Five District students participate in U of L's six-week HYRS program

By Garrett Simmons

Communications Officer

Lethbridge School District No. 51

Five Lethbridge School District No. 51 students have earned a rare summer opportunity.

Chinook High School’s Abel Belay, Zaynab Enayetullah and Tabitha Gangur-Powell, along with Justin Pitcher of Lethbridge Collegiate Institute and Winston Churchill High School’s Andy Sun are now in the final week of the Heritage Youth Researcher Summer program. The six-week program runs annually at the University of Lethbridge. Grade 11 students are given unique access to university labs and tours of local research facilities.

“They work in a lab full time, 35-40 hours per week, and on top of that they get to experience a number of field trips,” said U of L HYRS co-ordinator Brett Weighill.

Some of the unique field trips this year included a visit to the University of Calgary’s cadaver lab, a nursing-simulation lab at the U of L and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre.

From July 12-Aug. 23, students are put through the paces during the paid internship, as students gain valuable experience, along with $2,500 for their six weeks of work.

“That’s why the program is so unique,” said Weighill of the added financial benefit to students.

But entry into the program does not come easy.

“They apply in early spring,” said Weighill, who added academic performance is only one factor. “All of the applicants had incredibly-high marks.”

Students need an 80-per-cent average to apply, and those selected for 2018’s internship ranged in the 97-99 range.

“It’s an extremely competitive program,” said Weighill, who added community and teacher references are also required, as student contributions to their community are also weighed by the selection committee.

The Grade 11 students are able to join a team of PhD, Master and Bachelor students, and work on multidisciplinary projects which could include genetics, neuroscience, bioengineering, health care policy, molecular imaging or recreational therapy, to name just a few.

Students have to opportunity to collaborate with faculty mentors from the U of L, and work in areas on the cutting edge of science, not yet in textbooks.

And at the end of their six weeks, students will present a poster on Thursday at a final public symposium night.

“They get an opportunity to share their research with the community and get peppered with questions to see how well they actually dove into their work,” said Weighill.

Not surprisingly, the students have approached the program with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To say I’m learning is a huge understatement,” said LCI’s Pitcher. “It’s really set us up better for high school, just to experience a real lab. A lot of students at the U of L don’t even get lab experience like this.”

Pitcher added the internship has helped him specialize in his preferred area of scientific interest, which includes a deep dive into ribonucleic acid (RNA). Specifically, Pitcher’s project revolves around biological roles in coding, and developing research to help treat Japanese encephalitis, a disease spread through mosquito bites, which can be fatal.

Chinook student Belay added he has also found the program to be very beneficial.

“I enjoy having a hands-on experience. Six weeks in a lab really provides a lot of that first-hand experience. I do enjoy sciences, and this program takes you to a lot of different places.”

Abel’s work also focuses on RNA and genetic disorders, and the potential development of drugs to deal with those disorders.

Enayetullah’s experience in the U of L program has opened her eyes to something different every day.

“The biggest thing is the amount of hands-on work you get to do. In high school, the labs are so condensed, and here you can really go deep. I’m super-grateful for the opportunity.”

She added U of L staff have been extremely helpful and co-operative throughout the process.

“I almost work with my professor every day. I think it’s a very good and very positive environment.”

Enayetullah is working with a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana and the genes FKD1, FKD2, BIG3 and BIG5.

“These genes play a key role in the pathway that localizes PIN, which is a protein that carries the hormone auxin out of the cell,” she said. “To test if genes control auxin in the root cells, I tested to see if the roots of the mutant which lack certain gene function, are still able to elongate normally and bend towards the force of gravity.”

For Gangur-Powell, it was information overload at first, as she added university staff involved in her labs, and her fellow Grade 11 students, have helped make the internship memorable.

“I learn so much every day that it’s a little overwhelming sometimes. All of the people in my lab love talking about what they are doing, and it’s also nice connecting with students you can relate to.”

Hands-on work with rats has been Gangur-Powell’s focus.

“Moving them around and doing trials, I think that’s been such an incredible thing for a high school student to experience,” she said, while admitting the experience was initially a little uncomfortable. “To begin with I was slightly worried, but after I held a rat for a minute, I thought, ‘This is the place where I want to be.’ ”

Gangur-Powell’s work involves transgenerational stress, achieved by causing stress to a rat and then studying how it affects their offspring and generations to come.

“I have also spent a great deal of time looking at how early-life stress affects Multiple Sclerosis,” she said. “Specifically, in terms of behavioural testing looking at fine motor control and presymptomatic spatial visual acuity caused by optic neuritis, which is as early symptom of MS.”

Not to be outdone, Churchill’s Sun is working with mice, in a complex project of his own.

“I think what I gained the most from this experience is inspiration,” said Sun. “You see everyone around you so engaged in what they are doing. The amount of knowledge you learn – looking back, I could not believe I could learn this much in five weeks. I’m quite grateful for my learning experience.”

Sun also appreciated the many field trips the high school students had the opportunity to take.

“It’s opened the door to me to an amazing world of scientific research,” he said. “My experience also shows me how things I am learning now in high school are going to help me in the future.”

Sun worked in Dr. Rob Sutherland's lab this summer in the neuroscience department, and investigated the affects of Alzheimer's disease on cortical responses to an outside stimulation in mice models of the disease.

“We stimulated the forelimb/hindlimb of the mice and observed, using voltage sensitive dye imaging, activations in the motor cortex,” said Sun. “Then, we compared the strength and duration of the signals from the diseased mice and those from the non-disease mice to see the impact the Alzheimer's disease has on brain performance.”

Date posted: Aug. 21, 2018

Picture number 1 from the photo album called Five District students participate in U of L's six-week HYRS program
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