Bechara Saab

Bechara Saab

OUR TOWN: Saab slams for science

Bechara Saab, 32, a native of Smithers, is the Swiss national science slam champion.

Bechara Saab, 32, a native of Smithers, is the Swiss national science slam champion.

Saab took the competition with a three-minute speech entitled, The Second Island, describing the motivation and means to makes Mars a more human-habitable planet.

“It was a big surprise,” Saab said of the unanimous decision which also earned him a birth in the international science slam championships in England in June.

Saab said his earlier experiences in Smithers, with father Michel, a surgeon at the BV Regional Hospital and  mom Janet, who was vice mayor, likely had an influence on him because he recently became a resident of Switzerland.

“I enjoy lakes and mountains here [Switzerland] as intimately as when I was a child in Smithers,” he said.

Saab, a post-doctoral fellow in neuroscience at the Brain Research Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, began his journey into science and specifically neuroscience as a youngster with aspirations of becoming a medical doctor, he said.

“I think the aspiration partly stems from the fact that many youths, certainly me, growing up in small towns have very little exposure diverse career options,” Saab explained.

Doctors and lawyers are present and usually respected more or less everywhere, so I suppose for youth in small towns, aspiring to be a doctor or lawyer is all the more common.”

When he graduated from high school in Salmon Arm, Saab admitted he had no idea what a scientist was.

That changed in the latter part of his undergraduate studies at UBC, when he learned of David Perrins, an AIDS researcher at UBC.

Saab spent a summer working in Perrins’ lab.

It was a good fit for Saab who then completed an undergraduate thesis with Perrins.

“I loved the lab, I loved the mystery,” Saab said.

“It was thrilling to witness and be a part of inventions and discoveries as they happened.”

So enthralled with the experience, Saab decided to forego medical school in favour of doctoral studies in neuroscience, with John Roder at the University of Toronto, to pursue an interest in how a collection of neural electrical and chemical signals become memories, how a collection of neurons can become cognitive.

After completing his doctoral studies, Saab turned to findin a position as a post-doctoral fellow and, given his early life experience in Smithers, it isn’t surprising an invitation from Isabelle Mansuy at the Brain Research Institute in Zürich piqued his interest.

“I was pretty excited about the prospect of working here,” Saab said of the lab where he works.

“I enjoy freedom and means to pursue my own research interests within a supportive atmosphere.

“I ski frequently in the fall, winter and spring, and swim almost daily in the summer in a river that runs right through the city.

“Though Zürich is on the other side of the world, my soul has found comfort in the similar mountains and waters, a surrounding that very much resembles Smithers.”

Looking ahead to the international science slam competition, Saab said he was anxious to go, but hadn’t yet decided if he would use the same slam speech that earned him the win in Switzerland.

“I may design an entirely new slam speech, perhaps on how the brain uses a combination of electrical activity and molecular events to learn and remember the most important events of our lives, such as how to swim or ski.

For information on the international science slam competition visit famelab.org.