Researchers across the globe devote their careers to addressing fundamental science questions that will have impact on humanity. Could a group of undergraduate students contribute in any significant way to achieving such a lofty goal? At Western Science, the answer is an unequivocal “Yes”. Designed by a small group of engaged students led by an undergraduate visionary by the name of Charlie (Weige)Zhao, the first annual Student Case Competition gave 302 first- and second-year science students the opportunity to tackle a mammoth research question, apply and extend their classroom learning and sink their teeth into developing a research plan to contribute to finding a genetic therapy for Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic disease resulting from a mutation which produces a non-functional protein leading to a build-up of mucus within the lungs, and affecting the life and longevity of more than 4000 Canadians.
For second- year students Mathura Vithyananthan, Louise Pi, Sarah Zhu and Lily Zhou, who were awarded first prize for their research submission, the Student Case Competition could not have offered a more authentic, meaningful and inspiring learning experience. Over a two-week period, the all-women team researched, discussed, analyzed and presented, according to the faculty judging panel, a surprising, truly creative and outside-of-the-box solution.
Targeting the cells in the lungs and inserting a working copy of the gene directly was the crux of their award-winning proposal. They recommended the use of a genetically altered retrovirus as a viral vector to integrate a copy of the functional gene into lung cell DNA. From that point on, the cells carrying the gene would pass it on as they multiplied. As Pi and Zhu worked on the details, Vithyananthan dealt with the problem of how to introduce the virus into the lungs. She found out that people inhale fungal spores on a daily basis confirming that this fungus could be used as a carrier for the virus. Now that the group had a way to deliver the treatment to the lungs there remained the problem of penetrating the barrier of mucus which is associated with Cystic Fibrosis. That is when Zhou came upon a common remedy for mucus congestion, eating pineapples. The fruit contains bromelain, an enzyme that cuts through mucus. This inspired her to look for a bacterial enzyme that could do the same function and encode that into the fungus allowing it to transport the viral vector to the target cell.
Case- based learning is a departure from the traditional class and laboratory approach to teaching. Students can employ creative and imaginative ways to tackle problems and there was also the added feature of exchanging ideas in a group. Vithyananthan commented that “Working with a team was fun. Individually we could have each written our proposal but the fact we were working together made it a more profound experience.” Zhu added “There was so much freedom too because they (the organizers) were encouraging creativity.”
The fact that this case-based approach dealt with a real problem also changed these students’ perceptions about the place of scientific research in society. According to Zhu, “It challenged us to think how things fit into the big picture.” At the same time there was the realization that research is a viable career option, “This is something, in the future, that we could possibly do ourselves” says Vithyananthan. Zhu also added, “It showed us that we can do more sometimes than we think we are capable of... Just realizing our own potentials was my proudest moment.”
This summer the budding researchers will have the opportunity to further explore the feasibility of their solution in the Cystic Fibrosis lab at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.
The Western Science Case Competition (WSCC) was a project sponsored by the Faculty of Science, the Science Student Council and Sciencescape. For more photos of the event, see our flickr site.