Not in university or college yet, but can’t wait to experiment and explore? Not a problem, says Jessie MacAlpine, you can always setup in your basement. That’s what she did and now she’s been recognized as one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20. We sat down with Jessie to get an idea of what it takes turn an undying curiosity and passion for helping others, into her game-changing malaria treatment research. Her interview extends our story series, “The Science of Disruption”, in which we feature the eyebrow-raising innovations and results produced by the young scientists and entrepreneurs who make up generation hack.
What made you kick-start your basement lab?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t absolutely love science and discovery and that passion never faded. In grade 7, I saw an advertisement for the Canada Wide Science Fair and after seeing the poster I knew I wanted to put together my first experiment.
You’ve researched and developed herbicides and malaria drugs in your basement lab, tell us about how you managed this?
I grew up in a town that was 45 minutes from the closest university and my school didn’t have much science equipment. Instead, I set-up the experiments in my basement. I borrowed some equipment from Western University with the help of my parents and collected things around school. I put together a pretty decent lab, actually.
How has your work in your basement lab affected your ‘real’ lab approach?
It taught me to be really creative. That’s something I’ve really tried to continue in my research now. It pushed me to be practical and creative in my experimental designs because I didn’t have access to many resources. It shows there really can be “citizen science” and that science isn’t as unapproachable as we’ve been lead to believe.
You are currently seeking a couple of patents for some discoveries made in your basement lab, what's that like?
Its a skill that is extremely useful and really important for knowing how to protect your work. Although, it's not taught at high school or undergraduate levels surprisingly.
It's our understanding that some of your previous work inspired discoveries in completely different fields. What sort of thinking prompted that?
It starts with the curiosity and openness you have as a kid. You either continue to cultivate it or it fades away as you get older. Things like questioning openly and being able to connect the dots across different fields of science, or across any fields for that matter, have helped me a lot.
Can you speak to the roles tinkering and experimentation has played during your journey?
Both are absolutely fundamental in all aspects of science. As you move forward in formal settings the tinkering becomes more complicated, but engaging in that “nonsensical” or “childish” exploration often lead to those great serendipitous discoveries.
Much of what you have done in biology was self-taught, what did it take to learn on your own?
We set curriculums for a certain age or grade, so you just assume it's going to be to difficult to understand. But, a lot of times if you put in the time and effort, it's not as hard for students to get advanced knowledge as they think it is. It also really helped that I’m really interested in the subject matter!
What would you say to others wanting to take similar paths?
Do it! Researching and experimenting on your own builds all sorts of skills that are difficult to teach in the formal education system.
How could the education of youth be improved or done differently?
I think kids should be given the opportunity to investigate on their own and generate their own hypotheses. As opposed to telling them the “facts” first and them getting them to conduct experiments. We need a paradigm shift to inquiry-based models where kids are really encouraged to come up with their own ideas and explanations for the things they explore.
Whats next for you in 2015?
Lots of research and exciting projects! I’m looking forward to advancing my research with an international company studying malaria treatments. Its going to be a busy year!