Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge

Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge

April 27, 2010 13:34 ET

Saskatchewan Science Prodigy, 14, Astonishes Canada's Scientific Elite with Research on Crop-Killing Disease, Wins National Biotech Competition

Youngest-ever finalist at national level event takes 1st Place Prize. Students from Saskatoon, Guelph, Fort St. John, Ste-Foy, Winnipeg and Ottawa collect prizes in Canada-wide high school competition judged by eminent experts at National Research Council, Ottawa

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - April 27, 2010) -

At 1 p.m. EDT, Tuesday April 27, Canada's top student projects in biotechnology research will be announced at National Research Council headquarters, 100 Sussex Drive, Ottawa. Media are invited to attend the announcement in person or via teleconference (dial 1-303-664-6043, conference ID 8309014). Short, informal descriptions of each project are available online at

Research by a 14-year-old science prodigy from Saskatoon into the molecular fingerprint of a disease that has devastated lentil crops in Canada, Asia and Africa has earned the top national prize of the 2010 Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge (SABC).

Grade 9 student Rui Song, the youngest-ever national finalist in the event's 17-year history, "astonished" nine judges at Canada's National Research Council with her search for an early way to tell apart two strains of a crop-killing fungus, one strain of which can wipe out half a farmer's lentil harvest if left unrecognized and untreated.

In addition to the Canadian prizes, Rui and the SABC's national 2nd place winner, Brian Krug, 16, of Guelph, Ontario, will compete against 12 US and two Australian teams at the International BioGENEius Challenge in Chicago next week. 

Brian, a Grade 11 student at John F. Ross Collegiate Vocational Institute, won the 2nd place prize for his project that found a green tea extract offered a potential new treatment for ovarian cancer.

The national final SABC winners were announced at National Research Council Canada headquarters, Ottawa, April 27, at a ceremony attended by the Hon. James Flaherty, Minister of Finance, the Hon. Lisa Raitt, Minister of Labour, and other dignitaries.

First and second place winners receive $5,000 and $4,000 respectively.

The other top prizes were collected by:

3rd place ($3,000): Katherine Taneille Johnson, 17, a Grade 12 student at North Peace Secondary School in tiny Fort St. John, for a project deciphering DNA mutations that may lie behind an early aging disease.

4th place ($2,000): Alexandre Lemieux, 16, of Externat Saint-Jean-Eudes, and Reda Bensaidane, 16, École Secondaire Les Compagnons-de-Cartier, Ste-Foy QB, for a project showing how a coffee extract offers a potential new treatment for Alzheimer's Disease.

5th place ($1,000): Binudith Warnakulasooriya, 17, a Grade 12 student from Fort Richmond Collegiate, Winnipeg, whose project unlocked the DNA of flaxseed to create potential for healthier food. It is Binudith's second consecutive year as a national SABC prizewinner.

A special prize ($1,000), awarded for the project with the greatest commercial potential, was won by 16-year-old Grade 10 student Emma Graham of Lisgar Collegiate Institute, Ottawa, who used Indian dill oil to create a more environmentally-friendly insecticide to combat potato beetles.

Fingerprinting a crop-killing fungus

At just 14, Rui Song has become a fixture on the winners' list in the Saskatchewan regional SABC.

While still at Greystone Heights Public School, she won the Junior Division twice – in 2008 and 2009 – and the streak continued this year, Rui's Grade 9 year at Walter Murray Collegiate Institute.

Her winning project was an effort to find molecular markers that can tell the difference between two closely related types of the fungus Colletotrichum truncate (Ct), that attacks lentil crops. 

Though almost identical genetically, one type attacks lentils far more aggressively, causing 50% losses in some areas. The disease has destroyed crops in many countries beyond Canada, including Bangladesh, Syria, and Ethiopia.

A genetic method of differentiating the two types will save time and money for agricultural researchers, allowing rapid evaluation of lentil fields to warn farmers about the race of Ct in their area, while assisting efforts to develop resistant lentil varieties.

