Success in high school science fairs leads ‘whiz kid’ to uOttawa and the Ivy League

Posted on Wednesday, May 13, 2020

By Jessica Sinclair
Research Writer

It all started with a science fair.

In middle school, Scheer turned up to the school science fair with a traditional student project—a saltwater battery. The project’s execution was clean enough to land him at regionals, where he noticed some of the senior high school students in the room presenting research they had conducted in real university labs.

“I saw their projects, I talked to them, and I thought it was incredibly cool that they got to do that at a young age,” says Scheer.

That was all the permission he needed. He put together a proposal and by his Grade 9 year at Colonel By Secondary School, he was working in the Carleton University laboratory of Dr. Bill Willmore, investigating breast cancer cells in hypoxic and normoxic conditions. The following year, he stayed at the lab and looped in chemistry and toxicology researchers, working on a unique combination of nanoparticles and DNA to selectively target breast cancer cells for death.

“Taking on a Grade 9 student into a research lab is always a bit of a risk,” says Dr. Willmore. “However, Amit was not your average high school student. I was not disappointed.”

According to Dr. Willmore, Scheer outperformed many seasoned graduate students.

These projects thrice earned him the Ottawa Regional Science Fair’s Partners in Research Award, a medical-research-focused prize supported by uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine Research Office. It also brought Scheer to the big leagues—the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and the Sanofi Biogenius competition (first place), where he met scientists at the top of their fields. He credits the science fairs with teaching him how to communicate his work to a wider audience.

By Grade 12 Scheer had set up a joint project between the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, where he was engineering a biomaterial to foster the uptake of a vaccine by immune cells, and the National Research Council where he worked on the immunology and chemistry side of the research. All the while, he was juggling a full Grade 12 course load.

“The project really showed me the importance of people with different expertise working together to accomplish a scientific goal,” says Scheer.

His first two years at uOttawa were spent at the lab of Dr. Michele Ardolino, where he solidified his interest in cancer immunology. The Translational and Molecular Medicine program allowed him to branch out in third and fourth years, picking up an interest in machine learning strategies in Dr. Mathieu Lavallée-Adam’s computational proteomics lab in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology (BMI).

After graduating this year, he will venture straight into a PhD program at Harvard University, where he hopes to combine his interests in computational biology and cancer immunology. He wants to understand the ways in which tumour cells shape the immune system, as well as the multitude of ways the immune system reacts to those tumours. Once described as the ‘whiz kid from Barrhaven’, Scheer promises to have a deeper, more lasting impact than many prodigies.

“Given his drive to succeed, Amit is poised to become one of the top researchers in his chosen field of study,” says Dr. Willmore.



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