Five teens are off to Canada-Wide Science Fair with projects mentored by Guelph researchers
BY ANDREW VOWLES
The bruising bodycheck during a minor hockey game last fall left Maveric Croucher nursing a stiff neck for a few days. But the hit also gave the 13-year-old an idea for a school science project that has taken him from his Hamilton home through a U of G biomechanics lab and all the way to the Canada-Wide Science Fair this week in Quebec.
The Grade 8 student, who has developed a device intended to protect hockey players from whiplash, is the youngest of five teens whose science fair projects mentored by Guelph faculty or graduate students were selected to compete this year at Canada's premier science fair, which began May 13 in Chicoutimi, Que., and runs to May 21.
Besides Croucher, this year's national competitors include a pair of Guelph high school students who made U of G their lab for a project on making blood cells from skin stem cells. Two other local high-schoolers visited campus to study a nasty gastrointestinal bug that has caused illness and death in hospitals and nursing homes.
At the regional science fair this spring, Croucher's invention was generating a buzz even before it won a silver medal and an immediate berth in the big leagues. Resembling a slimmed-down version of pillow collars used by airline passengers, the Whip Ender consists of three foam layers sandwiched in waterproof and rip-resistant fabric. The flexible C-shaped collar tapers at both ends to fit snugly under a hockey jersey and has Velcro fasteners to hold it in place against a player's padding.
Earlier this year, he visited U of G to try out the device on a robotic assembly in the joint biomechanics lab of Prof. Jim Dickey, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences. Purchased with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the robot mimics motions that allow scientists to study how the neck handles whiplash-like perturbations (the assembly moves too slowly to cause actual whiplash in subjects strapped into a car seat atop the robot).
In a letter included in the youngster's project display, Dickey says: “It appears that Maveric's device is suitable for limiting neck motion during whiplash-like perturbations,” although it would need more testing under real on-ice conditions.
Those kinds of measured words were not what Croucher's mother, Josie, was thinking last fall as she waited in a hushed Hamilton arena for her son to get back on his feet. The 120-pound defender lay on the ice for a full minute after sustaining a hit from an opponent some 30 pounds heavier. Recalling how the seconds dragged by, she says: “You sit with a sick feeling in your stomach.”
Earlier hits had also left her son's neck feeling tender, but he knew he wasn't alone. He's seen other hockey players carried off the ice on a stretcher — most recently Toronto Maple Leafs defender Carlo Colaiacovo, who received a concussion after colliding with the boards.
Those observations became a question for this A student in science and math: Isn't there protective equipment for hockey players to prevent whiplash, along the lines of the neck supports he had worn while playing football or riding his dirt bike in motocross?
It turned out that there wasn't, so in December, Croucher began designing the Whip Ender and contacting various experts. Scouring the Internet, he found a U of G news release about a hockey whiplash study by Dickey and PhD candidate Loriann Hynes. The Guelph researchers had found a strong association between whiplash-induced neck injuries and concussion symptoms in hockey injuries.
Hardly expecting to hear back, Croucher wrote to the University. He and his parents were amazed when the researchers invited the youngster to try out his innovation in their lab. Referring to Dickey's interest in the project, Josie Croucher says: “To take time out of his busy day to help a 13-year-old kid — that's pretty cool.”
For his national science fair entry, Croucher included a video of his robotic ride, hockey gear and all, and information from Dickey's study.
In another U of G-mentored project, two Grade 12 students from Centennial CVI won gold at the Wellington-Waterloo Science and Engineering Fair with a project on turning somatic stem cells into white blood cells.
Kimberly Cai thought of the project while reading journal articles by her mother, Prof. Julang Li, Animal and Poultry Science. Last month, Li published a paper describing how her lab has made egg-like cells from skin stem cells taken from fetal pigs.
“The idea of skin stem cells turning into something else was fascinating,” says Cai.
Working with PhD student Paul Dyce, she and her classmate Shazli Shethwala mimicked the lab's technique to make white blood cells from skin stem cells taken from fetal mice.
Such a procedure may ultimately improve treatment of people with leukemia by eliminating waiting times needed for bone marrow transplants and by lowering the risk of rejection of donor tissue, says Cai.
Dyce says he and his co-researchers plan to incorporate the students' work into further studies of stem cell differentiation.
Another gold-medal winner at the regional fair was a project on the inhibition of Clostridium difficile, a bacterium that can cause diarrhea and dehydration and may cause severe illness or death in elderly people or sick patients. An outbreak occurred in Quebec hospitals in 2004.
Using a strain of the bug that doesn't cause disease but otherwise resembles its infectious cousin, Brittany Martyn and Perryn Kruth — Grade 10 students at John F. Ross CVI — tried out various inhibitors in the research lab of Prof. Scott Weese, Clinical Studies, who has studied human and animal infections from C. difficile.
“We looked at how to stop bacteria from growing and producing toxins by testing antibiotics and probiotics,” says Martyn.
The students also got help from Kruth's dad, Stephen, a faculty member in the Department of Clinical Studies. Perryn Kruth has been to the national science fair twice before.
Martyn says she especially enjoyed their twice-weekly visits to Weese's lab. “That was amazing, getting the chance to go into the lab and see what people do from day to day.”
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