Student science contest participation influences study, career choices, alumni say

September 30, 2004

Participation in a national student biotech competition helps determine study and career paths for a large majority of contestants, according to a survey released today to mark National Biotechnology Week in Canada.

Almost three-quarters (74%) of 350 past contestants said the Aventis Biotech Challenge (ABC) helped them plan their studies or find vocations in fields such as biotechnology, healthcare, agriculture, and the environment.

In a survey this summer commissioned by the Canadian Biotechnology Education Research Centre, Tanka Research found a large majority (69%) are post-secondary students while 27% are still in high school. Among post-secondary students, 70% are seeking degrees or diplomas in natural or health sciences.

Aventis Pasteur Limited co-funds the national competition with Government of Canada's Sector Council Program, the National Research Council of Canada, Genome Canada, VWR International, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Biotechnology Human Resource Council.

Students who compete in this challenge represent some of the brightest young scientists in Canada and the federal government is a strong supporter of this effort, designed to raise public awareness, especially among students and educators, about emerging sciences and to encourage more students to consider careers in biotechnology.

Past research has shown that the interest of many students in science starts to wane in about Grade 6, said Mark Lievonen, President of Aventis Pasteur Limited.

"This competition is designed to give an extra spark to students who might be inclined to pursue science as a career - to create a high-level, real world experience with access to first class equipment and mentors," he said.

"These survey results reinforce why we have championed this student competition since its inception. The economy of tomorrow is being built today on biotechnology and other sciences. Canada needs to foster a strong science culture to remain in the forefront in this field."

Additional survey highlights

Of 350 ABC participants surveyed:
  • 62% were female, 38% males; average age: 19;
  • 76% had received at least one scholarship, bursary or other academic achievement or recognition (includes 85% of those attending university, 65% of CEGEP students, 53% of high school students, and 63% of those out of school);
  • 85% said ABC participation provided a positive understanding of Canada's biotech industry. Even among the 26% who said the ABC program did not directly help them select a field of study or career, 84% said it provided a positive understanding of the biotech industry;
  • Many of the 26% who said ABC participation was not helpful in choosing a study or career path reported their plans had been set prior to being involved.

    How ABC works

    Some 1,200 students across Canada have taken part in the challenge since 1994, a competitive process designed to introduce hundreds of students each year to the real world of biotechnology through projects of their own design.

    Each student (or team) works with a mentor for advice and access to equipment and supplies.

    Cash prizes (plus, in some cities, university scholarships or summer jobs) are awarded at regional competitions, which are supported by local companies, educational institutions, industry organizations and government agencies. More than 100 organizations are partners in this educational outreach initiative.

    Many regional events also feature lectures by leading local biotech researchers, science workshops for students and teachers, and biotech exhibits.

    Regional winners compete in an annual national challenge (with a prize pool of $16,000 in 2004), conducted for the past two years from Ottawa by teleconference with eminent national scientists serving as judges.

    The competition mirrors the real world of scientific research by:
  • Requiring students to submit research proposals for evaluation by a scientific evaluation committee;
  • Providing up to $200 in advance funding to approved student projects;
  • Assigning mentors to each team to provide expert advice and access to equipment and supplies; and
  • Having each student project judged by fellow students (peer review) and by judges representing government, business, academia and the education community.

    Profiles of ABC participants

    Adele Nguyen

    "The Aventis Biotech Challenge started me on this road to a career in science and I've just run with it."

    Awards have been showered on Ottawa's Adele Nguyen ever since she began participating in Aventis Biotech Challenge. Currently in her second year in the University of Ottawa's Biopharmaceutical program, she is the 2004 award under the Women in Engineering and Science Program of the National Research Council of Canada.

    And this September, Nguyen won the prestigious Killam scholarship prize which will allow her to attend Harvard University this winter.

    "The Aventis Biotech Challenge started me on this road to a career in science and I've just run with it."

    Nguyen her and partner Alexander Tomkins were ABC first prize winners in 2002 for their project which developed a home test kit that could detect minute quantities of peanut allergens in food. The successful project generated a great deal of interest said Nguyen but unfortunately they were too busy moving on to university to pursue commercialization opportunities.

    As part of the ABC that year they were also able to present their findings at the biotechnology industries' international conference in Toronto. "I never realized how big the field of biotechnology is. It really opened my eyes to the scope and wide range of new products coming out."

