Oak Bay High teen makes mark on cancer research

Emma Thomson, 16, interning in Victoria cancer research lab

Sixteen-year-old Oak Bay High student Emma Thomson works at the microscope in the Deeley Research Centre

Sixteen-year-old Oak Bay High student Emma Thomson works at the microscope in the Deeley Research Centre

Come September, when her classes resume at Oak Bay High, Emma Thomson won’t look at science the same after what she’s experienced this summer.

“It’s going to be hard going back to just listening,” said the 16-year-old, who will soon start Grade 12.

The Fairfield resident has been spending July and August conducting supervised cancer research inside a lab at the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Deeley Research Centre at the Royal Jubilee Hospital.

“I don’t think I can do any better than this,” Thomson said. “It’s pretty unreal that we get to work here.”

Thomson is one of four students selected to participate in the competitive high school summer internship research program, which continues until Aug. 26.

Joining her in the labs are Laticia Davies from Victoria High, Leah Kelley from Sooke’s Edward Milne community school and Michelle Kim from St. Andrew’s Regional High in Saanich. Their participation marks the first time four female students have been chosen to work in the centre’s high-tech labs together.

Since the program began in 2004, four students, who are either 16 years old or in Grade 11 at the time of their application, are selected each year to conduct cancer research. They must pass exams at the end of the program to receive $3,000 bursaries.

The students provide invaluable help to researchers, who are studying how the immune system responds to cancer, as well as gain unique insight into a potential career path, said lab co-ordinator Siao Yong, a former researcher who mentored students.

“I would say this is the best science class (for them) because you gain experience in the lab and you’re learning beyond what you’re doing in the (high school) classroom,” said Yong. “Some of the material is for first- and second-year university students.”

Past interns have had work published in research journals, while others have gone on to medical school and another is now a Rhodes Scholar, she said, adding that researchers also appreciate the youthful perspective the interns bring with them.

“It’s refreshing to have that enthusiasm.” Yong said.

Every morning, Monday to Friday, the students arrive and don crisp white lab coats before joining in the centre’s efforts to help develop treatments for different types of cancer.

Thomson, who aspires to become a doctor or veterinarian, said she looks forward to her work each day.

“It’s so interesting,” she said. “It’s always evolving. It’s not boring, ever.”

One challenge she faces is trying to explain the complexities of her job to her friends, some of whom aren’t working, or are spending the summer travelling or volunteering.

Still, her reward lies in being part of a team striving to make a difference in the lives of people diagnosed with cancer.

“I think we’re part of it and much of what we’re doing will be used in the labs forever,” Thomson said.