National scientists do it for the love of genes

Saanich high school student spends spring break in Edmonton to work in a gene research lab

Mount Douglas Secondary student Hayley Roy is in Grade 12 and will be going to the University of Alberta this week to experience working in a research lab

While a lot of high school seniors are still undecided about where they want to go after graduation, Hayley Roy is an entirely different story.

Ever since she was eight years old, the young Saanich resident has wanted to pursue a career in biology.

“I was always the one going out and collecting worms outside when it was raining,” the Mount Douglas secondary senior said. “I’m still really interested in animals – amphibians and reptiles.”

This week the Grade 12 student is gaining the experience of a lifetime working in a lab at the University of Alberta, courtesy of the Canadian Gene Cure Foundation.

Roy is one of 48 students from across Canada named a “gene researcher for a week,” working alongside professional scientists to get a taste of what a career in genetics is like.

“They get that hands-on learning they wouldn’t get anywhere else. Some of the labs give them an actual project to do,” said Tracy Zeisberger, executive director of the Gene Cure Foundation. “But they also get to learn about the career path straight from the people who have gone down that road.”

Though she’s not yet sure what she’ll be doing, she knows she’ll be working in the human molecular genetic lab at the U of A, looking at the genetic factors in eye development and glaucoma.

“When we’re in high school we get a very artificial view of what actually happens within a university or hospital or any other kind of research centre,” said Amelita Kucher, science department head at Mount Doug. Kucher referred Roy to the program.

“The more real hands-on experience we can provide for them, the better. … Students don’t really have a good view of the possibilities that are out there,” Kucher said.

This is the 10th year of the gene researcher program, which has provided 280 students with the unique week-long experience over the last decade.

“The reason we do this is we want to take some of Canada’s brightest young minds, the ones who want to get into human genetics, and show them what it might look like if they chose this as a career,” Zeisberger said. “We’re hoping these people are going to be the bright stars in genetics research.”

Roy says she’s looking forward to working in the lab, trying out different instruments her school’s science lab doesn’t have, and rubbing elbows with some of Canada’s best gene researchers.

One of the criteria for being selected is the participants must write about their experiences and share it with the Gene Cure Foundation. Zeisberger said that’s the most rewarding part about providing this opportunity to young science whizzes.

“They come back so excited about their future. A lot of them say it changes their lives,” she said. “And the labs really enjoy participating. The kids come in wide-eyed, and it brings the researchers back to saying, ‘This is why I do this. This is exciting, what I do.”

kslavin@saanichnews.com

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