Montreal high school student Abhishek Chakraborty earned a gold medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair held last month in Windsor, Ont., based on an idea he had over breakfast.
Chakraborty won for his work in demonstrating the negative effects of folic acid on cells. Folic acid, a vitamin that is added to wheat products because it prevents birth defects, actually kills blood and kidney cells in laboratory experiments, and makes cancer cells more invasive, Chakraborty found in the course of his research.
“I was eating Fruit Loops cereal at the breakfast table and I saw ‘folate’ on the nutrition label. I didn’t know what it was, so I researched a bit and got interested in the topic,” said the 15-year-old from Royal West Academy. “Looking at these effects, I was quite surprised.”
More specifically, Chakraborty found that adding 200 micrograms of folic acid to one million blood cells killed 60 per cent of cells and made the remaining cells more than double their normal size. He also found that folic acid caused kidney cells to age faster. When testing the compound on human cervical cancer cells, Chakroborty found that folic acid increased the number of cancer cells, and caused them to move more, making them more invasive.
“In the cancer cells, it was very surprising to me,” he said.
Folic acid, which prevents birth defects if given to women in the beginning of their pregnancies, started being added to food in 1997.
Chakroborty, who recently moved here from Winnipeg where he conducted his experiments, is currently looking for a lab in Montreal. Next, he would like to test the effects of folic acid on brain and heart cells.
“I’m trying to contact the labs at McGill University,” he said. “But most people ignore the email from a high school student. Out of maybe 50 emails, one person responds back as a maybe.”
The teenager, who received a $700 award at the science fair, is quick to point to the limitations of his research. He explains that he hasn’t tested folic acid on any organisms yet, because high school students aren’t permitted to conduct animal studies. He also couldn’t use human blood or kidney cells: the blood came from an albino rat, while the kidney cells were from an African green monkey. The cells were provided to Chakroborty by his lab supervisor.
Several other Montreal-area students also brought home gold from the national science fair, which attracted 463 contestants this year in Grades 7 through 12. To qualify for the national competition, students had to do well at their regional and provincial science fairs. All in all, Youth Science Canada gave away 30 gold medals, 60 silver medals, and 120 bronze medals as well as cash prizes and scholarships.
The young chemist
Cameron Lennox, 17, of Collège de Montréal, received a gold medal for new research into the crystallization properties of magnesium sulphate, a molecule that is found in bath salts and laxatives. Lennox showed that magnesium sulphate crystallizes in a right-handed fashion; its crystals reflect plane polarized light to the right. The way in which a molecule forms crystals can have important consequences, Lennox explains. Thalidomide, an anti-nausea medicine that was given to pregnant women, for instance, in its left-handed form is safe, but in the right-handed form (which is a mirror-image of the left-handed molecule) may cause birth defects. Over the summer, Lennox will continue his research at Concordia University and plans to study the crystallization of ethyldiamonium sulphate. He received more than $5,000 in cash prizes and more than $20,000 in scholarships to several universities.
Lennox said he got a head start in chemistry because his father is also a chemist.
Innovative medical devices
Katherine Sirois, a 16-year-old from Durocher College on the South Shore, brought home a $700 gold medal award for developing an EKG, or heart-rhythm monitor, that can be analyzed by a computer. Currently, electrocardiograms have to be read manually by doctors, which means that only short periods of time, such as 48 hours, can be analyzed. This is often too short to catch an episode of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm that can cause a stroke. Sirois wrote a computer program that analyzes a person’s EKG for irregular distances between heart beats. The device, she says, will allow patients to wear heart monitors for longer periods of time — increasing the possibility that their arrhythmia is detected. She is now developing a notification system that will alert the doctor about irregular beats.
Meanwhile, the award for the country’s best junior project, which goes to students in Grades 7 and 8, was bestowed on 13-year-old Thomas Imbeault-Nepton, from Chicoutimi, who invented an ankle bracelet to help people with Parkinson’s disease walk. The device uses a small battery and works by vibrating. Currently people with Parkinson’s use auditory walking aids.
“My device is discreet, it’s not affected by all the ambient noise, and it doesn’t interfere with any alerts,” said Imbeault-Nepton, who took home more than $6,000 in prizes from the science fair — and was awarded entrance scholarships from several universities.
The next step is to start testing the bracelet on people with Parkinson’s, he said.
It has been about 15 years since the prize for the best junior project was awarded to a Quebec resident, according to the science fair’s Quebec coordinator Marthe Poirier.