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The Greek scientist Archimedes may have been alone in the tub when he had his "Eureka" moment, but most scientific discoveries are a group effort. The winners of the 2009 Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge all got there with the help of science mentors who saw potential in their ideas and gave the students their time, insight and guidance.

For first place winner Scott Adams, working with a mentor at the University of Saskatchewan was the best part of his project. "It was a very good experience," he says. "I learned new things at a higher level than my grade level." Adams' mentor introduced him to the gene silencing technology that he used in his research, which involved turning off starch synthesis in wheat — the first step towards creating "designer wheat" tailored to different markets.

This year's finalists at the national awards ceremony, held at NRC in Ottawa on May 6. NRC is a partner in the national competition with lead supporters, Sanofi-Aventis and BioTalent Canada.

This year's finalists at the national awards ceremony, held at NRC in Ottawa on May 6. NRC is a partner in the national competition with lead supporters, Sanofi-Aventis and BioTalent Canada.

Kirsten Larson won this year's commercial prize with her research into the health benefits of the haskap berry, which her family grows on their llama farm in northern Manitoba. Larson worked with two mentors. Besides offering guidance, her mentors set aside a laboratory for her at the University of Manitoba, and also arranged for support from a lab technician. Larson made the five-hour drive from Swan Valley regularly to work on her project.

"It was really fun," she says. "Being from a northern community, we just don't have the type of equipment that they do, so it was a great learning experience."

Grade 10 student Scott Adams of Saskatoon won the 2009 Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge with research showing how turning off a certain gene can be used to study and possibly control starch synthesis in wheat.

Grade 10 student Scott Adams of Saskatoon won the 2009 Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge with research showing how turning off a certain gene can be used to study and possibly control starch synthesis in wheat.

Most students say that getting hands-on experience under a mentor's guidance is their favourite part of the SABC program. Adams was taught how to perform lab procedures such as in vitro spike culture and microscopy. "It was great to get real life experience in a lab," he says. Larson had a similar experience. "I learned how to do titrations and a bunch of other science procedures. It was something I had never done before."

Dr. Alison Symington, national organizer for SABC, says the mentorship component of the program mirrors the real world of research. "Your PhD or master's supervisor is really your mentor, so this bring it down to the high school level," she says.

Every student who participates in SABC works with a mentor. Just as in a real research environment, candidates submit a proposal that is evaluated by a scientific committee. The successful students are paired with scientists working in their chosen fields. "It's their chance to spend some time with someone who has chosen the same path, is interested in the same things, and can give them some guidance," says Dr. Symington.

Beyond the technical knowledge gained, the experience of doing real research gives students an insight into life as a scientist. "One of the things the students realize is that science is a lot of hard work," Dr. Symington says. "You don't have Eureka moments all the time. You have to continue through disappointment and unexpected results."

Commercial prize winner Kirsten Larson discusses her research on the health benefits of the haskap berry with a visitor.

Commercial prize winner Kirsten Larson discusses her research on the health benefits of the haskap berry with a visitor.

Another surprise for some students is that research is a creative process. While science is often taught in a factual way, "designing experiments to answer questions is very creative," says Dr. Symington. "Students don't really have a feel for that until they get in the lab with a mentor."

At the same time, the students sometimes think of solutions that their mentors wouldn't have considered. "Their ideas are often very fresh or novel. And that's because they don't have the experience to say no, which is a good thing." The relationships begun in SABC sometimes continue into university, with students working in their mentors' labs during their studies.

While the mentors bring experience and instruction, the students bring youth and energy. Dr. Symington recalls a Calgary scientist and mentor who said that her SABC students reinvigorated her lab. "She said that they don't usually have people high-fiving each other in the lab," says Dr. Symington. "But the students, they're excited. They come in every day with a smile on their face. It really made her remember why she loves to do this."

To learn more about SABC, visit http://sanofibiotalentchallenge.ca/