EMERGING: Meet Dennis Drewnik
At 17, incoming U of M student secures top prize at international science fair
Every student comes to campus with a story. In UM Today’s EMERGING, we spotlight incoming and undergrad students beginning their U of M journey.
When the weekend rolls around, friends ask Dennis Drewnik if he wants to come along to a movie or hang out at their place.
“Sorry guys,” the 17-year-old tells them. “I have to do a DNA extraction.”
The brainy teen—who hasn’t yet earned his driver’s licence—has been doing world-class research at the University of Manitoba for years. He’s trying to figure out how to genetically modify the canola plant to make it more resistant to a fungus that wreaks havoc and costs the agriculture industry up to $2 billion annually.
Already he’s identified the genes that play a role, and his findings made him the winner of the top plant sciences project in the world at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last month. He faced off against 57 other projects.
“When they called my name, it was a crazy feeling,” says Drewnik, who was flanked by his Team Canada peers. “I was screaming at the top of my lungs—I lost my voice.”
The Grade 12 Sisler High School student is set to formally begin studies at the U of M this fall. He says it was an easy choice since the campus feels like home.
Up to five times a week you’ll find him in the lab of biological sciences Associate Prof. Mark Belmonte, who used to teach Drewnik’s older sister, Elizabeth. She first told him about her brother’s fascination with all-things science five years ago and through the Sanofi Biogenius Canada challenge, Drewnik got the chance to experience research first-hand. The program pairs high school students with scientists in professional labs to develop research projects to present at competitions.
“Prof. Belmonte is a big inspiration,” says Drewnik, who considers himself “a high school student researcher” and one day wants to be a professor.
He says he got some strange looks when at only 13 he would hang out at the campus’ Elizabeth Dafoe Library. Genetics first caught his eye when he was snooping through his sister’s cell biology textbook. He also took part in the Biomedical Youth Program—a Rady Faculty of Health Sciences’ outreach research experience for school-aged kids in which his sister volunteered.
In Belmonte’s lab, Drewnik says he’s not only learned about the molecular genetics of plants but also specialized techniques, and how to overcome challenges when experiments fail.
According to Belmonte, Drewnik “can do everything—from computational biology and analyzing large-scale data sets all the way through to molecular biology.”
“It’s really important as academics that we give back to the community,” Belmonte says. “One of the things I strive to do is to give students the opportunities that I never had.”
Teens can also work alongside U of M professors in preparation for the Manitoba Schools Science Symposium held on campus every April. And once they enroll as university students, they can apply for a federal government scholarship or a U of M Undergraduate Research Award, which lets them choose a professor to be mentored by for a summer in the lab or in the field. The Office of the Vice-President (Research and International) awarded a record 102 this year.
“It gets students excited about real research,” Belmonte says. “It’s not just about science being taught in the classroom, we’re solving real-world problems at the U of M.”
Drewnik’s long-term research goal is to create a crop that is resistant to pathogens to better feed a skyrocketing global population.
“To basically save the world,” he jokes.
Drewnik received guidance from PhD student Michael Becker, who won the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship last year.
“We bounced ideas off each other and I started using his old data sets,” says Drewnik, who is more likely to be reading an academic journal than his favourite sci-fi thriller.
“Everything I say or do in the lab is followed up by a question. Michael challenged me to the point where I have learned so much more about my project than I would have just going through the research alone.”
Becker says having high school students like Drewnik in the lab brings a fresh perspective. “They don’t see the limitations. They see a lot of opportunities and what could be,” he says. “The world is still big to them and everything is still new.”
Becker inspired Drewnik to take online courses in bioinformatics and data analysis. He was pleased Drewnik’s win put U of M canola research on the international stage.
“It’s really interesting to see a canola project winning a global science fair,” Becker says. “A lot of people don’t know it was developed here at the University, quickly becoming Canada’s number one crop and expected to exceed the global production of rice by 2025.”
Drewnik has collected $17,000 this year in science fair wins at various levels, which he says he’ll put towards his university education. Apart from money, his international victory has secured him a ticket to the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden in December. An asteroid will also be named after him—he’s decided to call it ‘The Drewnik.’
“It’s going to be very cool.”