By simplifying the complicated, Brantford student earns honours

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  • August 25, 2013

Sarah Wu is using the complexities of science to simplify malaria screening.

And her success has led to her saying goodbye to Assumption College School, her Brantford, Ont., Catholic high school, to take a two-year university prep-school program beginning in September. She will be attending Victoria, B.C.’s Lester B. Pearson College which invites up to 200 students from around the world to attend on full scholarship. Pearson is one of 12 schools which make up the United World Colleges.

The teenager developed a method using the naked eye to detect the protein associated with malaria from the plasma in blood. This is done by putting the plasma onto a nitrocellulose membrane which is then submerged into a serum containing synthetic oligonucleotides aptamers, gold nanoparticles and a silver enhancement. If the malaria protein exists, red dots will appear.

“It’s not as complicated as it sounds,” said Wu. “The whole idea of the project is to make things simpler. What I focused on was a different approach to malaria diagnosis by combining emerging technology that is in a way more simple and sensitive than the current ways.”

Current detection methods use antibodies which, according to Wu, are unstable under tropical conditions where the single-celled Malaria parasite is most prevalent. These methods also require expensive technology often unavailable in developing nations.

“Basically right now in developing nations a lot of the times accurate diagnostics is not available because it is so expensive,” she said. “Instead of using a whole bunch of crazy machinery that is really expensive and that is not available where you need the tests most I tried to do something in which you could detect malaria with your naked eye.”

As simple as Wu stresses her project is, it has already made international impressions. In May, Wu’s project captured top honours in the Sheikh Zayed Junior Scientist category and second place in the Grand Award (Medicine) category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair held in Phoenix. These accomplishments earned Wu $4,000 and the opportunity to have an asteroid named after her. It also attracted the attention of Pearson College.

Humbled by the recognition, Wu said accepting Pearson’s invitation and leaving Assumption College School was the hardest decision of her life.

“It was really bittersweet because I found out in May, which was actually the week right after student council elections and my school elected me as co-prime minister,” she said. “It felt so bad, it was the hardest decision. Now that that has kind of settled I’m getting really excited to go out there.”

Wu’s decision to accept the scholarship, worth $40,000 a year, is also bittersweet for her parents.

“Although she will be missed at home we are thrilled that she will be able to pursue what she loves most,” said her father, Guoshun Wu. “When Sarah first told us about Pearson College and its values we felt as if it reflected Sarah’s own belief and will help her develop. We have faith that Sarah will be able to take this wonderful opportunity in front of her to work towards goals with other passionate youth.”

While her parents can’t help but be a little nervous about sending their little girl off, this isn’t the first time Wu has boarded a plane for a foreign land — in fact, that’s how her project began.

Last August Wu travelled to Kenya with Free the Children to help build accommodations for teachers. It was during this trip that Wu first started to think about malaria.

“There every group had guides, which were Maasai, and my two guides were related,” said Wu. “When I heard that they both suffered from malaria when they were younger and the effect that it had on them and their family I wanted to do something to help. At that time I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

That was until Wu returned to school in September where she discovered the Sanofi BioGENEius challenge which prompted Canadian high school students to determine how they would change the world. This challenge pushed participants to explore research goals and dreams with the assistance of university scholars as mentors.

Wu’s project was deemed the research most likely to go commercial and took second place overall regionally at the competition. From there Wu went to capture first prize at the Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair in March which garnered her an all- expenses-paid trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

While Wu’s success has created opportunities to lead her to a prosperous life, she said knowing her work can help the less fortunate is the true reward.

“I feel like our purpose is to help people and I feel like you might as well start young because you never know when your life is going to end,” she said. “It’s something that we all should do and something that we all should try to do because if we have the time why not use it to help people rather than just wasting your time.”

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