Calgary student's childhood cancer project impresses at international science fair

A Calgary student’s project earned top marks at an international science fair, but the student says awareness is as important as recognition.

Colette Benko's project is about making cancer treatments more effective and less toxic

Colette Benko's childhood cancer project just took second prize at the 29th European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Estonia. (EUCYS 2017/flickr)

A Calgary student's project earned top marks at an international science fair, but the student says awareness is as important as recognition.

Colette Benko, a Grade 12 student at St. Mary's High School, says her second place prize at the 29th European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Estonia was incredibly rewarding but so was engaging with some of the brightest young minds.

"It's really amazing," Benko told The Homestretch this week.

"All the projects were incredible and our team really did quite an outstanding job. It brings contestants from all around the European Union and then they also have international countries come and participate so it allows lots of young scientists to be able to meet each other and compete."

More effective, less toxic

Benko's project is about childhood cancer treatments, an issue she unfortunately has some experience with.

"My research revolves around neuroblastoma, which is a childhood cancer, and I am looking at finding new treatments that are more effective and less toxic for patients," she said.

"After my own personal cancer experience, I saw other children that were much younger than me receiving similar treatment that was even more harsh than mine and so I wanted to be able to help them find treatments that would be less toxic."

Cells don't grow up

She says it's about getting cells to grow up.

"Neuroblastoma becomes really hard to treat because the cells don't grow up. They never become neurons and that's what they are supposed to be. I am looking at treatments to try and make these cells become neurons, so make them grow up," Benko explained.

"I do multiple different experiments that take multiple different time points and then I can eventually do microscope imaging to then determine if my inhibitors, in fact, turn the cells into a neuronal-type cell."

Her interest in science and science fairs started at a young age.

"I just always loved science. We did a lot of experiments at home when I was really young, and just that building of science got me interested in solving the puzzles that were out there. I got more into science fair and I wanted to be able to help other people," Benko said.

The student says her recent win at the science fair in Estonia feels good but talking about the issues is equally important.

"It is incredible that my research is really being able to be open to others learning about it and also being able to spread the word about pediatric cancers," she said.

"It's really important that people understand the need for research in this area."


With files from The Homestretch