Feature: Exploring fantastic life forms

By Emily Leighton, MA’13

Some explorers seek thrill and adventure in remote corners of the globe. Others look beyond our planet to chart the cosmos.
But what about exploring the millions of species that have evolved here on Earth?
That’s the idea behind a newly established outreach initiative at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry called Explorers of Fantastic Life Forms.
With a mission to “investigate some of nature’s coolest organisms and how we can use them,” the initiative targets high school students across Canada and internationally. It aims to spark curiosity and interest in STEM disciplines, as well as connect young people with mentors and resources. 
Founder Rebecca Meaney, a PhD Candidate in Biochemistry, was inspired to create the initiative by her own love of science and experiences navigating postsecondary education. 
“In high school, I developed this fascination with how cool biology is and how vast it is. I was totally blown away by DNA and how this four-letter code could be responsible for creating all the diverse and complex organisms around us,” she explained. “But at 18 years old, I didn’t know where I could take my interests professionally. It can be difficult to find opportunities that facilitate one-on-one connections, where students feel comfortable asking personal questions. I think that would have really made a difference and given me more confidence.” 
Explorers of Fantastic Life Forms launched virtually on Twitter (@FantasticLives) earlier this year. And in September, the organizing team hosted a pilot virtual open house featuring 10-minute presentations from graduate trainees, who shared their research projects and educational journeys.
Moving forward, the team is planning a series of virtual open houses, as well as tutorials on a range of topics, from applying to STEM programs to communicating science. Meaney also hopes to offer in-person experiences in labs and research spaces at the School when pandemic restrictions are eventually lifted. 
Having discovered the field of synthetic biology as an undergraduate student, Meaney feels right at home with her doctoral research. She is studying the process of converting bacteria into nitrogen-fixing organelles within plant cells. “Being able to manipulate and engineer DNA, the potential applications are endless,” she said. “This research never fails to get me excited and I want to share that enthusiasm with others.” 
Supervisor Bogumil Karas, PhD, says trainees like Meaney offer a unique opportunity to reach the next generation and share this passion for science. “The pandemic has highlighted the important role scientists play in fighting all kinds of diseases and health threats,” he said. “We need to find creative ways to inspire young people; to broaden their horizons and show them these emerging opportunities.” 
Looking for more information, or want to get involved with Explorers of Fantastic Life Forms? Connect with @FantasticLives on Twitter or email Rebecca Meaney.