My name is Nicole Ticea and I am a young scientist currently performing HIV research at Stanford University and SFU. The greatest highlight of my scientific career was, undoubtedly, developing a novel HIV test capable of performing early diagnosis in resource-limited settings. This, however, was not the beginning of my scientific journey; my first attempt at a science fair experiment was in grade six when I hung two dismantled cans off the edge of my kitchen counter, ran water through them, and hoped to produce electricity. Much to my consternation, however, I soon discovered that Vancouver’s humid climate did not exactly lend itself well to the production of electrostatic charges. Nevertheless, that experiment lit a different sort of spark, one which has led me to pursue scientific research for the past three years. In eighth grade, I participated at my regional science fair with a psychology project entitled ‘The Uncanny Valley’, and the following year I competed at the national level with my physics project ‘The Piezoelectric Roof Tile’. Outside of science, I have been heavily involved in competitive swimming for the past six years, both as an athlete and as a coach. I am also an actress, writer, and visual artist and believe that the humanities are an essential complement to my life as a scientist. In the future, I am looking forward to creating my own biotechnology company and commercializing my HIV test.
My project presents a novel method of HIV detection in developing countries. The test is capable of diagnosing HIV in newborns under the age of 18 months and in adults before three months post-transmission. It is the first test capable of analyzing HIV viral nucleic acids in a point-of-care, low-resource setting.
What motivated you to participate in SBCC? Did anyone encourage you?
I first became interested in scientific research after seeing several students competing with laboratory-based projects at the regional science fairs. A few of my friends had already done the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada and encouraged me to do the same. I am extremely grateful I had participated in the program; in the end, Sanofi not only paired me with a mentor willing to explore my project but also helped me hone my presentation skills.
Where did your project idea come from?
The idea for my project came last summer at the confluence of two seemingly unrelated fields: HIV and microfluidics. At the time, I was reading a paper discussing the potential of performing exponential DNA/ RNA amplification on a small microfluidic chip. Upon further research I learned that HIV was based upon the detection of viral nucleic acids in the bloodstream using this very same DNA amplification. Ultimately, I came up with the idea of developing a novel isothermal nucleic acid amplification technique adapted for HIV diagnosis in point-of-care, low-resource settings. I then developed a project proposal and sent it off to as many researchers as possible; when it comes to finding a mentor, persistence is key!
What about your work might be of interest to other teens or impact their everyday life?
Many of those around me tell me that making a worthwhile contribution to science and society is impossible. This is especially true with my peers; I have often been faced with a great deal of skepticism when I tell them that I developed a novel HIV test. In truth, I believe that anyone with enough fortitude and persistence can make a large impact upon whichever field they choose. This is particularly true of teens; being so young, I feel as though youth display a naiveté which transcends ordinary limitations of money and time. In the end, I feel that other teens will be most interested by the journey I undertook with my work and the knowledge that (as cliché as it might sound!) anything is possible.
What was your favourite part of the experience? Was there anything you found especially challenging?
My favourite part of this journey was also the most challenging: finding the will to continue even when faced with null results. Being a high school student, striking a balance between homework, research, friends, and athletics can be a daunting endeavor. This task is often further compounded by failed experiments and flawed data. Persistence, however, will make those hard-earned results and final conclusions all the more sweet.
What would be your advice for other youth considering participation in SBCC?
I have used this word several times throughout this interview and I will use it once more as my final piece of advice: be persistent. I cannot count the number of rejections I received before finally finding a mentor willing to aid me with my project. I was urged several times- by my parents and teachers, no less- to find a different project or give up altogether. Even after finding a mentor and lab, I was plagued by false positives, failed experiments, and long hours at the lab which interfered with my schoolwork and athletic exploits. In the end, I was surprised by how demanding research was and I would suggest a great deal of introspection before you embark on something as difficult- but equally rewarding- as scientific research.