From L-R: Jaclyn Parks, Laura Wang, and Tim Takaro

FHS researchers help teenager launch research career

October 29, 2019

The full-length story originally appeared in AllerGen NCE’s newsletter.

When FHS professor Tim Takaro received an email from a Grade 10 student asking about how to get started in research, he was impressed.

“This enterprising young student clearly stated what she wanted to do related to my research on disease susceptibility factors in environmental health,” says Takaro. “I wanted to meet her in person to see what was behind this.”

15-year-old Laura Wang, who has been passionate about science since middle school, had decided to find someone who could help her learn what it takes to become a “real” researcher. She never imagined that email would lead her to the CHILD Cohort Study, a budding research career, and an award-winning science project.

“I googled Simon Fraser University and looked through their faculty,” says Wang. “Dr. Takaro’s bio said he had an interest in child health and chronic diseases, so I emailed him out-of-the-blue. I never really expected him to write me back.”

Takaro invited Wang to come to the SFU campus to meet with him and graduate student Jaclyn Parks.

“They were both so encouraging and generous with their time to answer my questions about how to get started in research,” Wang explains. “When Dr. Takaro told me about the CHILD Cohort Study and the incredible things the study is teaching us about child health and development, I was hooked!”

The meeting led to a 12-month collaboration in which Takaro and Parks mentored the teen in using CHILD data to study the effects of house dust on the development of childhood allergies and asthma. With no formal training in research, Wang spent the summer becoming familiar with RStudio, an open-access statistical program that was used to analyze the complex data.

The CHILD Cohort Study has been following 3,500 Canadian children from before birth, and offers a rich repository of clinical, environmental, genetic, and microbiome data.

“My supervisor Dr. Takaro and I study the effects of early-life exposures on the development of childhood asthma and allergic disease, so the endotoxin project seemed like the perfect complement to previous work done with environmental data from CHILD,” says Parks, a Master’s student and Research Associate in FHS. “Laura is bright, enthusiastic, and hard-working, and we knew that with support and training in research methods and analysis, Laura could become an excellent young researcher.”

Nearly a year after she first emailed Takaro, Wang summarized her research results into a paper titled “Endotoxins Associated with Wheeze and Atopy” and submitted it to the Greater Vancouver Regional Science Fair. She won a Gold Medal and a $2,000 entrance scholarship to the University of British Columbia’s Health and Life Sciences Program, as well as a spot in the Canada-Wide Science Fair. At the national event, Wang’s project won Bronze and garnered her entrance scholarships to Western University and the University of Ottawa. She was also recognized with a Canadian Young Researcher Award and a cash prize of $1,000.

Now in Grade 12, Wang credits her research success to the steady supervision and mentorship provided by Takaro and Parks. “Their guidance and support have provided me with such a rich learning experience – I can’t thank them enough.”

This fall, the collaboration will continue as the findings are prepared for peer review, leading to an open-access publication by the STEM Fellowship Journal offered as part of Wang’s CWSF award. Publishing one’s first peer-reviewed paper is an important milestone in the career of every researcher – and is especially impressive at such a young age, according to Takaro.

“Laura’s goal was to publish a paper before she finished high school. When I first heard this 14 months ago, I thought that it was very unlikely. Given all that she has accomplished so far, I’m confident now that Laura will publish before she graduates.”

Takaro says that the experience has also been a rewarding one for him and Parks. “I’m extremely proud of Jaclyn, who is an outstanding student, teacher, and mentor. Working with Laura has helped consolidate Jaclyn’s analytic abilities and she has become a gifted mentor that young scientists look up to.”