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Young scientists study microplastics, phone radiation, to earn spots at int'l fair

Yukon high school students Bruce Porter and Gavin Howells are off to Abu Dhabi to show off their science experiments, and rub shoulders with other budding young scientists from around the world. 

Yukoners Bruce Porter and Gavin Howells headed to Expo-Sciences International in Abu Dhabi

Yukon high school students Bruce Porter and Gavin Howells are off to the Expo-Sciences International in Abu Dhabi, which happens this week. (Dave Croft/CBC)

A couple of Yukon high school students are off to Abu Dhabi to show off their science experiments, and rub shoulders with other budding young scientists from around the world. 

"This isn't a competition-based science fair, it's more of a science fair for youth to share their ideas," said Gavin Howells, about the 2019 Expo-Sciences International, which happens in Abu Dhabi this week.

Howells is flying there this weekend, along with fellow Yukoner Bruce Porter. They applied to join about 2,000 other participants, from more than 50 countries.

"I'm really looking forward to meeting all sorts of people from all over the world, and seeing some of their ideas," said Porter.

"Some of the research that I've seen, actually most of it, has not come from North America — for my project topic. So I think it'll be really interesting to see what ideas they have."

Porter's project involved measuring the presence of microplastics in the Yukon River. He said he'd heard a lot about microplastics in the oceans, but nobody had studied them in Yukon before.

Microplastics are widespread in the environment, but Porter says they hadn't been studied in Yukon fresh water. (NOAA/Associated Press)

He tested at several locations and found that more microplastics were found in areas with lower water velocity.

"So that led me to believe that there's actually atmospheric deposition of microplastics falling onto the water and kind of pooling in the low water velocity areas," Porter said.

He also tested snow, tap water, and atmospheric deposition samples collected indoors and outdoors.

"I found microplastics in all of these. So I have lots to share," he said.

'Use a little more caution' with cellphones

Howells studied cellphone radiation, using a special strain of yeast.

"I observed a statistically significant increase in the amount of mutations after the yeast was exposed to cellphone radiation," Howells said.

"I think that we should use a little more caution maybe, when using cellphones until further study shows maybe what the mechanisms of action are, how serious this is, how much radiation is necessary. And I think that's actually what my future projects are going to analyze."

Howells shows off his research on cellphone radiation to Justin Trudeau in Ottawa last year. He was one of 35 students from across the country invited to take part in the Prime Minister's Science Fair. (PMO)

The two admit that it's sometimes a challenge to pursue research in Yukon, where there aren't the same resources and expertise as can be found elsewhere.

"There's not a lot of resources for us here. There's not as many people that know all sorts of things," Porter said. 

"I found the majority of the people — actually, all of them except one — that I worked with were located abroad or were doing their research somewhere else," Howells said.

Still, the two said they've had a lot of help and support from people in Yukon.

As for their future as scientists, Howells envisions for himself a career in medical sciences, specifically as an oncologist who practises research.

Porter is not ready to commit to anything.

"I definitely don't have it as figured out as Gavin, but I think it'd be interesting to continue with this at least through high school. And then that might guide me to where I go in the future," he said.

With files from Dave White

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