By CIC Staff

Sixty years ago, Elizabeth Xu’s grandparents nearly starved to death during the Great Chinese Famine. Widely regarded as the deadliest famine and one of the greatest man-made disasters in human history, it killed tens of millions of people. Elizabeth’s grandparents subsisted on a mixture of pig feed and other scraps.

The teenager grew up hearing frightening stories from that dark period of her family’s history. So when it came time to choose a major in university, Elizabeth wanted to put
her love of chemistry to good use. She hopes studying chemistry will pave the way for future studies into soil chemistry and its potential for staving off the desertification that now threatens the world’s food supply.

“With climate change causing unsuitable conditions for plants to grow, such frightening food shortages that my grandparents faced can come back to haunt us,” she says.

The grade 12 student at York Mills Collegiate Institute in Toronto and grade 12 Barrie North Collegiate Institute student Sadie Papa are this year’s winners of the Lionel High School Scholarship.

The scholarships target high school students with a strong interest in chemistry, biochemistry or chemical engineering who would not be able to attend without significant financial assistance. It provides $4,000 per year for up to four years towards their studies.

Elizabeth starts this fall in the University of Toronto’s life sciences program, and plans to specialize in chemistry for her graduate studies. Her initial introduction to the power of chemistry came during the pandemic lockdown, when she took up cooking out of boredom.

She discovered her favourite style involved throwing out the recipe and experimenting. While it was fun to improvise, it often resulted in failed dishes, which made Elizabeth wonder about the science of cooking.

As she delved deeper into it, she realized the critical importance of chemistry in the kitchen and beyond. Looking out the window at her mother’s garden, she could see first-hand the difference between chemically healthy and unhealthy soil.

“When the time came for the final assignment in biology class where we were allowed to research any scientific topic, I decided to learn more in depth about soil and fertilizer problems,” she says. “I realized how soil health was much more complex than I initially thought. Soil health depended on soil composition and soil composition involved a lot of chemistry.”

Her co-winner is just as dedicated to using chemistry to solve a real-world problem that has plagued both family and friends. Sadie will attend the biological and pharmaceutical chemistry program at the University of Guelph, where she wants to understand how to develop psychotropic drugs to make a difference in the lives of those that suffer from mental illnesses.

Her mother has paranoid schizophrenia and depression, and some of her closest friends have disorders such as depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder. Sadie has watched in frustration as the people closest to her have tried one psychotropic drug after another in an often-futile attempt to control their symptoms.

“Much of modern psychiatry is based on trial-and-error when it comes to prescribing antidepressants or antipsychotics,” she says. “This is, in part, because of lack of knowledge about the brain itself, let alone the intricate effects of the medication. I want to know how these medications interact with certain genes for more targeted treatment.”

For more information about the Lionel High School Scholarships visit the CIC website.