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. This week we’re speaking with Paul Cassar, a graduate student at the University of Toronto.
Well, when I graduated from junior high we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I had two answers. I wanted to be a rock star and I wanted to be a scientist. It’s funny, but I think with all the excitement surrounding the field of stem cell science, I got pretty close.
How did you become interested in stem cells?
While I was doing my undergrad, I spent some time doing research at a major pharmaceutical company and I started to look outside conventional therapies and think about novel ways to treat disease, not just to treat the symptoms but try to treat the underlying mechanisms and get to the root of these diseases. A lot of psychological maladies are the result of degraded regions of the brain. We already know that for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but there’s evidence that it’s true for schizophrenia and depression. I found that very interesting, so I started to read the works of a lot of stem cell scientists in Canada, like Derek van der Kooy and Sam Weiss, and I really got interested in neural stem cell populations.
I really believe that the future of medicine is going to involve a number of cell-based therapies, including pluripotent stem cells and tissue-specific stem cells and other progenitor cells. And I think that these therapies will make their way into medicine in our lifetime. That’s why I found stem cell science so interesting to begin with.
When you’re done your PhD, what are your plans for the future?
I think because the stem cell field is so new, there are a lot of opportunities. As a grad student, I don’t think we necessarily have to take the standard path and become a professor or research scientist. What this field needs are people who have training in research but are looking to combine that training with a career in other fields, like law, politics and medicine. For the field to really grow, we need people in various professions who have passion and understanding of what this new field can offer, and be willing to incorporate it.
You helped spearhead StemCellTalks, tell us how that event came to be?
StemCellTalks was something that came together very serendipitously. Last year, I took on a position as a Let’s Talk Science Coordinator at the University of Toronto, and I realised that I had access to a lot of resources. Around the same time, I was approached by the Stem Cell Network (SCN) to become involved in a stem cell education initiative to create an online resources for high school teachers to teach their students about stem cells. When I got involved in that, I got connected with a lot of people at the SCN as well as the Genetics Policy Institute (GPI).
I took part in a meeting with SCN, GPI and the National Association of Biology Teachers to create this website. But most of these organizations were American and I thought, “This is wonderful and we’re creating such a useful tool, but what is the likelihood of this information reaching Canadians.” So I saw the opportunity to use some of those ideas and mold them into what became StemCellTalks. I was fortunate enough to have two colleagues and friends who were also interested in getting information about stem cells to the public, David Grant and Angela McDonald.
David came to me one day and said “I want to do a symposium, something similar to TEDTalks or Café Scientifique or Science Rendezvous, where we take stem cells to the public.” As a Let’s Talk Science coordinator, I said to him, “Well, I can’t get you the public, but I can get you a room full of high school students.” So everything kind of came together.
How did you decide what kinds of events to run?
I came from an undergraduate degree where we did a lot of problem-based learning. You sit down at a round table with six students and a professor and just talk about a particular issue. And there would be some kind of prompt to get the discussion going. I really benefited from that style, and I thought high school students would too.
The idea of having grad and post-docs there, came from the idea that we would have the experts, the scientists, up on stage and then we would transition that discussion to smaller breakout groups, a table of high school students with a grad student facilitating. I think the students really liked it. With high school students, they’re so inquisitive and so courageous, they’re totally willing to ask questions. I guess it’s the environment in which they learn, usually in smaller classes than a standard university lectures. They brought that to the symposium, and that’s what made it successful.
What do you hope that students take away from StemCellTalks?
I think it’s important to remember that although the field of stem cell science moves quickly, we can’t expect treatments and cure to manifest overnight. At StemCellTalks, we try to convey this by holding debates and ethical sessions, so students understand that while stem cells have a lot of power and potential, we’re at the point where we’re still using stem cells to learn how tissues develop and organize. And as we learn more, we’ll move more towards the clinic, but that’s in the future. But we’ll get there.
What have you learned about communicating with high school students and the general public?
As much as we focused on getting a lot of students in the room, it’s equally important to get a lot of educators in the room, and to educate the educators. The beauty is being able to transfer this knowledge to teachers, so that they’re able to transfer it to various cohorts of their students. In future events elsewhere in the country and ongoing years, we plan to invite as many teachers as we do students.
Paul Cassar is a graduate student at the University of Toronto in the lab of Dr. Bill Stanford.