SBC Alumni: Q&A with Jeanny Yao

Tell us about your history with SBC

I participated in SBC in my grade 12 year. My best friend, Miranda Wang, and I tackled the research project on the bio-degradation of phthalates, which are toxic chemicals added to everyday plastic products. We were placed first in the regional round in BC, and then received the Greatest Commercialization Award at the national level in 2012.

What are you doing now?

SBC further ignited my passion for science. Currently, I study biochemistry and environmental sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough. I am also continuing research on related topics in bio-degradation and microbial ecology.

What motivated you to participate in SBC?

It was my last year of high school and I wanted to do something cool with my best friend before we parted ways for university. We were both nature lovers and were involved in many environmental initiatives, so we thought it may be worthwhile to take those initiatives to a scientific level, hoping that perhaps we could contribute to solving environmental problems more directly.

Describe what the competition process was like for you.

We submitted our initial proposal without any expectations. When we were notified as being accepted into the competition to work in university level research labs, we were extremely excited. We started contacting professors who were in the field that we wanted to explore. We approached Dr. Lindsay Eltis from the department of Microbiology and Immunology at UBC and he agreed to meet us in person. When we met him, he had no idea that we are part of the Sanofi competition but kindly decided to take us into his lab and assigned his graduate students, Adam Crowe and James Round, as our mentors. The next 4 months involved many procedural failures and change of directions, but eventually we were able to produce useful results to present at the competition. Judgement day was exciting and intimidating simultaneously. All contestants’ ideas sounded brilliant and we had no clue where our project stood amongst so many ingenious others. The awards ceremony was definitely an unforgettable experience. The regional results were announced while the contestants were on stage–I was so shocked that our project won first place! Going for the national round was even more fantastic. Not just the competition itself but having the opportunity to tour Ottawa and meet the panel of judges was a memorable experience. In a word, the entire competition process was one of the coolest and most fun times I have had throughout my high school career.

How has your participation helped you beyond high school?

Involvement in SBC opened my eyes to real science research and allowed me to gain experiences in the lab. This helped me tremendously in university and gave me the courage and qualifications to approach professors to continue research. In addition, the media attention from winning awards at the competition attracted TED, which in turn enabled us to share our idea and research on a global stage. Having spoken on TED’s stage is a true privilege that provided me with more opportunities in recent years.

Describe your favourite aspect of participating in SBC.

I love the research but also enjoyed the competition itself. I had the chance to meet like-minded individuals with fascinating ideas and perspectives. My favourite part was bonding with other contestants and sharing our stories on a personal level. I wished that we could have spent more time together.

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

I would advise all participants to try hard but also have fun. The more you love what you’re doing for the project, the more curious you are about your research topic, the more you will get out of it. When you meet other contestants, rather than treating them as your competitors, see them as potential good friends who have very similar interests as yourself.