Day 6

As science fairs go virtual, these students say their 'real-world' research is as important as ever

Last year’s Canada-Wide Science Fair, slated to be hosted in Edmonton, was cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Canada. It has now been more than a year since Bruce Porter and Gavin Howells presented at a fair, and while both are excited to show projects virtually, they worry it won’t be the same.

The Yukon high schoolers will present research on microplastics, e-cigarettes

Bruce Porter, left, and Gavin Howells, right, will present experiments virtually at this year's Canada-Wide Science Fair. (Dave Croft/CBC)

High school students Bruce Porter and Gavin Howells will miss meeting new friends and learning about novel experiments when the Canada-Wide Science Fair goes virtual this year.

At past science fairs, the Grade 10 and 11 students from Whitehorse would roam the aisles looking for eye-catching projects, and demonstrate their own work with intricately-crafted posters.

But this year, those displays will be attached to a computer.

"I spend a lot of time thinking about how many words should be on there and how many pictures and what colours I choose," Porter told Day 6. "There's so much that goes into that, and I feel like a little square on a screen is going to be difficult."

Last year's Canada-Wide Science Fair, slated to be hosted in Edmonton, was cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Canada. Porter, who has been competing since elementary school, and teammate Howells were slated to compete.

It has now been more than a year since the pair presented at a fair, and while both are excited to show their projects virtually, they worry it won't be the same.

Howells, left, and Porter, right, travelled to Abu Dhabi in 2019 for the Expo-Sciences International. (Submitted by Bruce Porter)

'They've changed my life'

Science fairs are about far more than just socializing and creating beautiful displays for the two high schoolers, however.

"I know it would be a cliché to say this, but I think they've changed my life. They've made me interested in things that I probably would not have known about without entering in them," said Howells.

"They allow students to learn about the scientific method, research and study something that they're passionate about, [and] try to solve a real-world problem."

Both Porter and Howells aim to do just that, tackling issues Yukoners and Canadians are facing today with their projects this year. 

Last year, Porter examined 60 fish stomachs for microplastics in the Yukon environment. This year, he will present what he calls "pioneering" research on the issue.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that enter natural environments from products like cosmetics, and processes like manufacturing.

"In a place like this, a lot of people believe it's pristine, so I wanted to ... see if that's really the truth," he said. 

Meanwhile, Howells is looking at the effects of flavoured and unflavoured e-cigarette liquid on yeast cells.

"In recent years, there's been an uptake in e-cigarette use generally, and especially amongst youth," Howells explained. "As these devices are relatively new, there has been a call for more research on both the short-term and long-term impacts of their use.

"Yeast is considered to be a good model organism for human cells, and increased mutation rates in multicellular organisms can sometimes lead to diseases such as cancer." 

Porter is pictured presenting his researching in Abu Dhabi. (Submitted by Bruce Porter)

'The answer to a lot of our problems'

In the face of a global pandemic, Porter says that science is more important now than ever.

That's why he hopes science fairs — online or otherwise — will continue to inspire and engage young people interested in science. 

Meanwhile, he hopes that everyone takes science seriously.

"It's the answer to a lot of our problems," said Porter.

"We should be believing scientists and what they tell us, so hopefully that is carried through the pandemic and people realise the importance of science."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.

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