While other teenagers are procrastinating doing their homework, Colette Benko is putting in late nights in a cancer research lab.

The 16-year-old Albertan was struck by cancer at age 13. She survived, but experienced bad side-effects from the chemicals used to kill the cancerous cells, known as chemotherapy.

That experience inspired her to dedicate her life to finding less-toxic treatments. She’s since spent summers working with Dr. Aru Narendran in his University of Calgary research lab.

Benko opted to focus on neuroblastoma. The cancer is treatable but chemotherapy can leave people with life-long side-effects.

“What makes neuroblastoma really difficult to treat is the cells don't reach a full maturity before they become cancerous cells,” Benko said. “So they’re not fully a mature neural cell, which is what they are supposed to be.”

Benko is therefore hunting for “inhibitors” that may alter the epigenetics of neuroblasts, coaxing them to reach maturity so that they no longer pose a risk. She hopes one day to have her work published in a medical journal.

While it’s been difficult to juggle research with school, the hard work is paying off. Benko has earned top prizes at provincial and national science fairs and last month took second place at the international science fair hosted by the European Union in Estonia. That prize came with 5,000 Euros in cash, which is approximately CAD$7,500.

Dr. Narendran said he’s very proud of his associate’s accomplishments.

“It's a new idea,” he said. “I think that's why she won the prize.”

Benko’s mother Janice is also proud. “She’s been through a lot and she’s taken it and made the best of it,” she said.

With a report from CTV Calgary’s Jaclyn Brown