How I Made It

Colette Benko, Pediatric Cancer Researcher

After being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at 13, Calgary's Colette Benko became an award-winning pediatric cancer researcher. Here, she tells FLARE how she made it

Colette Benko

Where do you go to school and what are you studying?

I am just starting into my first year of medical sciences at University of Western Ontario. My plan is to specialize in either biochemistry and cancer cell biology or medical cell biology.

What is your dream job after you graduate?

Research is what I see myself doing in the long term. I love theorizing ideas and then using an experimental design to determine the results.

What was your biggest accomplishment to date?

By winning Best Project at the Canada Wide Science Fair in 2017, I was chosen along with two others to compete at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists, where I won second place. My project investigated new treatment options for pediatric cancer patients with neuroblastoma through targeting the cells’ maturity. The most rewarding part was meeting youth across Europe and the globe.

Can you describe a typical day, detailing everything you do from when you first get up to when you head back to bed?

During the school year, I have a traditional day of classes with my lunch break filled with club meetings. After school, I usually have an activity (whether it be choir, rowing, skiing or volunteering). When I get home, I work on homework, science fair proposals and preparing projects. During the summer, however, I work full-time in a lab to do the bulk of my experimentation. Once I’m there, I catch up on readings, set up experiments and obtain the results from previous days.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten in relation to following your dreams?

That I could only be good at one thing. I believe you can be a nerd and also an athlete; there shouldn’t have to be a compromise.

What would you say has been the most significant challenge in life you’ve had to face to date? How did you overcome it (or learn to live with it)?

When I was entering grade nine, I was diagnosed with cancer. I am, thankfully, into remission now, but it was a challenging period in my life. I used to be a highly competitive Irish dancer, but due to the treatments I could no longer dance competitively, which was devastating. But I’m also grateful, because this experience motivated me to get into pediatric research. While I was in the hospital, I was exposed to the hardships faced by young children and their families—so by completing research in the pediatric field, I aim to improve the outlook for children facing disease.

What’s the number one biggest issue facing young women your age in Canada right now?

There is a stereotype put on female students that we aren’t capable of thinking beyond what we are taught in school, and aren’t resourceful or determined enough to be able to perform at the level of those above us. But often, it’s the ability to see a problem from a different angle that leads to the biggest successes—and being a student enables you to have another perspective.

What’s your best piece of advice for other young women who want to make a difference in the world?

Be yourself and do something that has meaning to you. There are going to be bumps in the road, and you have to be prepared not to give up when things don’t work out the first time you try.

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