ABC: A Lesson in Mentoring

High school student Winson Yick spent many hours engaged in a very unusual extracurricular activity--analyzing the anticancer properties of inositol hexaphosphate in cell lines at the Ontario Cancer Institute. His project was one of many entered in the 2000 Aventis Biotech Challenge. Yick won third prize--a sum of $1500--for his efforts. But the contest is about more than winning, says Yick's contest mentor Peter McPherson, a postdoctoral fellow at Amgen Inc. "It is very fulfilling to be able to help a student take an idea for a project and help them craft it into a testable hypothesis, and to see them finish with an answer to their hypothesis," McPherson tells Next Wave.

Sound interesting? If so, read on. This year's seventh annual Aventis Biotech Challenge (ABC) will draw almost 200 student teams to events in 10 Canadian cities. Each team needs a volunteer mentor, so the organizers are always on the lookout for new blood. And the need for volunteers will only increase as the event continues its planned cross-country expansion.

The ABC is not your typical science fair. Formerly the Connaught Student Biotechnology Exhibition, the ABC is the brainchild of biotechnology professor and National Scientific Coordinator, William Mak, and Rick Levick, National Program Coordinator and a public relations consultant for Aventis Pasteur. Every aspect of the ABC experience, from the rigorous approval process to the bench work, final presentations, and judging, is designed to give the students a sense of the real world of scientific research. Students from grades 9 to 13 design and conduct novel research projects in areas such as microbiology, molecular genetics, and the environment, with help from scientists and research professionals.

The participants may be young, but their science is top-notch. Past winning projects include the development of a polyacrylamide gel with pores that can be manipulated to strain different-sized compounds, a study of the risks of triclosan (a toothpaste additive) for antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and the discovery that genistein, a biochemical product of soybeans, has breast cancer-fighting properties. The hands-on experience in biotechnology research helps the students form their first real impressions of what it is like to have a career in science, says Mak. "Students benefit from the removal of the intimidation factor of the laboratory environment, and it helps them make their career decisions because they have plenty of opportunities to ask questions," he remarked.

To enter the competition, students and teachers first assemble original proposals that are evaluated by a committee of scientists for scientific merit, creativity, feasibility, and potential commercial application. Approved projects receive funding from the National Research Council and the student teams are then paired up with mentors, who are lab technicians, researchers, or scientists working in the appropriate field of study.

That is where you come in. The mentor's role is to provide access to laboratory space and equipment as well as provide guidance and supervision throughout the 2- to 4-month long after-school project. Finally, the student teams make their oral presentations and fellow students and a panel of professionals judge their projects. Aventis Pasteur, the Biotechnology Human Resource Council, local companies, industry organizations, government agencies, and educational institutions sponsor cash prizes and scholarships amounting to thousands of dollars.

The mentors win, too. "The student's enthusiasm and joy of working was infectious, if sometimes overwhelming," says Michael Leach, a University of Toronto graduate student and mentor in last year's event. Leach estimated that he spent a couple of hours a week for 2 to 3 months on the project, which also gave him a good opportunity to test his supervisory skills. "For the most part, I sat back and watched them as they prepared and ran their experiments, offering suggestions for improvement and analysis," he tells Next Wave.

But potential mentors shouldn't take the responsibility lightly. Many academics find the after hours time commitment too demanding on their busy schedules, says Gavin Clark, a microbiology professor at the University of Toronto who has mentored students in the Biotech Challenge for many years. Clark also tells Next Wave that the projects sometimes end up becoming rather costly in terms of resources. "The question is what's the return [academic value] when you are putting research money into this kind of project?" he said.

Levick answers that ABC simply makes good sense. "We can't have all of our bright young kids building robots," he says, smiling, "Aventis and others need to encourage biotech students of the future and promote a highly skilled workforce in Canada."

For more information about the Aventis Biotech Challenge, and contact information for event coordinators in your city, visit

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