Mediaplanet: You won the national prize for the Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition when you were just 17. Tell us a bit about what your discovery was that won you this prestigious prize.

Janelle Tam: My research was on nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), a rod-shaped particle responsible for giving trees rigidity. It is non-toxic, stronger than steel at the same dimensions, and has a lot of very interesting chemical properties. In my project, I coupled NCC with particles known as buckminister fullerenes — hollow spheres made entirely of carbon molecules in the shape of a soccer ball — and tested this new compound to see if it could act as a good antioxidant.

My discovery that NCC is a marvelous antioxidant helped open up wide-ranging applications for NCC. NCC can now potentially be used in medicine, to aid in wound healing; in food, as a preservative and nutriceutical; and in cosmetics, to combat the degenerative effects resulting from free radical damage. It is also a green alternative to synthetic materials, and can be salvaged from biomass that was previously wasted, such as the 200-600 million m3 of wood infested by insects (and thus unusable) every year.

Janelle Tam speaking to 6,000 high school students and their parents at the Congress for Future Medical Leaders in Washington, D.C., February 2014 about her research.
Photo: The Congress For Future Medical Leaders

MP: Why is biotechnology important for you and why should everyday people care about its growth?

JT: Biotechnology is important not only because it provides us with solutions to important problems, but because it allows us to do it in a sustainable way. It has been responsible for some of the most significant technological advances in the past — the production of insulin to treat diabetes, to use a Canadian example — and I am convinced that it will continue to be in the future. Everyday people need to care about its growth because it impacts so many areas of our lives: from the food we eat to the medicine we take to heal our bodies.

MP: What do you see for the future of Canada’s bioeconomy?
JT: Fortunately, Canada has a vibrant biotechnology sector, but the Canadian society and government need to be intentional about continuing to cultivate its bioeconomy. One of the major obstacles is the translation of research into the marketplace. While judging the Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition in 2013, I had the privilege of meeting some of the leaders in Canada’s biotechnology sector. A major concern expressed was the fact that there are millions of dollars worth of intellectual property sitting in the laboratories of Canadian universities. We need to build bridges to facilitate the commercialization of these innovations. It is also essential to invest in talent for the future through programs such as the Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition that engage youth in biotechnology-oriented research. We need to continue to mentor the next generation!

MP: What’s next for you?
JT: I am currently in my second year of study at Princeton University, majoring in Molecular Biology with a minor in Global Health and Health Policy. In terms of my future career, I’m considering many options — from medical school to pharmaceutical consulting to working at a biotechnology company. What I do know is that I want to continue to pursue my passion for science in a way that will help people.

I recently had the chance to speak at the Congress for Future Medical Leaders in Washington, D.C. to over 5,000 high school students from all over the United States about my experiences with research. It’s shown me how passionate I truly am about inspiring youth to achieve greater things by challenging the perception that age is a limiting factor. In addition to that, I also want to advocate for opportunities such as the Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition that nurture young scientific talent.
My research into NCC is currently on hold, since it’s been difficult to find the time to go into the lab over the break. However, I do hope to return to research in the next year.