Teenage whiz lead author on HHS medical study
Barry Gray,The Hamilton Spectator
A 17-year-old high school student will be the lead author on a Hamilton Health Sciences study being submitted to an international medical journal.
Lily Wu is going into Grade 12 at Ancaster High School but the aspiring doctor has already made her mark in one of the country’s top neuromuscular laboratories.
“Her scientific writing is incredible,” said Lauren Brady, a genetic counsellor who mentored Wu during a seven-week summer internship in the lab of Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky.
The McMaster professor is internationally known for his work discovering and evaluating therapies to improve muscle function in people with acquired and genetic neuromuscular diseases and mitochondrial dysfunction.
“We didn’t have to help her that much,” said Brady. “She’s a natural at it.”
Wu was one of 15 students to win a High School Health Research Bursary Award from Hamilton Health Sciences, St. Joseph’s Healthcare and McMaster University. The annual program gives high school students interested in health or life sciences the opportunity to get hands-on experience in a Hamilton research program.
“The program is important because it gives students who are interested in health sciences the opportunity to see what it’s really like early on,” said Dr. Alison Fox-Robichaud, McMaster associate professor and site lead for the cardiac surgical intensive care unit at HHS. “It’s not all glamour. It’s sometimes slogging.”
She said university students often don’t get into a lab until third- or fourth-year university so it’s significant to get a chance in high school to find out if research is your passion or you need to go in a different direction.
“I look for a genuine interest in science,” said Fox-Robichaud about the one-quarter of applicants accepted over the last 11 years. “Someone who says, ‘Throw me into the mess and I’ll problem-solve my way out.'”
But even among this group of the “brightest science students at their high schools,” it is rare to author a paper being submitted to a medical journal let alone be the lead author.
“I still can’t believe it,” said Wu. “I’ve always had a great amount of respect for researchers. They’re working toward something with the hope that what they find will benefit other people’s lives. That’s what I want to do.”
Over the last 14 months, Tarnopolsky’s lab has been using a specific genetic test for muscular dystrophies when the cause is unknown.
“This is a relatively new technology that allows us to look at all the genes at once,” said Brady. “We used to have to test each one.”
Wu’s task was to determine how often the test worked, which she concluded was about one-third of the time. Brady says that’s an excellent rate as interpreting genetic results is extremely difficult and often the tests don’t detect the reason.
“When you know the genetic causes, you can answer questions,” said Brady about the significance of the findings. “It’s important for management and care.”
The article titled “Next generation sequencing as a tool in diagnosing muscular dystrophies, rhabdomolysis and idiopathic hyperCKemia” was submitted to the Neuromuscular Disorders journal Thursday.
Wu says the program has made her more determined to follow her dream of becoming an anesthetist.
“I’ve had a chance to start my career,” she said. “It’s so exciting. I had such a great experience. There are not a lot of other opportunities like that for high school students.”
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