High school student develops better tool for autism diagnosis with Bioinformatics lab

Harkirat Bhullar, Grade 10 student at Evan Hardy Collegiate

Eight Saskatchewan high school students presented their research projects and competed for cash prizes at the regional competition of the Sanofi Biogenius Canada biotechnology research competition hosted by the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) on April 5th.

“This competition is a great way for high school students to explore their passion for science and be mentored by U of S researchers,” said U of S computer scientist and competition mentor Tony Kusalik. “The experience can be life-changing and career-shaping for students. The sky’s the limit in terms of where this might take a student.”

Harkirat Bhullar, a Grade 10 student at Evan Hardy Collegiate, is one example. He met Professor Kusalik in 2016 through the Sanofi Biogenius organization and was so inspired by the mentoring experience that he wanted to do more research.

Bhullar had a Grade 8 classmate with autism, which prompted him to join the Autism Speaks Canada local planning committee. He knew he wanted to do research that could help people with autism, and he was intrigued with getting computers to learn like humans.

Kusalik put him in touch with recent U of S bioinformatics graduate Brett Trost, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Applied Genomics at the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto. The lab is internationally known for its autism work.

While a graduate student at the U of S, Trost won a $100,000 Vanier Scholarship in 2009 and together he and Kusalik developed PIIKA, a new software system used by the U.S. National Institutes of Health's integrated research facility in Maryland to study how Ebola infects cells and what cells do to fight the infection.

Trost now mentors Bhullar long distance on an autism-related research project, with assistance from U of S bioinformatics graduate students Kim MacKay (Vanier Scholar) and Katie Ovens. The project goal is to develop a way to automate the diagnosis process for autism. He has already developed a computational model for autism diagnosis that has proven to be 99 per cent accurate.

“This experience has made me more certain that I want to do something in science and I’d like to do something new,” said Bhullar, who is competing in the competition on April 5.

Bhullar is among seven Canadian top high school scientists selected by Youth Science Canada to represent the country at the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair May 14 to 19 in Los Angeles. The top award for the competition, which is described as the world championships of science fairs, is US$75,000.

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