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Marine mentor

Cyr Couturier sees the importance of mentoring young students

By Darcy McRae

There are a number of great reasons to mentor a young student, especially when the student displays a passion for their work, said Cyr Couturier, a research scientist at the Marine Institute.

Mr. Couturier, who is also the chair, M.Sc. Aquaculture and works in MI’s Centre for Aquaculture and Seafood Development, has a well deserved reputation for helping any aspiring young mind looking for guidance. He has even taken to mentoring students who have not yet finished high school, all in the name of growing interest in the science programs he loves.

“I like to see young people interested in marine sciences and marine technology,” Mr. Couturier said. “Maybe someday they’ll come here and do a program at the Marine Institute, maybe not, but if they have an interest in these areas, I like to provide them with a little bit of insight.”

Mr. Couturier’s latest protégé was Megan Howse, a 13-year-old from Mount Pearl who is a Grade 8 student at St. Peter’s Junior High. Ms. Howse asked Mr. Couturier for help in coming up with ideas for a science project she was entering in the Aventis BioTalent Challenge. Mr. Couturier suggested a project looking at the natural production of essential omega-3 fatty acids using microalgae and the different ways to undertake such research.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to human health, however they cannot be manufactured by the human body. They can be found in fish and other marine life like krill and algae. They play an important role in fighting heart disease and are considered by many to be brain food, making omega-3 fatty acids an important topic of research for many years to come. Ms. Howse liked the idea of investigating this topic further and jumped at the chance to work with Mr. Couturier on the project.

“I found the health benefits of omega-3 really interesting. I also thought that since omega- 3 is an important topic right now, it would be interesting to do some research about it,” she said. “I really enjoyed actually being able to go into the labs and having all of the proper equipment and tools to use. It was a very different experience for me, to be able to go into a lab and work by myself. I think that was a good challenge.”

Mr. Couturier was impressed that Megan showed initiative in the early stages of the project and maintained her interest until it was completed. The pair started working together in December, 2008 and continued until the end of April when Megan was ready to take their work to the judges.

“A lot of the work was her own design and she did it by herself,” said Mr. Couturier . “We came up with a couple of experiments she could do, found the lab space for her and spent some time helping her with these experiments.”
The efforts demonstrated by Mr. Couturier and Ms. Howse obviously paid off, as the grade eight student went on to win a gold medal in her age category at the Eastern School District Regional Science Fair, a gold medal in the National Science Fair in her age category and a silver medal at the Aventis Biotech Challenge.

“It felt really good, knowing how hard I had worked on this project, to know that it paid off. But even if I hadn’t won, I think it would have been worth all of my work for the experience,” Ms. Howse said. “I was certainly not expecting to win gold at Nationals, after being told how hard it is to receive that award. It was a great honour, and it felt good being told that my project was really good.”

The silver medal at the Aventis Biotech Challenge is not as flashy as the two golds Megan won, however Mr. Couturier says it may actually be the most impressive of the awards since Ms. Howse competed against several Grade 11 and 12 students at this event.

“To me, the interesting part of all this is that a young student was interested in coming to MI and gaining some insight into something that might be applicable for human health and nutrition in the future,” said Mr. Couturier. “She learned quite a bit, she’s quite smart for a grade eight student. The judges were impressed with her.”

This is not the first time a student mentored by Mr. Couturier has gone on to win big at a science competition. Just two years ago a group of students from Lewisporte sought Mr. Couturier’s help when working on a project regarding shrimp by-product utilization as feed stimulants for farmed cod. Those students also won a provincial title and went on to compete at the national level.
Ms. Howse is not surprised Mr. Couturier’s past protégées also found success, since she experienced firsthand the benefits of his mentoring skills.

“Cyr really guided me through, making sure I used the proper procedures and proper techniques,” Ms. Howse said. “Working with Cyr allowed me to use the Marine Institute’s Aquaculture lab as well as the chemistry lab, which I would not have been able to do otherwise. This project allowed me to make many connections, which I will certainly use in the future.”

Mr. Couturier prefers to give all the credit to the students he has mentored, however there is little doubt he played a hand in their success. He said he enjoys every minute of the mentoring process and was happy to see fellow MI faculty such as Dr. Laura Halfyard, Kiley Best and Jason Nichols pitch in to help Megan with her recent award-winning science project.

“It’s important to give students such as Megan the benefit of your experience in an industry that is important to the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Mr. Couturier . “It exposes the students to potential career avenues, quality careers doing good things for the people of this province. I’m interested in applied science that tries to solve problems and if I can expose anybody to that, it might be a benefit to someone down the road.”