MSFHR Scholar mentors teen to national “Biogenius” award

22 July 2016

When an unexpected surgery interfered with her passion for dance, Iveta Demirova found a new calling. Under the mentorship of MSFHR Scholar Dr. Ralph Pantophlet, the 16-year-old New Westminster Secondary student is channelling her energy into science, recently claiming top honours in one of the most prestigious biotechnology competitions for high school students.

As a child, Demirova always had an interest in science. Her early efforts at collecting rocks and bugs were taken to the next level when her parents gave her a microscope for Christmas one year. Demirova's interest was further piqued in elementary school by watching a TED talk with her parents about a 3D-printed beating heart. It was then that she knew she wanted to be a researcher and began to read up on science-related topics.

That’s when she came across Sanofi Biogenius Canada, a competition that challenges high school students to carry out ground-breaking research projects in the field of biotechnology. She attended Genome BC’s Geneskool to get first-hand experience in a lab. There, she continued to read about viruses and bacteria, and that’s when she came across Pantophlet’s research.

Pantophlet, a 2012 MSFHR Scholar, recalls receiving an email from Demirova. While he had hosted high school students before, they were purely in volunteer roles. Demirova had a much bigger goal in mind. Determined to enter the Sanofi competition, she would frequent Pantophlet’s lab after school, working alongside the Simon Fraser University health sciences professor and his undergraduate students.

Pantophlet admits it was uncharted territory — he wasn’t entirely sure what it meant to be Demirova’s mentor. 

“It was time consuming and I admit, there were setbacks. It even became stressful at times," he says. "This definitely wasn’t for every high school student. But Iveta was determined, and I admired her drive.”

Pantophlet says Demirova was strong on theory and was already ahead of the game, having gained experience from workshops at BCIT and UBC.

Once Demirova decided to enter the Sanofi competition, she and Pantophlet talked excitedly about various project ideas.

“This was the first time I had to discuss something at such a high level. It involved a lot of thought, reading and creativity,” explains Demirova. 

Fast forward to the regional competition that took place earlier this year. Demirova went into the competition with no expectations. She was just thrilled to be there to present her project — entitled "Exploring the development of antibody-scaffolded membrane-fusion inhibitors for HIV-1 therapy" — to a panel of scientists from BC-based research institutions, organizations and companies.

When she found out she won, she was speechless. About a month later, Demirova took the same project to the national competition in Ottawa. This was a defining moment for her, as she took top honours again. Pantophlet and his undergrads were amazed.

While Demirova didn’t win the international leg of the Sanofi competition in San Francisco, she says it was an unbelievable journey and is grateful for the experience.

“In San Francisco, I visited different biotech booths from around the world and had the opportunity to speak with researchers who were part of leading-edge science," says Demirova. "Some of those I spoke with even asked me to connect with them once I’m in university.” 

Demirova feels incredibly fortunate for Pantophlet's mentorship, particularly the way he pushed her to solve problems independently.

“He never gave me a straight answer. When I asked him about something, he would encourage me come up with my own solutions before discussing it,” she says.

For Pantophlet, the experience was eye-opening.

“Working with Iveta showed me there are some really bright high school kids out there whose abilities are comparable to those at the undergrad level, and with some guidance, they can do amazing things,” he says. “It was also my first time being exposed to this kind of competition, so it was a good learning experience for me.”

Based on her experience, Iveta is now keen on a health research career. She just finished Grade 11 and will spend her summer researching universities. Asked if she had any advice for fellow high school students, she was quick to say “I encourage anyone interested in science to just do it, because there are so many opportunities to get involved. There are also many people out there to support you if you really want it.”