May 22, 2019

That ninth-grade science project really paid off

Vet Med student Sarthak Sinha among nine UCalgary Vanier scholarship winners
Sarthak Sinha was a Grade 9 student when he first worked as a volunteer in the University of Calgary lab of Jeff Biernaskie. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Sarthak Sinha was a Grade 9 student when he first worked as a volunteer in the University of Calgary

Sarthak Sinha, a Leaders in Medicine student completing both an MD and a PhD at the University of Calgary, got an unusually early head start on the road to his 2019 Vanier scholarship success.

In his teens, Sinha developed an interest in stem cell therapies when his aunt underwent transplant surgery after suffering from a build-up of fibrotic tissue around the heart. Seeing her plight inspired Sinha to learn about fibrotic disorders, which are characterized by an overgrowth of non-functioning fibrous tissue.

Driven by a curiosity about how these illnesses develop and how they might be treated, Sinha did what almost no ninth-grade student would do: he wrote a research proposal and sent it to Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, PhD — one of Canada’s leading researchers in tissue regeneration and wound healing — at UCalgary's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. 

Fortune favours the bold

That initial proposal was for a science fair project. Sending it to Biernaskie was an audacious move that set Sinha on his academic path. Biernaskie welcomed him into his UCalgary lab as a student researcher, giving him the opportunity to shadow graduate students after school and on weekends throughout high school. The opportunity helped to earn Sinha a place on Avenue Magazine’s 2013 Top 40 Under 40 list at the precocious age of 17.

“It was clear that he had a ferocious curiosity, and for me this is a key ingredient for success in science. When I met him he certainly looked like he was in Grade 9, but he spoke like he was a graduate student and his proposal was incredibly well written,” says Biernaskie. “High school students like Sarthak are keen to volunteer or to work in the laboratory because they are passionate about science. If we want to attract and retain the most talented minds within the field of medical research then we need to expose them to these types of experiences early on in their careers to get them hooked.”

Now, after finishing a BSc in neuroscience at the University of Toronto, Sinha is back where he began — working in Veterinary Medicine with Biernaskie and Dr. Vincent Gabriel, MD. Sinha is one of nine University of Calgary doctoral students who received Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships valued at $150,000 over three years.

“Jeff and Vince are always giving young trainees a big platform to work from. They’re incredibly supportive,” says Sinha. “They persuaded me that if I really wanted to make a difference in understanding fibrotic disorders, I needed to start with skin scarring. Restoring healthy skin function after an injury is vital to patient’s health, and since skin is an accessible model of scarring, we can study this process to tease out the molecular mechanisms that drive scarring broadly. Mechanisms that may be conserved across a number of different fibrotic states seen in humans and animals.”

Scarring versus regeneration

A big question that Sinha, Biernaskie and Gabriel are trying to answer is why under some circumstances, a skin wound may develop a scar that results in significant impairments, but in other settings it may regenerate close to a pre-injury state.

Sinha is using a technique called single-cell RNA sequencing to create profiles of thousands of skin and immune cells at work during tissue regeneration and scarring. Eventually, these profiles may help researchers find personalized pharmacological treatments that work at a cellular level to improve outcomes for people with traumatic and auto-immune disorders leading to dysfunctional skin.

The research has far-reaching implications. Understanding scarring processes in the skin will shed light on what happens when different tissues succumb to similar fibrotic fates. For Sinha, the research holds great promise for eventual application in a clinical setting.

It’s been a long road since that first proposal. Winning a Vanier Scholarship tells Sinha he’s on the right track. “I’ve just turned 23, and I sometimes wonder why people should believe in me,” reflects Sinha, who is also a 2019 Killam Laureate. “Much like getting accepted to medical school, the Vanier award offers a sense of personal validation. It tells me that the forward-thinking goals of our research program are accepted at the highest levels, and that decision makers think this work is important.”

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship is funded by the Canadian government. The scholarship is given on the basis of academic excellence, research potential and leadership.