[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 20-Feb-2013
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Contact: Terry Collins
Bioscience Education Canada

'Inspiring' teens with 'research virus': Expert-mentored bioscience contest proves a powerful vector

Survey, testimonials reveal career-shaping impacts of competition mentoring by major-league scientists

Testimonials and responses to a survey from 375 past teen participants in a Canadian biotechnology competition -- mentored in professional labs by expert scientists -- 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.

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 inspiring 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:

Hyperlinks to full profiles of SBCC student alumni:

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:

Hyperlinks to full profiles of SBCC mentors:


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. (See also Wikipedia: http://bit.ly/11MtXX9)

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:


2013 BioGENEius Challenges

SBCC Canadian regional competitions March 21 to April 4

SBCC Canadian finals

Project presentations: Monday April 8

Awards ceremony: Tuesday April 9, 1 p.m. EDT

National Research Council of Canada headquarters

100 Sussex Drive, Ottawa

International BioGENEius Challenge

Project Presentations: Monday, April 22

Awards Ceremony: Tuesday, April 23

Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) conference

McCormick Place Convention Centre, Chicago, IL

For more information:

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