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Focused on science

August 13, 2014

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By Eleni Kanavas

The chance to explore what it’s like to work in a hospital-based research lab is an opportunity only a few high-school students get to experience during the summer months.

For Chelsea Liu, a Grade 12 student at Abbey Park High School in Oakville, Ontario, that chance became a reality when she applied to the Focused Ultrasound High School Summer Research Program at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) earlier this year and was accepted.

“I was very surprised to have gotten the job when I was informed that over 200 students applied for the 20-something spots in the high school focused ultrasound program,” says Liu, 17, who heard about the competitive program in Grade 10 but missed the deadline to apply.

The program enables students to work in a lab at SRI and assist with a variety of research projects to gain hands-on knowledge in the fields of physics, engineering and biology. The aim is to nurture a passion for science and engineering in the next generation of (potential) researchers and help students move closer to their career goals. The nine-week program is open to students who are in Grades 11 and 12 attending high schools in the Greater Toronto Area.

This year 214 students applied to the program. Twenty-five students were hired and are working in the labs of Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, director of Physical Sciences at SRI, Dr. Isabelle Aubert, Dr. David Goertz and Dr. Martin Yaffe.

Aubert, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, is Liu’s supervisor. She is collaborating with Hynynen to develop noninvasive methods of delivering therapeutics to the brain through the blood-brain barrier using magnetic resonance imaging-guided focused ultrasound.

“My part of the project has to do with behaviour analysis and neurogenesis, and how that relates to transgenic mice with the gene for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Liu. “I’m doing animal behaviour-testing video analysis. I’m quantifying the data in the videos and doing statistical analysis and a lot of graphing to see whether the protocol that I developed is working.” Liu is working with Sonam Dubey, a PhD candidate in the Aubert lab.

Although it’s a lot of work with which she is not familiar, Liu says her previous experience doing a summer research project has helped her. Last summer Liu completed a six-week research program at Deep River Science Academy, north of the city in Deep River, Ontario.

“My project there was more ecology than neuroscience. We were surveying wetlands and mapping vegetation,” she says. “Since it was an atomic nuclear facility, we had to see how radiation leaks could affect the surrounding vegetation, so there was a lot of field work.” Liu had to write a paper and present the results of her project at a seminar held at the end of the program.

In September, Liu will begin her undergraduate studies at Duke University in North Carolina, U.S. She will be taking several first-year biology and chemistry courses as part of her premedical studies.

Despite being nervous and uncertain about her career path, Liu says her experience at SRI has given her some insight into the field of neuroscience research where she can see the applications of what she is doing more clearly. She has also learned how to read research papers without getting overwhelmed by the content.

“I’ve really enjoyed my experience here so far. I’ve had good mentors. They’ve given me tips, and now I’m able to understand a research paper and break it down while reading it, instead of swallowing it down at once, and to use the graphs to my advantage,” Liu says. “I think it’s going to be very important for university science courses, so it’s good to get a head start.”

Chelsea Liu