April 11, 2016

Teen researcher hooked by questions about how hockey injuries affect children

Zeel Patel’s project among hundreds on display at Olympic Oval during Calgary Youth Science Fair

Zeel Patel’s face lights up when he talks about science and especially when he describes the novel research he’s doing with his mentor, Dr. Chantel Debert, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the Cumming School of Medicine. Patel, 17, is in Grade 11 at Webber Academy, and is working on a pilot project that may one day lead to better rehabilitation for children who suffer concussion.

“It’s the first time this kind of research has been done with children,” says Patel. He’s hopeful his results will encourage others to take the work further.

On April 15 and 16, he will showcase this project alongside more than 1,000 other students in Grades 5 to 12 at the annual Calgary Youth Science Fair (CYSF). The University of Calgary is a platinum sponsor of CYSF, the largest fair of its kind in Canada, which returns for its fifth consecutive year at the Olympic Oval. Patel won a silver medal at last year’s event.

Monitoring stress hormone levels after concussion in Pee Wee hockey players

Patel says he has been passionate about science since he was a kid. He entered his first school science fair in Grade 6. By Grade 10, he knew he wanted to do research in neuroscience. One of his teachers connected him with Debert, whose clinical work at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute focuses on finding better ways to diagnose and determine the outcomes of traumatic brain injury. 

Patel is analyzing data from Pee Wee hockey volunteers aged 11 to 12.

“We’re monitoring levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood to see if changes in cortisol levels after players experience a concussion are linked to adverse effects,” he says. Players were tested for cortisol levels after they experienced a blow to the head to see if their cortisol levels had changed and to compare the levels to their physical symptoms.

Young players show higher number of symptoms than adults

Patel has discovered that cortisol levels sometimes dip abnormally low after a sport concussion. This dip may be linked to a greater number and more severe symptoms. Through background literature searches, Patel found that young players may display a higher number of symptoms than adults, like headaches and blurred vision, but also other symptoms that could have long-term ramifications on growth and development.

While his research is in its infancy, it could eventually lead to increased understanding of concussion in kids.

“Looking at biomarkers such as cortisol may help us see what is going on in the brain in children following sport concussion,” says Debert. She adds that Patel is inquisitive, diligent and persistent — all hallmarks of a good researcher.

Interests range from science and medicine to international issues and environment

Patel may be single-minded about science but he’s also active in other areas. He has won provincial medals in his school’s speech and debating club and participates in a Model UN team, which simulates the United Nations by debating international issues. He also initiated a school recycling project which now supports a non-profit organization that provides micro-loans for small businesses overseas.

At the end of the day though, science is where it’s at for Patel. With one more year of high school to go, he has his sights firmly on a career in medicine. Debert is convinced he will do well.

“Whatever he decides to pursue, he will be a success,” says Debert, who is a member of the university-wide Integrated Concussion Research Program and co-leader of the Traumatic Brain Injury NeuroTeam, initiatives within the Brain and Mental Health Research Strategy led by the HBI.  

CYSF runs April 15 and 16 at the Olympic Oval. On April 15, University of Calgary scientists and other university representatives lead a guest speakers program, sharing their science passion and personal story with students. On April 16, the university collaborates with CYSF to offer the Science Lab, a showcase of interactive science displays that is open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon.