Finding a future in P.E.I.

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Alena Matthews, who grew up in Alberton, is a research assistant at the Charlottetown bioscience company, Avivagen Inc.

When Alena Matthews was growing up in Alberton, attending Westisle Composite High School, she had no idea she’d be returning there one day to encourage another generation of students to pursue their dreams.

“Students in rural communities sometimes miss out on opportunities that schools in town receive,” she says. “It’s important to fight the attitude that you can only ever be what you are now.”

Today a project coordinator and research associate for Avivagen Inc., she admits to being “lost” in high school, only later discovering her passion for science and companion animals.

Her work with Avivagen brought her home to Westisle, interacting with advanced placement biology students through a week-long experiment designed to replicate and identify human DNA samples.

Students utilized a national online database and precision measuring equipment to prepare research reports on the unique characteristics of their respective genes — the sort of experience normally reserved for second- or third-year university students.

The experiment was the brain child of Avivagen, a bioscience company headquartered in Ottawa that is building an increasing presence in P.E.I. Avivagen develops and produces natural source health supplements to support the immune system in both humans and companion animals.

The company is making strong strides in incorporating this natural source compound in commercial animal feed to promote health and growth in livestock while avoiding the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics — a practice that is increasingly being viewed as a threat to human health.

For Avivagen CEO Dave Hankinson, it’s all about giving back to a community he has found particularly welcoming since arriving in P.E.I.

“Our team loves this lifestyle and being here,” says Hankinson, himself originally from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. “Several of them are from P.E.I., and others from throughout the Maritimes. I’m looking forward to taking our operation to the next level and filling positions with even more young Islanders.”

Hankinson also appreciates the support he has received from the Island business community, for example P.E.I. BioAlliance, the coordinating body that represents private sector, research, academic, and government organizations linked to the P.E.I. Bioscience Cluster.

“Through the BioAlliance, we’re looking at common challenges together and letting Islanders know that biotechnology represents opportunity for their future,” says Hankinson. “We simply look at what nature already does and work with it to enhance the quality of life for humans and animals.”

The BioAlliance was happy to help provide the supplies used in the Westisle experiment, while Avivagen designed the process and partnered with the school.

Rory Francis, executive director, P.E.I. BioAlliance, believes this kind of collaborative outreach to students is critically important for building future employment in P.E.I.

“Young people, and their parents and teachers, need to be aware of new opportunities and the diversity of careers available to them here in P.E.I.,” he said. “Our mandate is to attract and retain skilled workers, which will be easier to do when we have a versatile local labour force educated in these fields.”

This is not the only outreach Avivagen has sponsored for local students. The Westisle experiment was replicated at Three Oaks Senior High School in Summerside last fall by Dr. Jamie Nickerson, director of Avivagen’s Biology Group.

He was also an enthusiastic participant for several years at BioQuest, a hands-on experience sponsored by the National Research Council designed to bring science to life for more than 200 Grade 5 students in P.E.I.

“It’s wonderful to see their faces light up when they have direct experience with science,” says Nickerson.

Nickerson also devoted several days as a judge for the 2012 Canada-Wide Science Fair in Charlottetown where 500 Canadian students presented projects and competed for $1 million in prizes and scholarships.

Originally from Moncton, Nickerson would like to see outreach to local schools expanded.

Chris Higginbotham, the Three Oaks teacher who invited Nickerson into his classroom, agrees.

“For teachers, this kind of partnership offers resources we normally couldn’t provide in high school,” Higginbotham said.

Alena Matthews has directly experienced the impact of this outreach on the students at Westisle.

“Science isn’t what it used to be. It can really be fun and offers options beyond medical or veterinary schools. Students interested in bioscience can be research associates, patent lawyers, or entrepreneurs. Imagine what that momentum could generate for P.E.I.”

Alena’s former instructors, several of whom still teach at Westisle, would agree.

“Teachers always like to see you coming back,” says Alena, “to see that you have made something of yourself — and that it’s possible to do it here in P.E.I.”

One in a series of stories about the P.E.I. BioScience Cluster by Margaret Magner, Ph.D.

Organizations: Westisle Composite High School, Biology Group, National Research Council Grade 5

Geographic location: P.E.I., Alberton, Ottawa Annapolis Valley Nova Scotia Iceland Summerside Charlottetown Moncton

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  • Rob McEachern
    November 04, 2012 - 13:13

    While PEI over the last century exported an average of 7,000 people per year, the brightest and best were always leaving. Thirty students at Priest Pond School in the 1930’s, graduated in grade 10 able to speak Latin. Don Donnie MacEachern went to New York city and eventually became the Comptroller of AT&T. The brightest and best almost had to leave to get the challenges their well ordered minds required. The gene pool has been severely depleted. Immigration of new peoples to the areas vacated is probably the best chance of engaging the land again.