Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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6-Jul-2012

Contact: Carol Thorbes
cthorbes@sfu.ca
778-782-3210
Simon Fraser University

SFU mentors winning high-school science researchers

Gifted high-school students are getting a jump-start on higher education and academic success by engaging in science discoveries under the mentorship of Simon Fraser University researchers in the Faculty of Science.

Sixteen-year-old Kayla Lee enters Grade 12 at York House School in Vancouver this fall but already she has garnered regional recognition as a budding researcher and a promising prospective undergrad.

Lee credits SFU professor Willie Davidson, an expert on salmonid genomics and evolution, and Krzysztof Lubieniecki, Davidson's research associate, with putting her on a path to netting around $5,000 in scholarships and awards.

Lee secured the prizes at this year's Greater Vancouver Regional Science Fair hosted by the University of British Columbia and the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada, a regional biotechnology-focused science competition. Both showcase the work of high-school students and attract hundreds of entrants.

"SFU science faculty members showed a genuine interest in my project idea and provided the mentorship to evolve and design my experiment," says Lee. "Working with them, I gained a memorable experience that is definitely a highlight of my high-school education."

Davidson and Lubieniecki, molecular biologists, helped Lee fine tune and execute DNA analysis of smelt and flying fish eggs in sushi a project that she entered into both science competitions.

The project was inspired by an ongoing controversy in the restaurant industry over whether sushi is falsely advertised as containing higher valued seafood than it actually does.

With the help of her mentors, Lee investigated whether sushi advertised as having flying fish eggs could be found to contain less costly smelt eggs, which look and taste similar.

Davidson helped Lee discover how Forensically Informative Nucleotide Sequencing (FINS) a DNA sequencing and analysis process that he co-invented in 1992 to identify the origin of unknown biological samples could be applied to her project.

In the end, Lee found no evidence of fish egg duplicity in the sushi she tested. But the judges were more impressed by her depth of science understanding and the real-life applicability of her project than by its finding.

"Communities should be aware that we love to teach and encourage everyone who shows an interest and passion for scientific inquiry," says Davidson. "No one should be afraid of contacting us."

"Kayla's project was very ingenious so I was very excited about working with her and sharing my experience and expertise," says Lubieniecki who spent roughly 10 hours helping Lee grasp and use FINS.

George Agnes, Faculty of Science associate dean, academic, says SFU's collaboration with Lee exemplifies the faculty's dedication to "teaching science effectively by providing one-on-one mentorship opportunities. Our faculty members use community engagement to nurture scientific inquiry and young talent whenever opportunities like this arise. We also have several small-scale outreach programs that are designed to provide K 10 12 students with opportunities to which they're not frequently exposed."

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Simon Fraser University is Canada's top-ranked comprehensive university and one of the top 50 universities in the world under 50 years old. With campuses in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, B.C., SFU engages actively with the community in its research and teaching, delivers almost 150 programs to more than 30,000 students, and has more than 120,000 alumni in 130 countries.

Backgrounder: SFU science faculty/high-school student engagement

Jesse Russell, a Maple Ridge Grade 12 student and SFU's first recipient of the $60,000 Schulich Scholarship, starts her undergraduate studies in the university's Faculty of Environment this fall.

In her student application, Russell cited working with Elizabeth Elle, an SFU associate professor of biology in the Faculty of Science, as a key reason for wanting to come to SFU. Three years ago, at the age of 15, Russell spent one day a week, during a school semester, working with Elle and her graduate students on a bee biodiversity project. Even her father got engaged in discovering science at SFU, accompanying his daughter on one of her field trips with Elle.

"Jesse is extremely passionate about environmental issues," says Elle. "It was her passion for the issues underlying our research that made her such a great member of my lab. Jesse really impressed me not only with her enthusiasm, but also with her attention to detail and ability to be a self-starter who could work independently."

Fifteen-year-old Eric LeGresley, who attends St. John Brebeuf secondary in Abbotsford, is thriving under the mentorship of science faculty members Mario Pinto, vice-president of research, and Veselin Jungic, a senior lecturer in mathematics. The Grade 11 student recently won a $5,000 Platinum Award for the best senior project and $7,000 in additional prize money at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Prince Edward Island.

LeGresley's use of a computer protocol to reduce the time it takes to test the effectiveness of anti-flu drugs from more than a year to less than a week bowled over the judges. SFU graduate student Kyle Greenway, with whom LeGresley works closely, developed the protocol.

Gifted in math, LeGresley started taking university-level calculus at age 14 under the tutelage of Jungic. A lecture by Pinto that LeGresley took in about a year and a half ago piqued his interest in how anti-virals work and a desire to work in Pinto's lab. Upon meeting LeGresley, Pinto, a chemistry professor, saw a next-generation-researcher in the making and has been mentoring the student in his lab since March 2011.

Student engagement in Pinto's lab is not only furthering LeGresley's scientific knowledge but also teaching him how to collaborate with fellow researchers and SFU faculty.

"Eric is very motivated," says Pinto, "and absorbs information like a sponge. He is able to put into practice the theories that he is learning in our group."

Simon Fraser University: Engaging Students. Engaging Research. Engaging Communities.

Contact: Kayla Lee, 604.828.6768 (cell), kaylalee@gmail.com, best reachable by email until Aug. 7.
Krzysztof Lubieniecki, 778.782.5879, klubien@sfu.ca
Willie Davidson, 778.782.5637, william_davidson@sfu.ca
Elizabeth Elle, 778.782.4592/3304, eelle@sfu.ca
Mario Pinto, 778.782.4152, bpinto@sfu.ca
George Agnes, 778.782.4387, gagnes@sfu.ca
Carol Thorbes, PAMR, 778.782.3035, cthorbes@sfu.ca