For more than 20 years, over 4,000 remarkable high school students have taken part in the Sanofi Biogenius Canada, pushing the boundaries of science with cutting-edge projects that hold real-world, life-changing potential. Here are just some of the whiz kids who have taken part in years past – and the amazing discoveries that have since opened doors to exciting opportunities.

JANELLE TAM, 2012 NATIONAL WINNER

Student, piano teacher, competitive debater – Janelle Tam wears many hats, but the achievement that’s garnered her most acclaim is her recent discovery of an anti-aging compound found in wood pulp.

At just 16 years old, Janelle was the first to show that NCCs (Nanocrystalline Cellulose, the tiny particles that make up the woody material in trees,) is a powerful antioxidant with many unique properties.

Stronger than steel but flexible, durable and ultra light, NCC’s potential uses are virtually limitless. “It’s non-toxic, stable, soluble in water, and renewable, since it comes from trees,” says Janelle, who, for her Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC) project, paired NCC with a buckminsterfullerene particle to produce an amazing combination with the ability to neutralize harmful new radicals. “NCC is really a hot field of research in Canada,” she adds, noting that antioxidants have anti-aging and health benefits, including wound healing properties.

Janelle’s next challenge? Princeton University, where she’ll begin her studies this fall. But she won’t be forgetting her roots anytime soon – at a recent chat with Sanofi Pasteur President Mark Lievonen, Janelle revealed plans to return to Canada upon graduation, where she hopes to become a medical doctor and researcher.

Check out the interview with Janelle below:

MARSHAL ZHANG, 2011 NATIONAL WINNER

Before he began his SBCC project, Marshall Zhang had never met anyone with cystic fibrosis (CF), but his groundbreaking discovery would soon bring him heartfelt messages of thanks and congratulations from CF patients and their families across Canada.

At just 16 years old, (an age when most of his peers were busy with videogames!) Marshall used the Canadian SCINET network to invent an amazing drug cocktail that may one day help treat CF, a genetic disorder that affects the lungs and digestive system.

With mentorship from Dr. Christine Bear, Marshall navigated the sophisticated computer modelling system to identify how two drugs interacted with one part of the mutant protein that causes CF. He then proved his virtual findings were correct using living cells in culture.

“The cells treated with the two drugs were functioning as if they were the cells of healthy individuals,” Marshall explains, adding that the best part of his SBCC experience was realizing the real impact his research could have on people.

With this discovery, Marshall, who is currently studying at Harvard, plays a crucial role in laying the groundwork for identifying effective CF treatments, as well as paving a path for drug development through computational means.

RUI SONG, 2010 NATIONAL WINNER

At just 14 years old, whiz kid Rui Song was the youngest national finalist in the history of the SBCC. Astonishing judges with her research into the molecular fingerprint of a crop-killing disease, it was no great surprise when she claimed first place in 2010.

Rui’s project aimed to find molecular markers that can tell the difference between two closely related types of fungus that attack lentil crops. Though almost identical, one type attacks lentils far more aggressively, destroying crops in countries like Canada, Bangladesh, Syria, and Ethiopia.

Though Rui did not uncover the definitive identifier that solves the fungus riddle, her research into 50 of the 2,000 potential genetic markers provided a promising direction for more detailed research in future, which could one day ignite efforts to develop resistant lentil varieties.

“Before the SBCC, I hadn’t even considered being a researcher,” says Rui. “I now hope to continue my research journey in university and in my career, to continue creating beneficial change in the world.”

Rui hasn’t given up her quest: in 2012, she made her mark at the SBCC Nationals once again, placing second for her research into developing a more nutritious variety of lentil. She has since accepted an offer to spend a summer at Harvard, and is weighing university options in pursuit of a doctoral degree.