Turning over a new leaf

Turning over a new leaf

September 2, 2002

Imagine that you have been asked to identify and explore the links between biology, math, and art. Could you? Churmy Fan can. In fact, not only did she explore the secret links between the geometric features of leaves and their genetics, but she created a software program that helps do it. And she's only 15 years old.

Churmy's explorations first began with an expedition to collect leaves. Not just any leaves, but leaves that are often mistaken for one another. Equipped with her fresh samples, she captures their images on a scanner, and prepares them for rigourous testing by manually outlining their features—no shortcuts for this young researcher. In the criss-crossing veins of the leaves, Churmy sees patterns, an ability she attributes to her interest in art (when she's not busy applying math algorithms to nature she can be found painting it). The "wonderful textures of leaves" and "appealing geometric features" encouraged Churmy to ask questions. Could statistical features from the vein structure of leaves be extracted? Are these statistical features distinct? Can they be used to accurately identify plants?

Using measurable features of the leaves and analyzing them with her Leaf Look software program, Churmy looks for a group of curves forming a somewhat oval shape adjacent to the master vein of the leaf. These groups of curves she calls the "scale curves," a term inspired by their resemblance to fish scales. It's the number of these scale curves, the length of a scale curve, and the angle between them and the master vein that are measured. This is where Churmy's Leaf Look does its magic by recording the position of the veins onto an imaginary grid in the computer. Leaf Look helps manage the data she collects through 160 lines of code that Churmy herself wrote. This data is then plugged into a series of formulae (which Churmy developed and refined) for analysis. Was her hypothesis correct? It was. Churmy determined that genetics and geometry are related. Is she happy with her results? Yes, but she's quick to point out that it's the process that is the most important part of her work.

If you're impressed with all this leaf-based discovery, you're not the only one. Churmy was one of six students selected from her school to head off to the Regional Science Fair of Greater Vancouver where she won a number of awards including : the 2002 Walter Olson Chief Judge Award, The Association of Professional Biologists of British Columbia Science Fair Award and The University of British Columbia Plant Science Award. Churmy modestly relates that she did "okay" at the Youth Science Foundation's national science fair championships, the Canada-Wide Science Fair, held this year in Saskatoon. Along with a Gold Medal and scholarship to The University of Western Ontario, she was awarded the Best Intermediate Project, and the Genome Canada Genomics Award. Not bad for her first science fair project. Indeed, "Signature of Leaves" was her first project ever and gave her the opportunity to try her hand at computer programming.

So what led Churmy to this project and her success? If you peruse her project poster, you'll notice a photo of her as a toddler straddling a tree limb, happy amidst its leaves. Her interest in biology was planted at a young age and nurtured by parents who also shared their interest in computers, math, and art. Her biology teacher cultivated her love of science through lively discussions with classmates in his science class. Churmy speaks with enthusiasm of her teacher and these discussions, describing a stimulating and sometimes humourous atmosphere that continues to feed her curiosity.

As an eight-year-old immigrant to Canada from China, Churmy faced the challenge of adapting to a new culture and learning a new language without trepidation. She says her education in Canada has given her an opportunity to express herself. She credits her parents and teachers for helping her in her studies and research, but you just have to speak to this thoughtful and lively girl to realize that her success is due to her own perseverance and dedication. Churmy will tell you that once she starts something, she stays with it until she "gets results or can't go any further."

And where will her next "something" take her? When asked about her future, Churmy responds quietly that she might like to one day be a biology professor—just like the one who helped inspire her to take a trip through the leaves.