An early start for future trailblazers

The sun is shining, casting a vibrant hue in the Brodie Centre atrium.When you gaze up at the glass ceiling and see the infinite blue sky you know there are no limits.

Dr. Francis Amara is standing with a smile on his face overlooking a room full of young people. He is judging the Winnipeg School Division’s Science Fair. The College of Medicine has invited the Winnipeg School Division to hold its annual event at the University of Manitoba’s Bannatyne Campus, something we hope to do every year. For Amara this is one more way to connect with the community.

“We can see the inner city from the university; they are our neighbours. It’s a natural progression to work with people in your neighbourhood,” he says.

In 2006 the associate professor in biochemistry and medical genetics founded the Biomedical Youth Program (BYP) as a College of Medicine program to work closely and engage with Manitoba’s inner-city and disadvantaged youth.

Through its unique approach and scope of outreach initiatives, the BYP is designed to capture young imaginations and build an interest in science at an early age. Since its launch, more than 3000 students have benefited from the program’s activities and services.

BYP offers early-learning programming for children in grades 1 to 3; after-school science programs for kids in grades 4 to 12; student mentors to help with science fair projects; mobile labs that deliver hands-on activities to First Nations communities; and professional development workshops and seminars for Manitoba Science Teachers. All of these resources are provided at no charge.

Each year, children aged 10-18, are invited to attend the Biomedical Youth Summer Camp (BYSC). The first camp, held in 2006, hosted 15 youth. Today it welcomes more than 200 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students each year, and some 1300 youth have participated in the camp to date. This year’s day camp runs July 23-27, 2012 at the University of Manitoba Bannatyne Campus.

The free one-week science camp—led by 100 volunteer camp counsellors—gives students a chance to try out a variety of hands-on activities and experiments in areas such as genetics, immunology, medical diagnostics, oncology, forensics, and respiratory therapy.

Among the BYP’s most successful community-based activities is the Inner-City Science Centre (ICSC). Niji Mahkwa School, nicknamed Niji, is home to three centralized labs located in the heart of Winnipeg’s North End.

The Biotechnology, Physics and Imaging, and Chemical Sciences labs each house state-of-the-art equipment made possible through a collaborative partnership between the College of Medicine, Winnipeg School Division, The Winnipeg Foundation, and Friends of the Inner-City Science Centre Inc.

Debbie Gould, vice-principal at Niji, recalls a conversation she had with then principal Myra Laramee. “When Dr. Amara approached Ms. Laramee about his vision, Ms. Laramee came to me and said, ‘The vibes and the energy I received from Dr. Amara are very sincere. He’s not going to come and do this for two or three months and then lose interest and go off. Deb, he’s going to stick with it.’”

That was back in 2006, the start of the Science Buddies Club. Amara would pack his lab, made up of coolers and containers, into his minivan and head over to Niji to meet 30 or so Grade 5 students. Together they would talk about science for half an hour.

Word quickly spread throughout the neighbourhood. By 2007 all of the schools in the North End had heard about Science Buddies; children would see kids from Niji walking down the street in lab coats and wanted to be part of this innovative program.

Amara faced a big challenge: how could a single professor and graduate student (Ben Salins) open up Science Buddies to more than 60 schools?

He figured they could manage three schools and decided they would go to Niji twice a month, allowing them to visit each of the other schools once per month. But the demand only grew as more schools became interested. That’s when he came up with a solution: create one centralized facility where science could come to life for students from all schools in the area.

He took this idea back to Ms. Laramee and was offered room 101, a cold room-turned-storage space. Amara clearly remembers the day he saw the room and said, “‘This is where we will start the Inner-City Science Centre.’” Science Buddies has since evolved into more than 20 afterschool science clubs.

Upon entering Niji Mahkwa (Ojibwe for brother bear or friendly bear) the air hints a faint aura of sage from an earlier smudging ceremony and if you listen carefully, you can hear drumming in the distance. With a predominantly Aboriginal student body, the school incorporates First Nations language, culture, and traditions in their learning.

Vice-principal Gould opens the door to the Physics and Imaging lab, revealing a small room occupied by equipment you would expect to see in a crime lab on the primetime drama C.S.I.

“They may be younger right now but the exposure can ignite something in them and they can put that life on the streets aside and they can push it away at a young age when they’re given the opportunity,” says Gould. “We want them to think ‘Yes I can do this,’ rather than be discouraged and resort to the violence on the streets or the drugs or gangs that are prevalent in the area.”

By next year Amara plans to launch BYP on the Move, a one-day science lab set up at public places like the Forks Market, Portage Place Shopping Centre, or St. Vital Centre. He feels the initiative is now feasible because of the well-established volunteer base and continued support to BYP. The College of Medicine and the University of Manitoba have contributed more than $500,000 since its inception.

Christian Seon is volunteer lab manager and a mentor. Seon, a pre-med student, believes a strong stereotype exists that kids from the inner city aren’t interested in science. “In this situation, being a trailblazer doesn’t mean you have to be the next inventor of Facebook. You just have to make a choice to better your community by setting a path, setting a purpose and going out there and achieving it,” says Seon.

But with the support coming from top down, Seon finds it easy to mute the skepticism. “What I’ve noticed from the College of Medicine is their willingness to help out. I don’t know that you could go to any other university and get that kind of response. They want to help the ones that may not have a voice by giving us a license to come out here and to help improve the inner-city community and I think that’s amazing.”

More than 70 per cent of the members from the first Science Buddies Club are now in high school; they have all indicated plans to study medicine. And last year Science Buddies sent kids to the Manitoba School Science Symposium. It was the first time anyone from Niji had the courage to enter a science fair and three students brought home
bronze medals.

For Amara, the increasing number of inner-city students interested in entering science fairs speaks volumes. “This is the whole point. Instead of waiting until high school, we are capturing the imagination early on of Aboriginal, inner-city and disadvantaged youth and getting them excited about science…how else can we diversify our medical school student population and other health professions?”

Levi Woodhouse conducting a lab experiment.


Levi Woodhouse looks tiny sitting in an oversized executive chair, enveloped by a high back and large armrests. He’s in vice-principal Gould’s office, talking about his science project and it becomes immediately apparent: there’s nothing small about this 10-year-old.

“People said the easiest project is a volcano, but I didn’t want to do that. I like to figure out the hard stuff and see if I can do it,” he explains of his decision to investigate whether different kinds of shampoos have different anti-microbial effects on the growth of E. coli bacteria.

In May at Oak Hammock Marsh, the Grade 5 student earned a silver ribbon at the Youth Encouraging Sustainability (YES) Showcase; a Science Council Manitoba initiative dedicated to promoting science and technology to Manitoba youth. Forgoing after-school activities with his friends, Woodhouse met with his mentors to work on his project in a place where he comes to learn and in an environment that encourages him to dream beyondthe limits and reminds him that anything is possible.

“This school is everyone’s home; every single classroom is a family. The people that come here are your sister or your brother and Dr. Amara is part of the family,” says Woodhouse.

By Melni Ghattora
Photos: Andrew Sikorsky
As originally published in:
MB Medicine Spring 2012