'A dream come true': Montreal student wins big at national science fair

·3 min read
Allison Engo is a 16-year-old student at Marianopolis College in Montreal. In May 2021, she won the Platinum Senior Discovery Award at the Canada-Wide Science Fair. (Submitted by Allison Engo - image credit)
Allison Engo is a 16-year-old student at Marianopolis College in Montreal. In May 2021, she won the Platinum Senior Discovery Award at the Canada-Wide Science Fair. (Submitted by Allison Engo - image credit)

When Allison Engo was in high school, she turned her family's bathroom into an incubator where she could breed and study fruit flies.

The teenager's unusual hobby, part of a larger scientific experiment, had some unintended consequences.

"After a while, because of the humidity and the intense heat, the walls started to become mush. So we had to renovate the bathroom," Engo told CBC's Let's Go.

While her family was impressed by her research, not everyone was pleased about the bathroom setup.

"I have three sisters and they were very mad that I was taking up the bathroom," she said.

While Engo's project may have caused a bit of emotional and architectural damage, it's also won her a top honour last month at the Canada-Wide Science Fair.

Her work, which looked at how fruit flies react to antioxidants under stress, took home the Platinum Senior Discovery Award at the virtual event held in May.

"I guess it was worth it in the end," said Engo, now 16 and studying at Marianopolis College.

Watch Allison Engo explain her project in 60 seconds:

'Mother of flies'

"I'm still in shock. It feels wonderful. It's really been something that I've always dreamt of but I never thought would come true. There's a lot of great ideas, strong finalists at the Canada-Wide," Engo said.

"It's been a dream come true for me."

Engo started doing science fair projects at Royal West Academy in Grade 7. She developed her idea to experiment with antioxidants based on a personal experience.

"It actually all started with a personal tradition for my grandmother. It's a Chinese tradition for us to drink goji soup. And my grandmother would make me drink it everyday, because it's supposed to be good for your health."

"But I didn't really like the taste of my grandmother's goji berry soup, so after a while I did my own personal research and I found out that there wasn't much proof behind it."

From there, Engo began testing out how animal subjects would respond to a diet rich in antioxidants, which are found in the berries.

Far from being squeamish, she embraced using fruit flies, dubbing herself "mother of flies."

"Flies, though they might be a nuisance to us sometimes during the summer, they are actually really important for scientific research," said Engo.

Listen to Allison Engo speak about her passion for research:

Plans to pursue science further

In her project, Engo divided her flies into two groups, feeding them a different diet and exposing them to stress.

"With flies, you can't really stress them with a lot of homework, that's not something you can do. But in my experiment, I tested different short and long-term stresses."

She found that "antioxidants could actually protect flies in specific situations, like against severe stress."

"However, on the flip side, it wasn't very useful in the long-run," she said.

This isn't the first time Engo has presented at the national science fair.

In 2018, Engo was one of several Montreal students who landed a spot at the fair. At the time, Engo was already working on her fruit fly project and had reached out to McGill biology professor Paul Lasko, who helped her get access to a lab where she could carry out her experiments.

This proved preferable to the makeshift bathroom lab, and Engo has continued to work in Lasko's facility.

With this most recent win under her belt, Engo is confident in her plans to pursue scientific research as a career.

"I'm 16 now and there's so much ahead of me, so much I want to do," she said.

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