By Trish Weatherall
Published in the North Island Eagle newspaper June 15, 2018.
A Sointula student is using her award-winning science fair project to bring public awareness to the benefits and risks of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and the need for more regulations.
In May, 13-year-old Brooklynn Watson, a Grade 7 student at A.J. Elliott Elementary School, earned a Bronze medal, a $1000 scholarship, and an inspiring experience at the Canada-Wide Science Fair (CWSF) in Ottawa.
The CWSF celebrates 500 of Canada’s top young scientists from Grades 7 to 12, showcasing their real-world solutions to some of the globe’s most important issues while competing for nearly $1 million in awards, prizes and scholarships.
Watson is one of two North Vancouver Island students (the other is Daniel Kornylo of Gold River) and the first A.J. Elliott student to achieve the opportunity to compete. In the April Regional Science Fair in Port Hardy, Watson was a first-place winner in the Grade 7/8 Study category for her study of “Genome Engineering Technologies” and was selected to compete in the Ottawa National competition May 12-19, where she was one of the youngest winners.
“The whole experience was surreal,” she said. “At this age, I wasn’t even listening for my name. I didn’t think I had a chance. But I think it’s interesting that someone like me from a tiny, remote place can win something in a national competition.”
The family had 3 weeks to fundraise the $3800 cost of the one-week trip to Ottawa.
“I had such amazing support from the community,” she said. “I’ve lived my whole life in Sointula and so has my dad (Glen Watson).”
Watson’s interest in science goes back to her first winning science fair project in Kindergarten, which involved extracting DNA from strawberries and bananas. That year, and for the next eight years her projects were selected to compete in the Regional Science Fair.
Genetic science has since become a passion for Watson. “A few years ago I was reading a magazine at the dentist about the Arctic apple that has been genetically modified so that it doesn’t go brown, and it really interested me,” she said. Last year in school she learned about GMOs, but felt she only scratched the surface and wanted to know more.
In her project summary, Watson says that genome engineering is an issue of global importance. Genetic modification is happening all over the world without public awareness, and that everyone should be knowledgeable about the developments being made in the field of genetic technology.
“It has great potential for helping millions of people, but if it’s not regulated, people can take advantage of it and do something harmful,” said Watson.
She did extensive research almost every day for four months and interviewed two scientists, who were experts in the field of genetic modification.
She learned about gene drives, which can cause dramatic population change by ensuring genetic changes are inherited. For instance, mosquitoes genetically modified for malaria resistance, or salmon genetically modified for increased growth rates. She learned about gene editing technologies that may be used to cure cancer and sickle-cell anemia.
She also learned that there needs to be more conversation and regulations around genetic modification. As part of her project, Watson ordered the Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) Kit online which enabled her to genetically modify a microorganism herself – in this case a non-pathogenic strain of E. coli bacteria. No background check or explanation of intended use was required.
“It was so shocking that as a 13-year-old you can order this and do it on your kitchen table at home,” she said. “Anyone can bio-hack, which is an illegal use of GMO technologies. But technically, it can’t be illegal when there are no laws around it yet. The science is too far ahead of the conversations being held.”
At the CWSF Watson met representatives from the Canada Food Inspection Agency and from Health Canada, who say they are currently working on safety protocol and law around GMOs.
She is already thinking about next year’s science fair project, when she will continue to delve into the topic of genetic modification with a focus on the highly controversial ‘Designer babies’.
Though her scholarship is to Western University in London, Ontario, she hopes the scholarship will be transferable to UBC, UVIC or VIU, “something closer to home, but you never know!”
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “But with the work I’ve been doing I’m so interested in genetics now, that I think I will get a science degree first.”
Her parents, A.J. Elliott Principal Melody Watson and husband Glen said, “We are very proud of her and are excited to see where her interests will take her in the future.”
In her spare time, Watson is involved in gymnastics, soccer, karate, and piano lessons, participates in cross-country and track and field and loves to read. Next year she will attend North Island Secondary School.