By Nikki Desjardins for SHRF
As the mother of a six-year-old, I’m amazed at the level of curiosity and ability to absorb knowledge children have. As an employee of Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF), I’m equally amazed by the minds that are working to solve human health challenges, find cures for debilitating and life-threatening diseases and improve our overall quality of life.
One day my son was explaining to me the new thing he learned: what a neuron was. As he explained this in great detail and accuracy for a six-year-old, I was struck with a thought. How does one go from curious six-year-old to world-class scientist with a drive to solve the world’s problems?
I was privileged to meet my answer in person earlier this year when I met one of the Saskatoon Regional Science Fair winners and recipient of the SHRF-sponsored Canada-Wide Science Fair Travel Grant in 2018.
Aunum Abid is a high school student at Aden Bowman Collegiate Institute in Saskatoon and she is passionate about STEM education, with an interest in the health sciences. She’s taken this passion beyond the stable environment of the classroom, with the support and encouragement of her teachers, and participated in numerous science fairs, locally and nationally.
“I wanted to do something extra and learn more science because it was my favourite subject,” says Aunum. “Anytime I go somewhere where other kids are presenting their work, I’m really interested in what they’ve done. Meeting like-minded people coming from different backgrounds of science, you can learn and experience so much.”
Aunum works with University of Saskatchewan researcher, Dr. Julia Boughner. Julia’s research areas include evolutionary developmental biology, physical anthropology, and craniofacial/dental morphology and evolution.
“I’m also a science ‘geek’, so when Aunum approached me with her enthusiasm to work on a science project, it was hard to say no,” says Julia. “As a NSERC-funded researcher, there’s a push for inclusivity from the tri-council that includes bringing in more women, so to be able to support a young woman in early career development and support diversity in science is a bonus.”
With no shortage of research questions to be answered, Julia comments it’s always a plus to have a bright mind and another skilled pair of hands in her lab.
“Having Aunum in the lab gave us the opportunity to make faster progress on a new avenue of research that we were interest in,” says Julia, referring to Aunum’s project looking at gene expression in fish tooth development, which has the potential to benefit human oral health by giving tissue engineers the information required to grow a tooth in vitro.
Besides the extra oomph and insight Aunum’s work was providing in the area of craniodental development, Julia says it also gave a boost to another young woman’s career. “My master’s student Cassy Appelt co-supervised Aunum. It was integral to her training and she also recognizes the need to increase representation, diversity and inclusivity in science.”
Supporting experiential, hands-on learning and capturing kids when they are at their most excited about science are just some of the reasons SHRF supports science fairs around the province. It is our hope that this support builds the momentum needed to encourage the next generation of scientists to continue to pursue their passion and connects them with a community of individuals who also question the world around them and are driven by discovery.
Aunum is also a Sanofi Biogenius Canada Student Ambassador who encourages other students to pursue their spark for science and get involved in the rewarding experience of science fairs.
“I’m still keeping in touch with the people I’ve met. We share ideas about our projects and future science fairs,” says Aunum. “It’s a fun thing and I like connecting with people who share the same interests as me.”
Science affords imagination and creativity in exploring areas of interest and things unknown. “I think it’s empowering for kids to realize that science is not some weird ivory tower endeavour, it’s a very grass-roots, fun thing to do,” says Julia.
Speaking of her mentorship of Aunum, Julia comments “It’s a learning experience at all levels.” She would encourage more scientists to get involved as mentors and for teachers to identify and encourage any student from any background that has an interest in science to take part. “This experience is a wonderful way to build up their confidence, build up their network and make them feel welcome.”
At SHRF we know what is possible with the right support. That’s why we will continue to encourage and support not only health researchers in the province, but the next generation of scientists, such as Aunum, to remain curious and continue to find new sources of discovery that will one day improve our health.