My name is Julien Sénécal, a student in the International Baccalaureate program (Health Sciences). I graduated High School in 2013, with the General Governor’s Academic Medal in hands.
Having worked in a Nature Centre in British-Columbia, I now am an intern in a medical research laboratory, where I work on HIV. I have always had a keen interest in science, especially biology, and my first research on HIV awarded me to be in Canada’s top 5 of the BioGENEius Challenge.
We used the defense system of the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria to inhibit the replication of HIV-1. The CRISPR/Cas9 system works by cutting DNA that is said to be “undesirable” to the bacteria and we wanted to know if HIV-1 DNA could be cleaved with it, which has worked.
What motivated you to participate in SBCC? Did anyone encourage you?
Initially, the SBCC was presented to me as a short winter internship. It is only later that I discovered what really was the BioGENEius Challenge and the chance I had to conduct my research in a medical laboratory, where the equipment is at the forefront of technology. Science, it is a great interest and scientific research, a passion. To have the opportunity to develop a project and to realize it is what motivated me, in addition to the tremendous learning experience.
No one precisely encouraged me, but I have to say that I was inspired a lot by the winner of the previous year, who presented to me the SBCC and explained what she had done and her lab experience.
Where did your project idea come from?
The idea came from reading scientific literature and class notes. I read something about restriction enzymes and I asked myself if we could use them to cut HIV DNA. I made my own little research in papers, etc. and did not find that anyone had tried it before. After discussion with my mentor, we decided to take a restriction enzyme that we could use to specifically cut HIV DNA, which happened to work.
What about your work might be of interest to other teens or impact their everyday life?
Well, as of direct application, there are years needed to further the tests to improve the overall system, but the knowledge gathered by the experiments tells us that the system could be of great use in genetic engineering. Not only would we be able to cut “wrong” DNA, but also to replace it with “correct” DNA, which would help in the treatments of many genetic diseases.
What was your favourite part of the experience? Was there anything you found especially challenging?
To have to choose between all the great aspects, I would say the one I prefer is the months spent in laboratory. The practical experience cumulated throughout this time is enormous and it is rare to have the chance before University to do such research. This aspect also comes with the availability of my mentor to support me both practically and theoretically. In addition to have opened me the door, he included me into the weekly lab meeting, where I got to discover and discuss some of the most recent scientific discovery.
Regarding the most challenging part, I would say it is to manage school, extracurricular activities and lab work. To find a schedule to satisfy all three of these aspects can be hard at some point, but at the end, when you present your results, you’re proud of yourself and all the time and efforts you put in your project become worth it.
What would be your advice for other youth considering participation in SBCC?
The main advice I would give is not to hesitate to ask questions to always make sure you understand what you do and especially, why you do it. This advice also comes with planning; know what you will do when you will arrive in the lab, what you want to know and what can you do to obtain that knowledge. This way, you will be able to always be up-to-date on your project and maximise every moment you spend in the lab.