SBC Alumni: Q&A with Isabelle Labeca-Gordon

Isabelle Labeca-Gordon competed in the SBCC in 2013, during her grade 12 year of high school. She was mentored by Dr. Tony Mazzulli at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. In our interview, Isabelle highlights how the SBCC gave her a unique opportunity to pursue research in a university lab under the guidance of a mentor, an experience she says she couldn’t have had without the SBCC.

Now in her first year at the University of Ottawa, she wanted to give back to the SBCC this year so she volunteered with the SBCC as an event assistant at the National Awards in Ottawa. When I met Isabelle at the awards evening, I was struck by her ambition and motivation to support the SBCC in any way that she can so that it can continue for years to come. In our interview, she tells us what her research experience was like, how the SBCC has helped her beyond high school, and imparts some advice to students who may be interested in participating in the SBCC (now is the time to start thinking about your application!).

Tell me about your history with the SBCC.

Isabelle & Mentor
I first heard about SBCC through my chemistry teacher in my final year of high school. I was lucky enough to participate in the up coming 2013 regional competition in Toronto. It was convenient because my class had done it’s own private science fair and so I already had a concept I wanted to explore while going into the competition.

The topic of my project ended up being an investigation of the different compounds in green tea, and seeing whether they could be regularly consumed or made into an antibiotic to prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). My project was successful in that it found a compound in green tea known as epigallocatechin (EGC) to be able to interfere with the topoisomerase of susceptible e.coli bacteria, which is a cause of UTIs. It was also hypothesized that by consuming 3 cups of caffeinated green tea a day, one could benefit from EGC’s preventative benefits.

Unfortunately I was unable to continue on with this research. However, instead I was able to work at the medical school at the University of Ottawa and work under the supervision of Dr. Gee. That was an amazing experience and I do not believe that it could have happened without my initial SBCC experience.

What are you doing now?

As of right now, I have currently completed my first year of university at the University of Ottawa. During the summer I have also been doing paid laboratory work at their medical school. In addition to this, this year I the opportunity to become an executive club member of uEducate and we just established the first high school science exam offered by the University of Ottawa. This exam is an attempt to attract high school students to the field of science as well as award the most exceptional students who participate.

What motivated you to participate in the SBCC?

My main source of motivation was the opportunity to have a mentor and work in a lab. As a high school student, this is a very rare opportunity and it can open so many doors for those who are willing to participate. Once I had found my mentor, my motivation changed. I realized that my work had a good possibility of helping those with an issue that is very much prevalent in our society. That idea was the most compelling of them all.

Describe what the research and competition process was like for you.

In terms of research, I will be honest and say it was difficult. My mentor, Dr. Mazzulli, allowed for me to be independent and stressed the importance of protocol. Being a high school student, these concepts where very new to me, especially in a Pathobiology lab. Dr. Mazzulli’s high expectations pushed me to do the best I could and this became a very delicate balancing act because I was still in school. In retrospect, I truly don’t know what I would’ve done without my mentor because even though it was hectic and required a lot of hard work, Dr. Mazzulli and the rest of the staff (more notably Barbara, the lab technician) taught me skills that not even 2rd year university students know! Ultimately, they gave me a sense of confidence and accomplishment, which truly made the research a growing process and a fun one at that!

With what regards the competition, it seemed a bit intimidating at first. Many other students had amazing projects of which they had worked on for years (I had only worked on mine for a little over a semester!). However, after having gone through the peer evaluation round, it was a big relief to find out that everyone was just as nervous as I was! In that instant, it became much less of a cutthroat environment and more like a support system. We gave each other tips and honestly wished each other the best. This made the day of judging a more fun experience and even so, the judges were also very kind.

Overall, the whole SBCC experience was one I will never forget and it has forever changed me in the best possible way.

How has your participation helped you beyond high school?

Ultimately, the competition has given me the confidence and the drive to make a difference. I now know I have the capability to be a good researcher and this carries through all my activities in university whether it be research, club participation or academics.

Describe your favourite aspect of participating in the SBC.

My favourite part of participating in the SBCC is the research process. Despite it being a tough journey, it was just that: a journey. I was able to get an inside look in what real life science entails as well as leave my mark on the scientific community. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.

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

In terms of advice, I would say that only by working hard will this experience pay off. I say this because research isn’t a field of science with a determined outcome and this fact can cause one to be discouraged. I would say that maintaining a good work ethic and truly taking advantage of this rare opportunity is the only way to get the most out of it. You may break a sweat, but it will definitely be worth it!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to thank the whole organization. What you do for the youth is exceptional and after having participated, I can truly say that this experience has forever changed me. I am truly grateful.

I would sincerely like to thank Isabelle for taking part in this interview and sharing her valuable insights and advice. I would also like to thank her for her work as a volunteer at the SBCC National Awards evening in Ottawa; Isabelle helped us with poster set-up and worked our registration table. Thank you, Isabelle!