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Apr 2010
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Student Profile: Alessandra Pasut on cute stem cells and the importance of communication

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April marks the end of the university calendar for many students — students who are active in advancing the field of stem cell science and helping to explain its importance to others. To recognize their efforts and the important role they play, we are profiling students who make a difference.

How did you get into stem cell research?

The first stem cells I saw were beating cardiomyocytes (cardiac muscle tissue cell) in a petri dish. As soon as I saw them, it was like “Oh, wow!” From a scientific point of view, it was really exciting, as much as it’s a pretty simple thing. But it was a turning point. I had been studying biochemistry, which was completely different, but when I saw those cells, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to study that,” and I decided to do my masters thesis on stem cells and then my PhD under the supervision of Dr. Michael Rudnicki. I had no background in this area, so I had to learn everything, starting with what stem cells are. I got really excited about their potential — they’re pretty cute and unique compared to other cells.

Cute?

I had been working with cell lines, which are great, you can stain them and look at them, but they’re just there, they’re don’t move, they don’t do anything. Those stem cell derived cardiomyocytes were beating. And then I saw muscle fibres twitching in a petri dish. Every time I talk to people about it, they’re like, “Sure, I guess so,” but when you take them into the lab and actually show them, they think it’s really cool.

So showing people helps them understand what you do?

Yes, I feel that there’s often a missing link, between what you’re able to say and what you can do if you show people. I was talking to my sister and telling her about what I was up to, but it wasn’t until I brought her into the lab that she really understood. She looked into the microscope and saw a cell. Then the cell moved. She got really excited and started asking questions about building clusters of cells, and then building organs and the potential of that.

Not everyone has a sister who works in a stem cell lab, so how do you translate that “aha” moment to others?

I think we need more interaction between scientists and people outside the lab. In Canada, it’s common to have lab tours, where students come and see what you’re doing. The more you do that kind of thing, the more people get excited because they actually know what you’re talking about. As scientists we use a lot of scientific terms because, well, this is our world, it’s how we communicate with each other. And as much as you can try to find easier words and use images to make yourself understood, at some point you’re going to use the word “cells” and petri dish” and “pipette. So, if you can show people those things are and what they look like and you make them touch stuff, it’s easier to bring them into your world. It’s easier to make them understand and easier to communicate properly.

Most of the time, scientists aren’t used to communicating with people that way . We think, “Oh, that’s too complicated” or “I can’t talk about science if I’m not going to use words like ‘epigenetic’ or ‘transcriptome.'” Being a scientist is a very specific type of job. It takes time and a lot of study to become one because you need to acquire skills and knowledge. And the more you acquire that knowledge, the more you lose the ability to communicate that knowledge to people that are not scientists. That’s why it’s important that we open our labs to the public. The more you open up the lab, the more people understand about what you do and realize that you’re doing something cool and interesting and worthwhile.

How are you helping people understand stem cell science?

I had been looking for something besides lab work, and was put in touch with the organizers of StemCellTalks in Toronto. Their plan was to have similar educational events across the country, and I quickly became involved in planning the event in Ottawa. StemCellTalks is an outreach initiative to gather high school students for a one-day symposium where they learn about stem cells from a biological point of view with an emphasis on their application.

At the Toronto StemCellTalks, some of the most successful activities were the debates, where established scientists would open up a discussion on the use and application of stem cells, giving the audience different points of view. That’s exciting, because that’s what science is. As a scientist, you get used to having very strong opinions and having to defend them. And it was great to see the kids taking sides and saying, “Yeah, that’s a good point, but the other scientist had a good point, too and my mom told me….” You open up a debate, and that’s why I think it’s very important to have events like these. People start to really think about stem cells, and have their own opinions. They start to think critically, which is awesome. These kids might one day be politicians or lawyers or scientists. It doesn’t really matter what they become, but they’re going to have knowledge about stem cells.

What will the Ottawa event look like?

The StemCellTalks in Ottawa will be very interactive, with stem cell activities, debates and a quiz game with prizes. There will be an ethics session as well, and the speakers will, for the most part, be Ottawa-based scientists, lawyers, doctors and politicians involved in stem cell science and stem cell policy. The event is scheduled for March of 2011, and it will be the third city to host a StemCellTalks event, after Toronto and Vancouver. Calgary and Montreal will host events next year as well.

What’s the best part of being a scientist?

I think the best part of science is interacting with your peers or with your supervisors and mentors. I feel like you build a whole set of interpersonal skills just working with them. Scientists are unique, and have these really strong personalities — which you need to develop to defend your ideas, but leave room for open discussion.

Alessandra Pasut is a PhD student in the Rudnicki lab at the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research. She’s also a Stem Cell Shinny-er.


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