Sask. student wins top prize in biotech competition for ’designer wheat’

16-year-old worked with two mentors at USaskatchean department of plant sciences

Scott Adams never expected to take a prize in a competition for the best student biotech research projects in Canada – he was just happy to come to the nation’s capital as one of 14 finalists.

But on Wednesday, the 16-year-old from Saskatoon was awarded the $5,000 first prize in the Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge for his genetic research involving the bread-and-butter crop of his home province, wheat.

“I didn’t come to Ottawa expecting a prize,” said a surprised Adams. “I thought the trip to Ottawa was enough of a prize.”

The Grade 10 student’s project involved a novel process for turning off a gene in wheat to alter its starch elements. The discovery might one day make it possible for farmers to grow “designer wheat” with starch content aimed at different products, from textiles and packaging to flour-based foods and glues.

Adams worked with two mentors in the department of plant sciences at the University of Saskatchewan on the gene-silencing research.

While genetics is one of his areas of interest – he reads scientific journals on the subject – he doesn’t know if he will pursue science as a career.

“It’s certainly a possibility, but I’m still keeping my options open,” he said. “My parents have often said in the past (to become an) optometrist, but that’s not final at all.”

Adams and second-prize winner Joseph McNeil, an 18-year-old, Grade 12 student in Cape Breton, N.S., will compete for Canada at the International BioGENEius Challenge in Atlanta next month.

McNeil was awarded the $4,000 runner-up prize for using antioxidant compounds like those found in green tea to promote growth of nerve cells in a study related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

He is hoping to attend Dalhousie University in Halifax next year, possibly in its biological engineering program.

“I really think that would be an interesting field of study because it’s a little more hands on, but it’s still within the field of biology,” said McNeil, who like the other competitors, also conducted his project under the tutelage of university-based mentors.

“So that’s a definite possibility.”

The other winners in the field of 14 finalists, aged 15 to 18, are:

  • Third place ($3,000): Binudith (Bin) Warnakulasooriya, 17, of Winnipeg for a discovery about how the flax plant produces a potent antioxidant.
  • Fourth place ($2,000): Caitlin Martin Newnham, 18, of London, Ont., who found a way to remove the burning sensation from oil of hot peppers, a natural painkiller.
  • Fifth place ($1,000): Melanie Gallant, 17, of Charlottetown, who identified how a common agricultural herbicide inhibits production of male hormones in fish.

Mark Lievonen, president of the Canadian subsidiary Sonofi Pasteur Ltd., said that for the young scientists, being chosen as national finalists in the annual competition from among students across the country is “a tremendous achievement” in itself.

“So we’re really talking about judging the best of the best,” he said. “And the quality continues to increase every year.”

Lievonen said the competition, begun in 1994, is designed to help lay a foundation for scientific research in the future. Student projects are assessed by a panel of judges that includes some of Canada’s top scientists.

“It’s really promoting biotechnology and research so kids will learn about it and then go on to do research at universities,” he said. “And it’s just really about creating the next generation of researchers.”

– The Canadian Press