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Summer, with sights set on science

WISEST internship program gives two local teens experience of a lifetime

Two St. Albert teenagers are nearly finished what they both describe as life-changing summer research internships with the University of Alberta's Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology (WISEST) program.

For almost 40 years the WISEST program has offered intensive, and paid, summer research positions for young women and gender diverse youth with the goal of providing skills, knowledge, and experience for teenagers looking to study STEM-related fields in university.

This year, St. Albert's Fatima Faisal, who attends Edmonton Islamic Academy, and Connor Duffy, a trans youth entering his final year of study at Paul Kane High School, took part in the WISEST program.

Faisal has spent her summer doing research in the field of biomedical engineering. Working in the U of A's PATH Lab at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, Faisal has been researching and collecting data on remote monitoring technology, such as Fitbits, and the benefits the technology is able to provide for seniors who wish to recover from health problems, injuries, or procedures in the comfort of their own home.

"[The research] could help patients, specifically those of older ages, recover from the safety of their home and still be able to provide adequate information for clinicians to monitor their patients' health and wellness in real time," said Faisal.

Faisal said her interest in biomedical engineering began years ago when her younger sister had a stroke as baby. 

"She had to start wearing braces for her feet and biomedical engineers helped make that brace, so that’s actually when I became interested because, for a 12-year-old, you see doctors helping your family, so you feel connected to them," Faisal said.

As biomedical engineering is a wide discipline, Faisal said her WISEST research project wasn't what she was expecting when she said she was interested in medical technology and machinery, "however, I have enjoyed my time here a lot, especially because I’ve really been exposed to what research actually is," she said.

“Initially I wanted to go into something similar to medical technology or medical machinery, however, plot twist, WISEST has helped me realize I might like different engineering types — I’ve taken an interest in environmental engineering," said Faisal.

Faisal also said her internship did much more than give her experience with research.

"It gave me so much confidence," she said. "When I was first applying, I truly did not think I was capable because in my head I was just a Grade 11 student who was going to work inside a research lab with all of these very qualified people.

"I underestimated my skills. The more I stayed inside the internship the more stuff I learned and the more competent and capable I became."

On the last day of the WISEST program, Aug. 12, all the interns will participate in a celebration of research day where they present their findings. Faisal's two older sisters, who are both undergraduate engineering students, will be on-hand to peer review their sister's work.

"They're eager to see what was happening," Faisal said.

Dinosaur teeth

While Faisal was looking to improve the future, Duffy put his time and energy into better understanding the past while working in the U of A's Dino Lab.

"I’ve been doing morphometric analysis," Duffy said, explaining that "morph means shape and metric means measure."

"I’m looking at Ornithischian teeth, [including] ceratopsian, which is triceratops, and ankylosaurs, which is the armoured-back dinosaurs, and pachycephalosaurs, which have a large dome head that they hit each other with.

"What I’m doing is I’m taking a lot of intricate measurements of their teeth, and putting it into a program called PAST, which is paleontological statistics, and what that will basically do is plot teeth onto a graph and put it into groups," Duffy said.

After the teeth are plotted on the graph, Duffy's measurements ensure teeth from the same species of dinosaur will cluster together on the graph. If a dinosaur tooth is found but paleontologists are unsure what kind of dinosaur the tooth belongs to, they can use Duffy's system and the PAST program will show researchers which species the tooth belongs to based on its measurements.

"There is a very big issue in paleontology where, especially new researchers, have no way of identifying where an isolated tooth came from, so with my research they’ll be able to get more information from the stuff that they find in the field,” said Duffy.

"Our findings are very conclusive that this program is completely able to identify teeth based on the measurements I took," he said. "It got an 88-per-cent chance of guessing where teeth should fall onto the plot and which category they should be put into. It might not sound like a lot, but 88 per cent is a really fantastic score.”

Although he has been "obsessed" with paleontology since the age of five, Duffy credited his Paul Kane paleontology teacher, Renee LeClerc, with inspiring him to continue his study in the field.

“I really have interest in all fields of science, but paleontology has been the most consistent for me," Duffy said. "I also really like immunology and infections, so working on vaccine research would be really great or any genetics research I’m fascinated by.”

Duffy said his time in the WISEST program was "one of the best experiences" of his life.

"I am so grateful and lucky to be a part of this program," he said. "Not only am I working in a real lab, hopefully the lab I’ll be working in when I go to university, but we have professional development sessions every week, so I learn a lot about networking, Linkedin, communications, and all of these things that are really going to help me in my scientific career,” said Duffy.

"I really, really enjoy communicating science ... and just sharing my knowledge with the world so we can all talk about it and have fun.”

Jack Farrell

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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