It's in the genes!

It's in the genes!

A teenager heads for the lab and proves he's got the will to succeed
October 2, 2003

Asking a good question can sometimes get you more than just a good answer. It can take your life in an entirely new direction.

That's exactly what Will Turk experienced early last year when, at the age of 14, he quizzed a scientist who was visiting his Grade 9 class at Grant Park High School in Winnipeg.

The scientist happened to be Dr. David Eisenstat, a pediatrician and developmental neurobiologist from the University of Manitoba. He was giving the high school students a brief overview of genetics followed by a description of his specific work on the factors that affect the development of brain and eye tissue in mice. His talk generated a number of good questions from the students such as whether inserting a fly's genes in a mouse would cause it to grow wings. But it was Will's simple and insightful question about genetics that distinguished him from the other students and impressed Dr. Eisenstat. "Right at the back of the room there was this tall kid wearing a leather sports jacket. He said, 'Dr. Eisenstat, I think the main problem with your research is that you need to figure out where these cells are going and what blocks their migration,'" says the scientist.

Will had intuitively identified the crucial elements that Dr. Eisenstat was exploring in his research. And when he called Dr. Eisenstat a few weeks later, to ask if he could pursue a science fair project through the university's laboratory, the scientist was open to the prospect. But there was one catch. Will would first have to take the time to learn how to perform experiments and operate the sophisticated equipment that forms the technological backbone of molecular biology. They sealed the deal and that was the moment when Will's life changed.

Having never set foot in a working laboratory before, Will left his regular schooling behind for two full weeks so he could immerse himself in his new environment. "I went in with no preconceived notions," he says. True to his word, he mastered everything from handling pipettes and centrifuges, to digitally recording the fluorescence of tissue samples with a microscope. In no time, he had won the confidence of the university students, technicians, and other scientists who worked in the facility.

The next step? It was time to focus on his own work. For his science fair project, Will used two different techniques to study the expression of three genes that determine how a mouse's eyes develop and grow, during embryogenesis and after birth. The work became incorporated into the activities of Dr. Eisenstat's laboratory, which investigates all facets of the behaviour of the Dlx genes. Will's project ended up winning him a gold medal and a Genome Canada Genomics Award at Youth Science Foundation Canada's national championship — the Canada-Wide Science Fair — in Saskatoon in May 2002. Not a bad day's work for someone who doesn't even drive a car yet.

Although it seems Will was an overnight success in the lab, in fact, he is no stranger to scientific inquiry. Starting in Grade 4 with an "Invent an Alien" contest, he has been regularly entering science fair competitions. The work he carried out with Dr. Eisenstat was the next step on his scientific journey and raised him to an entirely new level of expertise.

Despite his success in the big leagues, Will hasn't forgotten how to be a teenager. He put the $3,100 in prize money that went along with his gold-medal win towards a motor scooter, which is providing some relief for his mother who regularly drives him from home to the University of Manitoba. Since then, he has continued his work with a follow-up project that he took to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Cleveland in May 2003.

What are Will's plans for the immediate future? In addition to a full academic and sports schedule at school, the 16-year-old is back in Dr. Eisenstat's lab for the fall/winter season. And in true "Young Innovator" fashion, he's already getting involved in a number of new and exciting projects with other researchers at the University of Manitoba.