May 31, 2018 - 14:55 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - Maya Mikutra-Cencora, 17, is working with scientists at McGill University to try to slow the effects of Alzheimer's.
On the surface, Mikutra-Cencora, a 17-year-old, Grade 12 student at Collège Brébeuf, looks and dresses like your typical teen. She has typical teen tastes when it comes to music — The Black Keys, Cage the Elephant — and movies — Wonder Woman, Interstellar. And she has a soft spot for the Habs and Harry Potter.
What is not typical about Mikutra-Cencora, however, is that she has spent the last two years — when not studying or doing weekly volunteer work with teens at the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped — conducting research at McGill University on Alzheimer’s disease. Her theories have not only dazzled senior researchers and physicians, but have also taken her around the world to share her findings at science fairs, Montreal Gazette reports.
Two weeks ago, Mikutra-Cencora was one of five young Canadians to win a $25,000 STEAM Horizon Award at Ottawa’s Canada Science and Technology Museum. Presented by Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation, the STEAM scholarships are given to those excelling in the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
Of course, Mikutra-Cencora is too modest to trumpet her achievements. In addition to her parents and some teachers, the only people she told about the award were her two best friends.
It’s easy to believe her when she says she’s not looking for any personal attention or fame.
“I’ve just always been curious,” says the fluently bilingual Mikutra-Cencora at Librairie Olivieri, prior to her first class of the day at Brébeuf. “Even as a young kid, I was always asking questions and had been so passionate about science and math. Some people probably found that annoying, but I was lucky to come across others, like my parents and teachers, who inspired me to go forward. So all this just came as a natural cycle.
“But my concern is also about not leaving people behind. We can’t forget about our seniors. We owe them so much.”
It was an article she read about a clinical trial for Alzheimer’s that sparked her interest in the disease.
“Scientists were so hopeful at first about it, but in the end, sadly, it just didn’t work,” she says. “The piece didn’t provide a lot of details about the disease. So I started reading about it. But the more I read, the less clear I became. I ended up in this circle of scientific studies and publications. ”
Gradually, she was able to formulate some ideas and was determined — naive as it may have been — to try to find, if not a cure, a way to slow down the deterioration of the disease. She contacted researchers in the field.
“I got lucky enough to be accepted by one to do research in his lab,” she says, referring to Dr. Claudio Cuello of the McGill Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
Well and good, but this is a disease with no cure, a disease that has grown exponentially, a disease that has baffled the medical and scientific community for over 100 years, since one Dr. Alois Alzheimer gave his name to it in 1906.
“There have been so many theories and there are so many students and scientists working. And here I am, a young high-school student who wants to contribute. It was a little — okay, maybe a lot — intimidating at first. Not too many people would take that leap of faith and trust a 15-year-old to work in their lab.” But Cuello took that leap and put her together with a grad student in the lab, Rowan Pentz, who has supervised her and stayed with her late at night, since Mikutra-Cencora is a minor.