Rui said that while her project did not uncover the definitive identifier that solves the Ct riddle, her research into 50 of the 2,000 potential genetic markers provided a promising direction for more detailed research in future.

And for Rui Song, there's always next year. "I love the field of molecular genetics and this competition provides a unique opportunity for someone like me to do high-level research guided by mentors who are some of the best minds in their field."

During her presentation Monday, Rui charmed judges with an admission that she'd read "Genetic Engineering for Dummies." 

And she told her hometown newspaper, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: "I think many people think of science as ... I don't know, easy. What I learned from this project is that you have to be patient, it's not like putting in a chemical and something explodes. In the lab, the most important thing is to understand why you're doing something."

14 truly cutting-edge biotechnology projects

"All 14 to 17 years old and enrolled in Grades 9 through 12, remarkable students from every province yesterday presented 14 truly cutting-edge biotechnology projects. They were mentored by university professors and others who volunteer their expertise and many hours each year to assist these young researchers," said SABC judge Dr. Roman Szumski, NRC Vice President, Life Sciences. 

"The National Research Council of Canada welcomes and supports efforts such as this to raise public awareness, especially among students and educators, about emerging sciences and to encourage more students to consider careers in biotechnology science. I extend sincere congratulations to everyone involved in this competition."

Dr. Szumski also thanked lead competition supporters, Sanofi Pasteur Limited and BioTalent Canada for helping foster an appreciation of science and engineering education.

All national competition finalists (the projects are informally described at

Newfoundland: Zachary Quinlan, Andrew Lynch, 17, Bishops College High School, St. John's, who found a drug used to prevent organ transplant rejection may help ex-soldiers with stress disorder;

Prince Edward Island: Scott Dewar, and Mark Townsend, both 17 in Grade 12 at Three Oaks High School, Summerside, who worked to unravel the black knot problem – scourge of cherry trees;

Nova Scotia: Adrian Howie, 17, Citadel High School, Halifax, who went searching for medical uses of Arctic algae before they disappear due to climate change;

New Brunswick: Sarah Sullivan, Elleas 'Lee' Nicholas, 17, Southern Victoria High School, Perth Andover, who discovered that carbon emitted from potatoes helps grow oily "pond scum" biofuel;

Quebec: Alexandre Lemieux, 16, of Externat Saint-Jean-Eudes, and Reda Bensaidane, 16, École Secondaire Les Compagnons-de-Cartier, Ste-Foy, who for a coffee extract offers new potential treatment for Alzheimer's;

Eastern Ontario: Emma Graham, 16, Lisgar Collegiate Institute, Ottawa, who used dill oil to create a less toxic insecticide;

Greater Toronto: Colin Carter, 17, Northern Secondary School, Toronto, whose work opens the door to new diagnosis and early treatment of child heart disease

Southwestern Ontario: Brian Krug, 16, John F. Ross C.V.I., Guelph, who discovered a green tea extract offers a potential new treatment for ovarian cancer

Manitoba: Binudith Warnakulasooriya, 17, Fort Richmond Collegiate, Winnipeg, who worked to unlock the DNA of flaxseed to create potentially healthier food;

Northern Manitoba: Taylor Henkelman, 15, Swan Valley Regional Seconary School, Swan Valley, who found that oil from an invasive "weed" shows promise as transformer lubricant;

Saskatchewan: Rui Song, 14, Walter Murray Collegiate Institute, Saskatoon, who is looking to genetically fingerprint a lentil-killing fungus that can devastate crops;

Edmonton: Moses Fung, 17, Old Scona Academic High School, Edmonton, who's working towards the improved treatment of lung disease;

Calgary: Nicholas Moore, 17, Western Canada High School, and Debbie Wang, 17, Bishop Carroll High School, who developed a potential new tool to assess nerve damage; and

British Columbia: Katherine Taneille Johnson, 17, North Peace Secondary School, Fort St. John, deciphering enzyme mutations that may lie behind early aging disorder

Chaired by Dr. Luis Barreto, Vice President, Immunization and Science Policy, Sanofi Pasteur Limited, the distinguished national judging panel consists of:

