they could spray on lawns so that when the snowplow piled up salt, the grass would

come back in the spring,” says Paul Morley, the National Research Council scientist who co-ordinated the Ottawa exhibition. “Now, someone in the Philippines is interested because when the typhoons come and spray the fields with salt water, this bacteria might be used to help clean up.” Or even, if it can be genetically inserted into the rice, help the crop survive on its own.

Brazeau and Ledoux are rarities, although not because of their success. In recent years, Canadian high-school students have shown a remarkable inventiveness, creating a “green” Walkman that runs on wind-up gears, a plastic gel where the pores can be manipulated to strain different-sized substances, even a new heart valve. Valve inventor Andrea Wan of Sarnia, Ont., one of 10 high-school students representing Canada last week at the Intel-sponsored International Science and Engineering Fair in Fort Worth, Tex., has already earned more than $100,000 in university scholarships.

Rather, Brazeau and Ledoux are rare—at least in the emerging, heavily financed world of biotechnology—because they are males.

In last year’s Connaught competition—a unique, mentored contest that is slowly spreading across the country— seven of the eight projects in the Montreal area were by female students. In the Toronto area this year, five of the six winners were all or largely female teams. The winners: Anna Abaimova and Elisha Watanabe of Etobicoke Collegiate Institute for trying to find the chemical that determines why a particular strain of E coli bacteria in hamburger disease affects children and the aged, but not most adults. ‘We took our idea from what wasn’t known and went from there,” says Watanabe. “The excitement of working in a real hospital lab is incredible. It is not like a high-school lab project where you have an expected outcome.” Why so many girls? ‘Well, it’s perceived as a clean course, unlike auto mechanics,” says teacher Patricia Beecham, head of the biotech program at Martingrove Collegiate Institute in Toronto’s west end. “It’s high-tech, cutting-edge and relevant.” Also, Beecham says, “for teenage students, maybe girls especially, it is nice to feel you are contributing something to the world.”

But this is not a com-

petition designed primarily for girls or for niceness, says William Mak, a biochemist at I Ontario’s Seneca Col8 lege who set up the com| petition for Toronto15 based Connaught five “ years ago. “I wanted g something that would I reflect the principle of science.” So each year, he assembles a high-profile team of corporate and hospital research scientists to “tear apart” the high-school proposals before they are submitted. The ones with merit are given some modest seed money and, most importantly, a corporate mentor to help with the research. Brazeau and Ledoux had access to Agriculture Canada’s research farm in Ottawa. In Toronto, Abaimova and Watanabe trudged downtown to the Hospital for Sick Children labs after school and on weekends to test their hypothesis. The Connaught technique has now spread to Ottawa, London, Montreal and St. John’s, Nfld. (and some U.S. cities too), and Mak says he is hoping to break into Western Canada next year.

One of the biggest challenges is getting teachers up to speed with their most eager students. One of Mak’s innovations has been to offer high-school teachers free fiveday courses at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital on how to clone a gene. ‘Teachers like this,” Mak says. “ ‘Now,’ they say, ‘I know what my students are talking about.’ ”

ROBERT SHEPPARD