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Teen conducts stem cell research

thumb city_taylor_scientist_EDHe doesn't have his driver's license yet and isn't old enough to vote, but 16 year-old Sarthak Sinha has spent the past two years doing graduate-level research in Jeff Biernaskie's experimental medicine and stem cell biology lab at the University of Calgary.

Sinha, currently a Grade 11 student at Henry Wise Wood Senior High School, says he became intrigued with the idea of scientific research after leaning about the Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge — a program designed to introduce high school students to possible careers in science. He was in Grade 9 at the time.

"The requirement was to design a research question and write a research proposal about something that you have been curious about," Sinha says. "I thought to myself

'Research question? I don't even have high school biology started yet.'"

city taylor_scientist_EDSarthak Sinha’s research in the field of neuroscience has encouraged him to volunteer with the Calgary chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.

Photo by Karry Taylor
Undeterred, Sinha put together a proposal about stem cells and HIV and contacted a number of researchers at the University of Calgary. Most didn't return his phone messages or emails. But Sinha caught the attention of Biernaskie, an assistant professor with the faculty of veterinary medicine.

Biernaskie told Sinha — then 14 years old — that although his lab didn't work with HIV, he would help him find an alternative project to work on.

Sinha took full advantage of the opportunity and has successfully taken on increasingly complex duties in the lab over the past two years.

Sinha a 'quick learner' says mentor

Sinha works closely with Ranjan Kumar, a PhD candidate in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, who has played the role of both supervisor and mentor to Sinha. Kumar says that while he initially thought that Sinha was "very young" to be involved in the type of research undertaken in Biernaskie's lab, those concerns quickly vanished.

"When I heard that there would be a high school student working in the lab, I wondered what he would be able to do," says Kumar, who was assigned the task of instructing the young student in basic laboratory techniques

Although Sinha had no prior lab experience, his enthusiasm and curiosity quickly won over Kumar.

"He was really quite curious and wanted to know the science behind everything that we do. He asked a lot of questions," Kumar says. "He is very smart and picked up things very fast.

"Eventually, he just took over and started doing techniques I didn't expect he could handle. He can now work independently."

Kumar says encouraging young students to become involved in science early is important — not only do the students benefit, but scientists can as well.

"Until I started training Sarthak, I never realized how curious high school students are," Kumar says. "The questions scientists ask are very complex. The ones he asked were very simple — and sometimes we had never thought from that angle.

"I found that very interesting."

Research has provided opportunity to study, travel

Sinha's work has translated into a number of prizes and awards and has given him the opportunity to compete in both national and international science fairs.

Presenting a project about nerve re-myelination that was based on his lab work, Sinha won a silver medal at the 2011 Canada-Wide Science fair. The event's 500 student finalists must qualify from approximately 25,000 competitors who take part in 100 regional science fairs throughout Canada.

His second-place showing earned him a trip to Pittsburgh and a spot on Team Canada for the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair — the largest international science competition of its kind. At this event, he received a third place prize in the medicine and health sciences category.

In the summer of 2012, Sinha received an acceptance to take a biology course at the University of Pennsylvania — an Ivy League school. He spent six weeks at the school studying biology alongside undergraduate students. He was one of only two high school students admitted to the class.

Born in India, Sinha moved to Calgary with his family six years ago. He says his family has been very encouraging of his academic and research endeavours — whether it has been offering moral support or practical support, such as ensuring he has a drive to the lab.

Like any other teenager, Sinha enjoys spending downtime relaxing with his friends. But he says he tends to downplay his research activities when he is around friends.

"At first, I was excited, so I always used to share what I was doing," Sinha says. "But I realized that it comes across as showing off. I tend to tune it down a lot now."

Monty Slim, the former principal of Henry Wise Wood, says that Sinha is "an amazing young man."

In addition to maintaining a high academic standing, Sinha has involved himself in other activities at Henry Wise Wood, including the debate team and serving as member of the Principal's Advisory Committee.

He also represents Henry Wise Wood students as a member of the Chief Superintendent's Student Advisory Council — a leadership program where Sinha and student representatives from other Calgary high school meet once a month with Calgary Board of Education chief superintendent Naomi Johnson.

"Naomi is always interested to hear the students' feedback and opinions around matters of education," Slim says. "Sarthak is there to contribute, and I know that his opinions are highly valued. "

"I am not sure where he finds time to sleep," Slim says. "He has already accomplished more in his lifetime so far, maybe, than I have."

While Sinha admits that it can sometimes be tough to strike a balance between his studies at Henry Wise Wood — where he is enrolled in the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program — with his research work, he says the fact that he is enjoying what he is helps a great deal.

Kumar says he is convinced that Sinha will accomplish whatever he sets his mind to.

"He will go a long way," Kumar says.

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