SBC Alumni: Q&A with Anton Dobrin

Anton Dobrin is a multi-year SBCC alumnus, whose project, “Studying the Effects of the pH level on Protein Activity, Inhibition and Structure,” won fifth place prize at the GTA SBCC regional competition in 2008. In this interview, Anton shares what the SBCC experience was like for him and how it has helped him beyond high school, including earning an internship with Sanofi Pasteur after his first year of university. Persistent and dedicated, Anton also shares some important advice for future SBCC participants.

Tell us about your history with the SBCC.

I first heard about SBCC in grade 9, and it got me very excited about the possibilities of biotechnology and doing a project in a real lab. While my high school was very well equipped, it was not equivalent to a well-funded university lab.

I submitted my first proposal in grade 10, which was unfortunately rejected. In the end, I did this project with the help and support of my high school teachers and for the science fair.  I submitted another proposal for a SBCC project in grade 11, while doing Co-op at the University Health Network (a group of hospitals in Toronto associated with the University), which got 5th place at the regional competition.

I tried to participate again in Grade 12, and while my proposal was accepted, and a professor agreed to help me, flaws I saw in my proposal and my inability to commit sufficient time to it in grade 12 forced me to withdraw prior to starting any real work.

What are you doing now?

I finished my BSc at the University of Toronto in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology with High Distinction, and I’m now pursuing a MSc at ETH Zurich (Switzerland) in Biotechnology: Synthetic Biology. I hope to decide on whether to continue my career in biotechnology or more traditional biology by the end of this program. I expect to pursue a PhD no matter which field I choose.

What motivated you to participate in the SBCC?

Hearing about the various projects that some students have done, I was very impressed with the level of work that was presented, and that it was available to high school students. I knew I wanted to pursue biology when I entered high school, and I was very interested in the chance to design an experiment and then perform it.

Describe what the competition process was like for you.

The year that I participated in the competition, I had already found a placement in a laboratory for my Co-op program, so it was only natural to suggest a proposal that would take advantage of the equipment and expertise I had available around me. Going to lab was the highlight of my year — I would often stay beyond the required hours for my program to work on my project. At the end, I had to write up a report and present my work.

It was interesting to see what questions people asked me – I still remember one judge questioning a key premise of my experiment – that doing biological experiments in a test tube (in vitro) is not at all a valid model for what happens in real life (in vivo).  It was somewhat unexpected, but an interesting question to answer; and while I still maintain that in my experiment it was very much relevant, it’s a question — whether a certain model is valid or not — that often comes up when I look at other people’s research now.

How has your participation helped you beyond high school?

The year I participated in the competition was very useful in terms of learning how to do research, how to present and handle questions/critiques from others. It allowed me to network with other professors at the university, and to have significantly more research experience than the average 1st year student.

Because I had placed 5th, and had received a chance to compete for an internship with Sanofi Pasteur, it meant that when I applied for research positions in labs, at the beginning of my second year, I had experience working in both industry and academia, which was very helpful at finding subsequent positions.

What advice do you have for this year’s participants?

It’s very important to not get disenchanted when stuff doesn’t work from the first try. It almost never does. It probably won’t work from the second either, but it’s important to keep thinking of novel approaches and keep moving forward. I would also advise one to do work very carefully, and thoroughly, such that when/if it fails (as it often does) you can confidently say that you didn’t make any mistakes following the protocol, and can move on, as opposed to retrying the same thing over and over again.