Researchers, students unite biotech forces

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

Some of the brightest young minds in the Lower Mainland have teamed up with UBC researchers to compete in the Connaught Student Biotechnology Exhibition being held April 19 at the Robson Square Conference Centre.

"B.C. is Canada's fastest growing biotech region," says Microbiology Prof. Doug Kilburn, director of UBC's Biotechnology Laboratory. "We need to bring biotech to the classroom to encourage young people to pursue careers in this industry."

Intended to raise awareness about biotechnology and its application in areas such as health care, agriculture and the environment, the exhibition has been held annually at centres across Canada since 1994. This is the first time there has been an exhibition in Vancouver.

UBC faculty served as mentors for four of the eight projects entered in the exhibition, representing disciplines such as medical genetics, zoology and botany.

Francis Ouellette of the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics (CMMT) supervised three students from John Oliver Secondary School in Vancouver in a bioinformatics project comparing gene patterns in yeast and humans.

Bioinformatics, also known as computational biology, combines biology, mathematics and computer science to understand biological data.

"These students are bright and enthusiastic," says Ouellette, who is the director of the Bioinformatics Core Facility at CMMT. "Results from this project may contain discoveries that would be useful to some of our labs here."

Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School students Helen Liu and Quinn Peters, both in Grade 11, investigated the mechanical properties of spider silk under the mentorship of Margo Lillie, a research associate in the Zoology Dept.

"It was really fascinating," says Liu. "Learning how to approach a problem is one of the most valuable tools we discovered. Working with a researcher just opens up your mind to what you can do."

Working at Prof. John Gosline's Biological Sciences lab, Liu and Peters tested the silk's properties of elasticity, extensibility and strength and its reaction to chemicals. Spider silk has potential in industrial applications because of its ideal balance of properties, says Liu.

"It was a thrill to be able to supervise these students because of their youthful enthusiasm and wealth of ideas," says Lillie. "My challenge was slowing them down and warning of possible pitfalls but allowing them to make their own mistakes."

In addition to general project direction, mentors had students carry out experiments under supervision in UBC labs and provided critical analysis of the results.

"Researchers are key to any successful biotech community," says Theresa McCurry, executive director of the B.C. Biotechnology Alliance (BCBA) which is hosting the event. "They've been very supportive and made it easy for us to pull these projects together."

Students will give a 10-minute presentation and respond to questions at the event which is expected to draw 2,000 students and educators.

Winning teams will receive cash awards of up to $2,000 -- half the award goes to the students, the other half to the school for the purchase of scientific equipment.

Projects will be judged by Kilburn, Assoc. Prof. of Medicine Steven Pelech, Yves Geoffrion of the National Research Council and Bruce Schmidt, CEO of UBC spin-off company IGT Pharma Inc.