    The ABC competition was not only great preparation for taking science in university, Nguyen ranks working with scientists at the National Research Council as the highlight.

    "They've been such good role models for us and continue to give us career advice. If it wasn't for the ABC we would never have met."

    "It's been a wonderful experience," Nguyen said.

    Joe Barfett

    "The Aventis Biotech Challenge was the best, genuine learning experience that I've had." Joe Barfett is the first student to take University of Western Ontario's concurrent degree program in Biochemical Engineering and Medicine. He is now completing his B.E.Sc. degree in Biochemical Engineering and also enrolled in Year 3 in Medicine.

    Barfett credits his participation in science fairs and the Aventis Biotech Challenge in particular with sparking his interest in scientific research. "It's the only chance a high school student can get to dream up an idea, design an experiment, and then make a presentation on the findings."

    "The ABC goes one better in providing you with a scientific mentor. That triples the learning experience."

    Barfett and his partners were the first place winners in the 1998 ABC London, Ontario competition for a project that found an innovative way to deal with the problem of hog waste. They went on to win the Manning Innovation Achievement gold medal in senior environmental science at the Canada Wide Science Fair in Edmonton the following year.

    Barfett says it was a "tremendously exciting" opportunity to find a solution to a real problem in tackling the hog waste. Their solution generated interest from a number of companies but unfortunately the high school students became to busy with their university studies to really pursue commercial application.

    "We started the patent process but it became too costly and time-consuming to complete it."

    The ABC competition is very similar to what happens in academia and industry, Barfett has since realized. The skills learned have been very useful in the university setting and made him much more creative in thinking up new solutions on how medical devices could be improved for example.

    "It's given me the confidence and the experience to think from an innovative stand point."

    Before he participated, Barfett thought scientific research was only done in unveristy settings. After ABC he realized that industry played an enormous role in research and the scope for careers in the private and public sector was much broader.

    "The Aventis Biotech Challenge was the best, genuine learning experience that I've had."

    Sophie Desbiens

    "It really opened my mind to what goes on in real research labs and became a big influence in my career choice."

    Thanks to the Aventis Biotech Challenge (ABC) CEGEP student Sophie Desbiens was able to use the research facilities of the Montreal Jewish Hospital and ended up working in the hospital's lab the following two summers.

    "It was my first real lab experience and I just loved it," Desbiens said.

    The Montreal student took first place in 1998 competition for her project to help obese people by increasing the production of a protein in human cells that would increase the amount of fat burned. This fundamental research could eventually lead to a drug that would induce weight loss in obese people, Desbiens said.

    Learning both the lab skills from professionals and how to explain her project and the science behind it to people who didn't have a technical background are among two of the important lessons she received.

    Her ABC experience also ignited an interest in medical research that has taken Desbiens to graduate school in neuroscience at Boston University. Today, she is investigating how memories are stored in the human brain in hopes of finding more clues as what causes various forms of dementia, including Alzhemier's disease.

    "It really opened my mind to what goes on in real research labs and became a big influence in my career choice."

    Robert Merson

    "It was my first experience in applying science and that confirmed for me that I wanted to work in the life sciences."

    Until the Connaught Student Biotechnology Exhibition came along in 1994, Robert Merson was thinking about becoming an accountant. The Connaught, which later renamed the Aventis Biotech Challenge (ABC), generated a new interest in the applied sciences for Merson.

    "It was my first experience in applying science and that confirmed for me that I wanted to work in the life sciences."

    Merson's project in 1994 was to look at the effects of acid rain on microorganisms that were being used by commercial waste management to degrade wastes. Working along side scientists inside a company's lab "gave me perspective on what careers were out there in the life sciences".

    Merson went on to do medical research and for the past four years has worked for SHI Consulting, a life sciences consulting firm. Instead of doing basic research, Merson is now helping Canada's diverse biotechnology sector grow into a strong industry through partnerships, product development and marketing.

    "It's critical to have experience in the lab to be able to do this kind of work."

    Merson says he's a big supporter of the ABC and suspects that many academic institutions keep a close eye on the finalists in hopes of attracting them into their programs.

    "I really enjoyed the competition back in 1994," Merson said fondly.

    Canadian Biotechnology Education Resource Centre

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