Honourable mention for Waterloo ON student Janelle Tam, 16, who created a disease-fighting, anti-aging compound using nano-particles from trees
Competition encourages biotech studies and careers
BOSTON — A 16-year-old Saskatchewan girl with a goal of improving world health by engineering a more nutritious variety of lentil was among the top prize winners Tuesday June 19 at an international science competition for elite high school students.
Rui Song, a Grade 11 student at Saskatoon’s Walter Murray Collegiate, was awarded the $2,500 third place prize at this year’s International BioGENEius Challenge, conducted at the annual global BIO conference in Boston.
Janelle Tam, a Grade 12 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute in Ontario, was awarded a $500 prize and honourable mention for her project — the invention of a disease-fighting, anti-aging compound using nano-particles from trees.
Both girls had earned berths in the international competition last month in the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada with first (Janelle) and second place (Rui) finishes.
Rui’s project involved eight hours of work every week starting in July 2011 at the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Plant Sciences to improve understanding of the genetics of lentil, one of that province’s largest crops and an essential, inexpensive source of protein worldwide, especially in West Asia and India.
An element in the makeup of the most widely-grown lentils – condensed tannins – makes them hardy, disease resistant and high yielding, and produces their seed coat colour. But the same tannins also rob the crop of some nutritional value.
Zero tannin lentils, on the other hand, have a clear seed coat, are more nutritious but don’t grow as well and are more susceptible to disease.
The challenge: find a way to combine the better characteristics of both lentil types. The answer may be found in a close genetic relative – the pea. Recent research found the Mendel A gene controls clear seed coats in peas. Rui demonstrated the same gene causes zero tannin lentils.
Her mentors, Dr. Kirstin Bett, and Rob Stonehouse of the Plant Sciences Department at the University of Saskatchewan, say her work raises the hope of developing a new, more nutritious variety of lentil.
The immediate next step is to sequence the zero tannin lentil gene and analyze its effect on other genes.
Rui, who was just 11 when she first volunteered as a student researcher at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Pharmacy and Nutrition, will now pursue summer studies at Harvard University.
She was the first ever repeat winner of Saskatchewan’s Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge (2010, 2012) and the youngest ever competitor (Grade 9, age 14) at the national SBCC in 2010. Competing against all senior students, she won the 1st place national prize that year.
“As a participant since 2008, my SBCC experience has definitely changed my life,” says Rui. “Not only did I receive a glimpse in the research process, I gained a new perspective on opportunities in the biotechnology sector. My experience has shaped my future career path and motivated me to change the world for the better through research.”
Dr. Bett is clearly impressed not only with Rui’s abilities in the lab, but with her vision. “Yes, the science is important, but what’s also important is her ability understand the bigger context,” she says.
Rui and Janelle won a total of $9,000 and $8,000 respectively in this year’s regional, national and international Sanofi-sponsored BioGENEius competitions.
Janelle’s project is fully detailed in the SBCC national news release issued May 11.
Full results of the International BioGENEius Challenge are detailed here:
About the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC)
The Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC) is a national, biotechnology research competition that encourages high school and CEGEP students to pursue future studies and careers in the exciting field of biotechnology.
The SBCC gives young scientists access to university labs and academic mentors, encouraging the pursuit of future studies and careers in the country’s fast-growing biotechnology sector.
The initiative is sponsored by Sanofi Pasteur Limited, Sanofi Canada, Genome Canada, the National Research Council Canada/ Conseil national de recherches Canada (NRC-CNRC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research/Instituts de recherche en santé du Canada (CIHR-IRSC) and the Government of Canada’s Youth Awareness Program. Canada’s respected Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada has inspired counterpart competitions in the USA and Australia.