Alberta Cancer Foundation

Students get hands-on learning through research program

There’s no doubt that being a high school student can be challenging. A high school student is nearing the end of his or her grade school career and the pressure is on to pick a career and plan for the future. Luckily for Grade 11 students, the Heritage Youth Researcher Summer (HYRS) program – a funding partnership between the Alberta Cancer Foundation and Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AIHS) – helps students get a hands-on experience and a better understanding of working in the scientific field. It prepares them for a future in health-related research, should that be a direction they’re considering.

WHITE COATS: aspiring scientist Patrick O’Donnell, left, and mentor Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden.
Photo: Rob Olson

HYRS is a six-week summer program specific to Grade 11 students in Alberta. The program allows participants to gain experience by working in labs at the University of Alberta, University of Calgary and the University of Lethbridge under the supervision of scientists and researchers.

Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden, department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Lethbridge, has been involved with various levels of the HYRS program for the past six years but since 2008, he has directly supervised students in the program in his research group.

“Although only very short, these summer research internships can be quite transformative for the students as it helps them to explore their passion for research and provides them with an inside view of health-related research as a career option,” Wieden says. “The support by the Alberta Cancer Foundation is critical to provide more deserving students with opportunities to get hands-on research experience and consider a career in medical and biochemical research,” Wieden says.

Dr. Hans-Joachim Wieden believes HYRS, a summer research internship, can be transformative for students as it helps them explore their passion for research and even consider health-care related research as a career option.

The Lethbridge professor is adamant HYRS is crucial to exposing young students to what a career in medical research entails and better prepares them for the future. “I am convinced that it is critical for the future of medical research in Alberta and Canada, as a whole, to make sure that more high school students get the chance to participate in a program like HYRS,” he says.

Patrick O’Donnell, a Grade 11 student who was in the HYRS program this summer, has only positive things to say about his experience. “I have enjoyed working with all of the members of my lab, and having access to students as smart and involved in their fields as they were, was extremely helpful in allowing me to work successfully and efficiently,” O’Donnell says.

The aspiring scientist notes that one of the challenges he faced in his time with HYRS was the complexity of the scholarly articles he was assigned to read. But through the support of his supervisor Wieden, he overcame the struggle.

Despite minor challenges, O’Donnell says the HYRS program gave him a wonderful glimpse into what a career in scientific research would be all about. The program is an amazing way for high school students to work in a field of potential interest to them.

“Whether or not they end up actually following through in becoming a scientist, I think that so few people know what it is actually like to work in a university science laboratory with advanced equipment that it may be difficult to concretely say, ‘I wish to become a scientist’ or ‘I do not wish to become a scientist’ before they have had a chance to see what it is like for themselves. And HYRS is definitely the program for that,” O’Donnell says.