  • Dr. Roman Szumski, Vice President, Life Sciences, National Research Council Canada
  • Dr. Dennis Kay, Director, BioTalent Canada
  • Dr. Prabhat D. (Pete) Desai, Vice-Chair, Board of Directors, Genome Canada
  • Dr. Mark Lagacé, Senior Programs Officer, Canada Foundation for Innovation
  • Dr. Marc Ouellette, Scientific Director, Institute of Infection and Immunity, CIHR
  • Dr. John Dirks, President, The Gairdner Foundation
  • Dr. Lesley Warren, Professor, Biogeochemistry, McMaster University
  • Mr. Scott Adams, 2009 SABC national 1st place winner, Saskatchewan


Now in its 17th year, the Sanofi-Aventis Biotech Challenge is a high-level event that introduces students to the real world of biotechnology by carrying out research projects of their own design. Each student team works with a mentor in their community, who provides expert advice and access to equipment and supplies. The projects and presentations are judged at the NRC by senior officials of the federal public service and private sector, and by the previous student winner of the SABC national competition.

University-level mentoring is a distinguishing characteristic of the competition, as is the emphasis judges place on the ability of competitors to communicate science ideas.

The competition drives students to broaden their horizons and challenge their intellect. Each of the student teams work with a mentor in their community who provides expert advice and access to equipment and supplies. Many of the students who compete go on to careers in biotechnology, healthcare, agriculture, and the environment.

More than 100 organizations Canada-wide are partnered in this educational outreach initiative.

National competition supporters:

  • Sanofi Pasteur and sanofi-aventis
  • BioTalent Canada
  • National Research Council of Canada
  • Genome Canada
  • Canadian Institutes for Health Research; and
  • Canadian Foundation for Innovation

The project is funded in part by the Government of Canada's Sector Council Program.

Winning student teams share their cash prize with their school. In some cities, regional winners also receive university scholarships or summer jobs.

The competition mirrors the real world of scientific research by:

  • Requiring students to submit research proposals for evaluation by a scientific evaluation committee;
  • Providing up to $200 in advance funding to approved student projects;
  • Assigning mentors to each team to provide expert advice and access to equipment and supplies; and
  • Having each student project judged by fellow students (peer review) and by judges representing government, business, academia and the education community.

A distinguishing characteristic of the competition is the emphasis judges place on the competitors' communication of science ideas.

Many regional competition events include lectures by leading local biotechnology researchers, science workshops for students and teachers, and exhibits on biotechnology.

About Sanofi Pasteur and sanofi-aventis

Sanofi-aventis, a leading global pharmaceutical company, discovers, develops and distributes therapeutic solutions to improve the lives of everyone.

Sanofi-aventis is represented in Canada by the pharmaceutical company sanofi-aventis Canada Inc., based in Laval, Quebec, and by the vaccines company Sanofi Pasteur Limited, based in Toronto, Ontario. Together they employ more than 2,000 people across the country. With combined R&D investments of $181.6 million in 2009, they are leaders in Canada's biopharmaceutical sector, a critical knowledge-based industry that generates jobs, business and opportunity throughout the country.

Sanofi Pasteur has a long history of supporting science education at the post-secondary level in Canada. In 1994, it recognized the need to engage younger students in biotechnology education, and the initial SABC program was born. Since then, the program has expanded to 14 events across Canada and has involved thousands of students. As lead sponsors of the SABC, sanofi pasteur and sanofi-aventis is proud to collaborate with partners in government, industry and academia to get high school students engaged in biotechnology. For more information: or

About BioTalent Canada

BioTalent Canada helps Canada's bio-economy industry thrive globally. As a non-profit national organization of innovators leading our bio-economy, BioTalent Canada anticipates needs and creates new opportunities, delivering human resources tools, information and skills development to ensure the industry has access to job-ready people. BioTalent Canada is a Canadian sector council—one of many partnership organizations created to address skills-development issues in key sectors of the economy. For more information: or Colette Rivet, Executive Director, BioTalent Canada
613-235-1402 x 226;

Contact Information