Welcome to a guest post by Jim Rea. Jim is a writer and the proud father of a science-loving teenage daughter. Jim has been discovering genetic engineering alongside his daughter and navigating what it means to be a parent at the forefront of Genetic Engineering at Home. Here, Jim shares his journey as a parent navigating science fairs and teen science...
Science Fair: the power of failure to fuel success
We’ve seen our daughter learn a lot from her science fairs projects, but the greatest lesson has been that failure is an important part of the process.
Her first significant failure took place three weeks before her first school fair in Grade 7, long before we’d heard about Amino Labs. Patricia was trying to genetically engineer yeast to make it fluoresce, but after 7 efforts she hadn’t achieved the transformation. She had no data and was out of plasmid – the rings of DNA required to express the gene that would make her yeast glow. We sat down and looked at the calendar. “You have a choice,” I told her. “There’s just enough time to repeat the experiment if we reorder the kit today. There’s no guarantee of success. You’ll have to give up your ski trip… but we know how much this means to you.”
Patricia decided to go all-in on her project. This turned out to be a defining moment.
We ordered the replacement kit and it arrived in three days. Her failure in the first round of experiments prepared her for success this time. She achieved the transformation, won her school fair, then earned a Bronze Medal at her regional fair.
As the new school year began, she had already started planning her Grade 8 science fair project. Now she was aiming for Gold, and a trip to the national competition, the Canada Wide Science Fair. She knew that she wanted to build on her previous year’s work. But thanks to her work as a Junior Editor on Zero to Genetic Engineering Hero, she had developed advanced lab skills, along with a strong understanding of microbiology fundamentals. She was now ready to move beyond kit science.
Patricia’s ultimate goal is to create yeast that can survive the extreme cold, desiccation, radiation, and lack of oxygen on Mars. Her Grade 8 project focused on survival in cold temperatures. Under Dr. Justin Pahara’s mentorship, Patricia reviewed dozens of research papers. She ultimately designed two plasmids – one to express antifreeze proteins produced by the Spruce budworm (an insect), another to express the antifreeze proteins of the Eel pout. But could yeast engineered with these genes survive the harsh temperatures of Mars?
That year Patricia got DNA for Christmas! Using her designs, we ordered plasmids from a gene synthesis company, as well as two other plasmids she’d use as controls in her experiments. They arrived just in time for the holidays.
Patricia wanted to complete the genetic engineering component her project over the Christmas break, giving her plenty of time to freeze test her bioengineered yeast before the regional fair in early April. But once again she would be reminded that science – and especially biology – does not unfold according to plan. Once again, she was challenged to overcome several setbacks, including two that put great time pressure on her project.
First, her selection agent G418 (a reagent essential to confirm her transformations were successful) was contaminated. It was producing strange growth in her YPD agar Petri dishes. She used a process she had learned in Zero to Hero to filter sterilize the G418. This removed the contamination, but further experiments confirmed that the G418 wasn’t selecting properly. The American supplier shipped a replacement, but that got lost by FedEx. By that point, their G418 was out of stock, and it was early February before Patricia finally had everything she needed to resume experiments!
Next, her yeast was proving difficult to transform. She now uses lab-grade yeast and gets consistent results, but the store-bought baker's yeast she was using at the time was particularly stubborn! It wasn’t until three weeks before the York Region Science and Technology Fair that all four of her plasmids had successfully transformed. But at last, she was ready for freezer testing.
Thanks to the Chair of Biology at York University, Dr. Robert Tsushima, Patricia had been given permission to use the freezers at York U for her experiments. Samples were stored at 4⁰C (the control), -30⁰C, -80⁰C and -196⁰C (liquid nitrogen) for different time periods: 3 hours, 24 hours and 1 week – as well as samples that would be stored for 1 month and only analyzed after the regional fair.
As each set of tubes was retrieved, Patricia conducted a laborious and repetitive process called serial dilution. She pipetted samples from the tubes onto YPD agar in Petri dishes at 100% concentration, 10% concentration, 1% concentration, 0.1% concentration and 0.01% concentration. Since there were 32 tubes retrieved at each time period, that required pipetting on up to 160 Petri dishes per cycle. To give a sense of the scope of the project, at one point she had over 400 agar plates in her incubator!
After counting the colonies on her Petri dishes, and calculating survival against the control, her data was suggestive of a potential short-term survival advantage for yeast engineered with the Spruce budworm antifreeze protein, and a modest long-term advantage for yeast engineered with the Eel pout protein. She wrote her report and prepared her tri-fold board. It was showtime!
Five days before the regional fair, Patricia had been invited to compete in the prestigious Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute Science, which would be a dry run for the regionals. But the night before the fair, as she was finishing work on her tri-fold board, Patricia started feeling ill. At 3:30 am she started vomiting. Sign-in for the fair was at 8 am. Things were not looking good.
We reached out to the fair organizers via email, explaining the situation. They suggested that they could conduct the judging with Patricia over the phone or via Skype as long as I brought her tri-fold board and report to the fair.
Patricia went through two rounds of judging. I wouldn’t find out until I got home that she had just finished being ill three minutes before the first round. She was almost ready to pass out when the second round followed almost immediately after. Despite not being able to represent her work face-to-face, she still managed to win first prize at LTRI. One of the judges described her work as being at “a Masters's level… or an insane undergrad project.”
The competition at the regional fair would be at another level entirely. Driving Patricia to York University on a bright April morning for judging, I kept asking her… “Do you want to rehearse? Do you want some practice questions?” She calmly told me, “Dad – I’ve got this.” I knew she was feeling stressed. But it was time for me to get out of her way. She wasn’t worried. She was ready.
On the other hand, I was a wreck! After watching her year-long journey, her hundreds of hours of lab work, the absolute dedication that she had thrown into this project, my stomach was in knots. I couldn’t eat. It was all in her hands now, and she was teaching me to trust her. A tough lesson for a parent.
Public viewing was that afternoon. As nervous as I was for her, there is nothing like a science fair to renew my hope in the future. There were almost 200 young scientists here, ready to share their ideas on solving the world’s greatest problems. Very inspiring.
Around 4 pm we gathered for the awards ceremony. Awards at this regional science fair are a bit like Survivor. You don’t want your name to be mentioned until the very end. First came the special awards. Then the Bronze Medalists. Patricia’s name had not been called yet. The tension was really building now. She had survived so far. The presentation of the Silver Medals seemed to take forever… and then… it was Gold! It was going to be Gold!
When Patricia’s name was called, we all shouted it jubilation - me, my wife, her brother Gordon. She had worked so hard. For us, it, was a moment of release – although that didn’t stop us from embarrassing her!
For 12 months she had pursued this. With all her heart. With all her mind. And now she was proudly wearing a Gold Medal. She had booked her ticket to compete at the Canada Wide Science Fair in five weeks.
A friend texted us as soon as she heard the news. “THIS IS WHERE IT ALL BEGINS.” At the time, we had no idea how true that was.
But it also began in Grade 7, at that moment when Patricia had a choice. Do I quit – or do I try again, with no guarantee of success. Without that failure and everything she learned from it, none of this would have been possible. Which is another reason why I have come to love science fairs. They are an extraordinary platform for youth to use their ingenuity to overcome problems and find their true character.