Before she’d even finished high school, Stephanie Gaglione was an award-winning scientific researcher. At 15, she designed a method to grow food on urban roof panels; by 17, she was investigating insulin resistance in a lab at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. This fall, Gaglione – a fourth-year chemical engineering major – will be entering Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. And even though she came to U of T with a 99.67 per cent average, she says that grades aren’t nearly as important as other things: most particularly, curiosity, drive and an open mind. Here, she talks to Cynthia Macdonald.
What first attracted you to a life in science?
I noticed a brochure for a science fair on an elementary teacher’s desk and decided to submit my first project and it just took off from there. I was 13. It was on bioremediation, a technique to remove contaminating oil from soil. It sparked a passion for developing something that could be useful to society.
What was your first engineering project
Environmental scientist Brad Bass was visiting my high school to conduct a lecture. He said that even though I was a little on the young side, I could come along and help on a project. I noticed that he had some panels for green roofs on which vegetation such as moss could be grown. They’d been abandoned; I emailed him and said, maybe we could grow organic food on them! I ended up designing a compost unit with tubing and valves for that purpose. That was, in some ways, a form of engineering: a chance to go through a design process and come up with a product.
Now, several years later – after an internship at the World Health Organization, no less – vaccines have become your real interest. How did that come about?
After second year I realized that I genuinely believed in the undeveloped potential vaccines have – and that we are still in a primitive age when it comes to them.
The ability to address diseases is important; so is expanding access. But there are also technical issues: for example, we could administer vaccines through micro-needles that don’t require training, instead of the conventional needle and syringe, and come up with new platforms to manufacture vaccines easily and cheaply.
The Rhodes doesn’t just emphasize your studies: you also have to be a leader and an athlete. Your resumé includes skating and mountaineering. Are academic and athletic skills similar?
In some ways they are, but the benefit of them is that they’re not. In sports, you meet a diversity of people that you wouldn’t meet through your academic circle – that can open your mind, and make you more empathetic.