September 4, 2019

From disinterested undergrad to all-star researcher and entrepreneur

Robert Mayall from FredSense standing outside the University of Calgary after graduating
Robert Mayall graduates

At the end of his first year in studying biomedical science at the University of Calgary, Robert Mayall was regretting his choice of major. The only paths forward he could see were enrolling in medical school or pursing academia, neither of which thrilled him, and he was feeling apathetic about his degree. “I’m not going to lie, I was pretty disinterested in science,” he says.

Today, nearly 10 years later, Robert is a successful researcher and entrepreneur who has co-founded a growing business, received two prestigious scholarships and completed his PhD. So what happened?

It started simply enough, when Robert heard about the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, which pits teams of undergraduate students against each other in a year-long contest to design, build and test systems using synthetic biology. The Calgary team’s project was genetically modifying bacteria into biosensors capable of detecting toxins in oil sands tailing ponds and interfacing directly with computer systems to deliver the results, an endeavour that was so successful it put Robert and his teammates on the path to launching their own company, FREDsense.

Robert and Sarah at his PhD dissertation defense

It also put them in contact with Alberta Innovates, an organization that supports research and innovation across the province at all levels. It was there that Robert met Sarah Lee, who coordinates Alberta Innovates’ funding for undergraduate research. She helped Robert and his team access support for their project, including financing as well as training on effective research presentations, team management skills and career opportunities outside of teaching or medical school. For Robert, it was a revelation. “It absolutely blew me away,” he says. “Sarah showed me that science can be more than reading from a textbook.”

While he’d once been unsure about academia, Robert soon realized he needed a PhD to help grow his fledgling company. “We’d interfaced our bacteria with computers, but we quickly realized that we didn’t completely understand the science behind all of that. I had to go back to school to learn that science.” Robert was awarded two impressive scholarships – Alberta Innovates’ Graduate Student Scholarship and a NSERC Vanier Scholarship – to study how to interface biological systems with electronics. During his studies, he worked with the Canadian military to connect human immune system proteins with electronic systems to detect potential deadly pathogens such as anthrax.

He also kept in touch with Sarah. Robert invited her to attend his dissertation defense in April, crediting her inspiring him to pursue a career in science. “Sarah’s been supporting students for such a long time, and I wanted to show her what an impact she and Alberta Innovates had. The iGEM program is the reason that I became interested in science. If I hadn’t been in that program, I wouldn’t have met her or started a company, I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school, and I certainly wouldn’t have the skills to do any of those things as well as I do now.”

Sarah is just thrilled to see what Robert has been able to achieve. “I was there when Robert started his journey, and I’m so pleased to see the impact our support has had on his success. Alberta Innovates supported Robert from his undergrad through the incorporation of his company, and he’s a star,” she says. “His work is going to have an incredibly positive impact on this province, and that’s why we invest in students.”