Apr 2010

The Power of Conversation

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StemCellTalks started as a conversation among friends.  Paul Cassar, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, had been looking for a way to reach out to the public about stem cell science. When Paul returned from the World Stem Cell Summit last year, he was excited about the success that the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine had had with their initiatives. Paul decided to recruit two other graduate students, David Grant and me, Angela McDonald to create a unique stem cell outreach program in Canada.

Over the past year, we visited classrooms across the greater Toronto area, teaching students about the basics of stem cell biology, giving an overview of the different types of stem cells — from adult to embryonic to induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells — and exploring their applications. From the first in-class presentation that David and I gave, we knew that high school students were eager to learn about stem cells.

In one classroom, we asked the students to think about which type of stem cells would be most appropriate for the treatment of Type I Diabetes. One student approached me during the brainstorming session to ask why someone would bother isolating a patient’s adult stem cells, reprogram them back to a pluripotent state and then differentiate them into the types of cells needed to treat diabetes. “Why wouldn’t we just go from one type of adult somatic cell directly to another?” I agreed and told her that this is a focus of many research labs around the world. About four months later, on February 25, 2010, Marius Wernig’s group at Stanford University published the first study of this kind in Nature, demonstrating the conversion of fibroblasts to functional neurons. This just shows how dynamic the field is: the questions that students ask are being answered in real time by researchers working in field.

The enthusiasm of students during in-class presentations inspired us to create StemCellTalks, a day-long event for high students where they learn about stem cell biology and its real-world applications from leading Canadian scientists. Paul, David and I organized the first symposium on March 12, 2010 at the MaRS Collaboration Centre in Toronto.

The excitement and flow of ideas was palpable at StemCellTalks Toronto. Drs. Derek van der Kooy and Peter Zandstra debated the use of multipotent versus pluripotent stem cell populations for the treatment of Type I Diabetes. Following this debate, students broke into groups and discussed the use of different types of stem cells for therapies, considering such issues as stem cell differentiation potential and tumorigenicity. The session ended with a vote for pluripotent stem cells (Peter) or multipotent adult stem cells (Derek). Each breakout session group held up a whiteboard with their pick. It was close, but Derek won the audience over. However, many groups couldn’t choose a winner and stressed the potential of both types of cells. One group’s whiteboard read, “Derek for now…Peter for the future.”

Even though I had been a bit nervous going into my first grade 12 classroom, after I saw how excited the students were about stem cell research I knew that I wanted to be involved in outreach in a meaningful way.  Following the first few brainstorming sessions Paul, David and I had, I became even more excited.  A lot of hard work went into the first StemCellTalks symposium and many people helped out and donated their time and expertise to make it a success.  On the day of the StemCellTalks event, the students were so engaged and thrilled to be learning from the scientists, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.  It was a really unique environment bringing these people together to talk about current scientific research.  I hope that this initiative will continue on a national level for years to come.

Angela McDonald is a University of Toronto graduate student in the labs of Drs. Janet Rossant and Bill Stanford. She spends her (limited) spare time engaging people about stem cell science.

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