With their award-winning project, "Wacky work on worms and wolverines," the boys made a significant contribution to science while laying the groundwork for future parasitology research at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).
By identifying parasitic worms in wolverines using morphological and molecular techniques, Németh and Tannis revealed important new information about the parasites while showing the benefit of applying both techniques collaboratively.
The boys' project also earned a silver medal and $300 at the Saskatoon Regional Science Fair.
"It really amazes me that a couple of Grade 8 kids could basically come up with an entirely new contribution to science," says Dr. Emily Jenkins, a professor in the WCVM's Department of Veterinary Microbiology.
"This was the first time that the parasites they worked on had ever had any DNA sequence described, and we're going to put that information into GenBank™ (a DNA sequence database) where it will be used by many, many other scientists."
Jenkins, along with lab technicians Brent Wagner and Karen Gesy from the WCVM's parasitology laboratory, mentored the boys as they extracted parasites from the intestines of 10 wolverines from the Northwest Territories and then counted and characterized them as Baylisascaris (roundworms) or Taenia (tapeworms).
"The overall experience and learning process was the most interesting and enjoyable," says Németh. "The lab work was by far the most appealing. I love to get hands on with things."
"It really amazes me that a couple of Grade 8 kids could basically come up with an entirely new contribution to science."
With Wagner providing guidance for the morphological identification, Németh and Tannis were able to visualize the structures under a microscope and perform minute measurements needed to confirm that it was the wolverine species of Balyisascaris.
Gesy then helped them use a molecular technique — polymerase chain reaction (PCR) — to verify the identity of the species. That was the point where the students discovered they had found a species of Baylisascaris that hadn't yet been genetically documented in GenBank™.
Németh and Tannis are excited that they were able to make such an important contribution to the study of parasitic diseases in Canadian wildlife.
"It feels really good to know that anyone can contribute, even at a young age," says Németh. "Once you've gone through the process of doing all the research, I think you appreciate any other scientific work more deeply, and you know the hard work and effort that goes into it."
"Science textbook work is one thing, but the hands on work in the lab mentored by topic experts was beyond compare, adds Tannis. "Sifting through the wolverine guts with Brent Wagner, creating the PCR master mix with Karen Gesy and reviewing the knowledge base with Emily Jenkins were all experiences truly brought to life by the lab work."
This summer, veterinary student Kristine Luck is building on this project and examining intestinal parasites of wolverines from across a broader region of the North. Her work experience includes a field trip to the Yukon to collect samples.
As part of his PhD project, graduate student Rajnish Sharma will be looking at two other parasites in wolverines, Toxoplasma gondii and Trichinella nativa, which are potentially transmissible to people. Sharma is enrolled in the university's Integrated Training Program in Infectious Diseases, Food Safety and Public Policy (ITraP).
These projects represent an opportunity to establish a baseline that will help scientists to monitor the effects of climate change and economic development on parasites and their hosts.
Very little is known about the wolverine, which Jenkins describes as an "elusive species." Studies of their parasites can provide important information about both the animals and their environment.
The students' project also afforded other useful information to the researchers and their mentors. For Tannis, he learned that "almost any failure is a success in the form that it creates new opportunities" and opens up pathways for exploration.
"Csaba and I had started out with one simple question but ended up finding out more than we ever thought we would."
Working on the study gave Németh an opportunity to learn about himself while increasing his interest in science and research.
"I learned that even a negative result is a result, and you should never stop exploring to see what you can or can not find," says Németh. "The process and work that goes into it isn't just fun. It can be surprising at times, and discovering new things has always been a passion of mine."
"The boys were really inquisitive, really excited," says Gesy. "There's something about the innocent joy of exploration. It was a great experience, and I'd gladly do it again."
"I would certainly encourage other supervisors to get involved," adds Jenkins. "Seeing things through someone else's eyes when they're seeing it for the first time is really refreshing and revitalizing. This project has given me more energy and more excitement about what I do. It's fun to watch other people learn."