Science Fairs, STEM Conferences, and Starting School During COVID-19

Written by: Maia Poon

Attending or hosting a virtual event during the pandemic?

It will surprise you. That’s the main thing. It will also be okay, and I think I can say that on the behalf of most people who have experienced online events.

There are plus sides, as I experienced with virtual science fairs. Instead of meeting only local contestants and judges, I was able to see the projects and get to know students and professionals from across the continent! With the guidance and mentorship of Dr. Isabella Tai and Dr. Zainab Bazzi from the B.C. Cancer Research Centre, I was able to complete my grade 12 research project, “Identifying Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC) Diagnostic and Prognostic Genetic Markers.” Through this experience, I was able to contribute to cancer research in high school, which was really rewarding. 

Volunteerism and the first steps

I became interested in cancer research because of my experience volunteering with the West Coast Kids Cancer Foundation, leading activities and sing-alongs at day camps for children with cancer and their siblings. West Coast Kids gave these kids a chance to just be kids, and it gave their families some time and opportunities to relax. I have met a beautiful team of program coordinators and healthcare staff who have taught me about care and conversations in the cancer world. The program is so special to everyone who has been a part of it because of the incredible kids who are funny, loving, and excited to play with each other, virtually and in person when it’s possible.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) does not affect children but is the fifth most common cancer globally [1], representing 75–85% of primary liver cancers [2]. Unfortunately, HCC is the fastest rising cause of cancer-related death in Canada [3] and the U.S [4]. In contrast to most other solid tumors, the complications resulting from liver cirrhosis in HCC make prognosis much more difficult to predict [5]. Consequently, novel biomarkers are needed to better predict prognosis in patients with HCC. This is where my project with Dr. Tai and Dr. Bazzi came in: Combining multiple sources and studies, I worked towards identifying genes that were differentially expressed in normal versus HCC liver tissue that, along with the proteins they coded for, could be used as prognostic markers. 

In the end, I was able to identify 16 relevant protein coding genes that were significantly differentially expressed in both Geo DataSets. All of the genes except one were underexpressed in HCC tissue, which is a good sign because underexpressed genes can be diagnostic in biopsies, and are beneficial to histology (tissue) studies. Many had also been found to have prognostic properties in previous studies, and I look forward to seeing some be tested experimentally and eventually, clinically.

Overcoming the unexpected

Unfortunately, COVID-19 restrictions meant that I was unable to test my findings in the lab. Nevertheless, I learned many valuable skills, including how to use online graphing software and biological databases. Research relies heavily on online databases and software, much of which can be accessed from personal computers, and this was especially helpful during a year that prevented us from going into the lab and research centre.

Although in-person science fairs were cancelled, I was able to enter the B.C. Virtual Science Fair and the North America-wide INSPO Research and Innovation Competition. These were great experiences because I was able to present my findings to a chemotherapy clinical trial researcher, a physiatrist, a psychiatrist, and university students from around the world. I ended up being recognized as having a top biology project in the B.C. fair and a top bioinformatics project in the INSPO competition. After the science fairs, I wrote a first draft with Dr. Tai of a more thorough literature review on HCC.

Decisions under pressure

A few months before the science fairs, my Quantum Leaps Burnaby STEM executive team and I had the crazy experience of turning around an in-person conference into a virtual livestream in just one month. We had planned for our annual STEM conference for high-school female and non-binary students to take place at Simon Fraser University as usual in April. I was particularly excited for this 2020 conference because I had developed the theme Change Making to explore how STEM could be a catalyst for change in a variety of social and environmental issues. But of course, events bringing together lots of people like Quantum Leaps could not go on due to the pandemic. As the Chair of the conference, I had to make the decision of whether or not to cancel the event completely. 

Quantum Leaps Burnaby Executive Team (2020-21) top to bottom, left to right: Annie Wu (Media Director), Maia Poon (Chair), Rachel Lee (Marketing Director), Susan Chung (Secretary), Rachel Chao (Graphic Designer), and Gillian Chang (Treasurer).

Accepting uncertainty

Because of all the work my team had already put into making the conference as rewarding as possible for our attendees, the kind support from SCWIST, and the amazing speakers—STEM professionals, many SCWIST executives and members, who had made positive change in their respective fields—I could not let it go. I was not yet comfortable hosting virtual meetings with more than twenty people, especially with all the sensation over “Zoombombing” in the first half of 2020, so I figured out how to broadcast a call to YouTube in the few weeks we had. My fantastic team worked hard to promote the livestream across the internet and to their schools. We ended up reaching over 60 viewers during the livestream, and the recording now has over 500 views—thank you to everyone who has seen it! I hope that each of you have taken some wisdom from the scientists, engineers, designers, and advocates. You can check the livestream out here and stay tuned for the 2021 conference here.

If you told me at the beginning of grade 12 that I would complete the last third of the school year and my last high school science project online, I think I would have laughed or gotten really worried. But online events have surprised me, in many good ways. I hope you have found the good in them as well.

Maia is currently a member of the SynBio Team at McMaster University and will be representing Canada at iGEM 2021! Learn more.