Apr 2010

1,000 students and counting

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At the end of the very first Annual Scientific Meeting of the Stem Cell Network (SCN) in 2001, attended by 50 or so eminent stem cell researchers, Dr. Connie Eaves, now Director of the Terry Fox Labs at the BC Cancer Agency, came up to me and said “That was a great meeting, but next time you really need to bring along some students”.  “Great”, I said, “How about 20?”.  “No”, said Connie, “I was thinking about 200!”

And Connie was right.  Since that first year, our annual meeting has grown to accommodate nearly 400 delegates, the vast majority of whom are students. The meeting is thriving because of it.  Students give talks, present nearly 140 posters, exchange ideas, network with other labs, and are exposed to some of the most leading edge science in the world.

What I had missed, being new to science, was how important graduate students and post-doctoral fellows are to the field.  While it is the researcher who gets headlines when a groundbreaking discovery is made, it is because a student has spent thousands of hours undertaking the research, coming to the lab at all hours of day and night — because cells don’t stop growing at 5pm on Friday in the middle of an experiment.  It’s a student who has examined hundreds of slides and studied reams of data looking for anomalies. And it’s a student who’s been researching prior publications looking for linkages and clues to their own findings.  Researchers are mentors, guides, communicators and the sources of inspiration, motivation and insight.  But without students there would be no research, and no SCN.

As a result, the SCN invests heavily in their professional development.  We put on technical courses on topics like iPS Cells and FACS, and on broader topics such as stem cell ethics and intellectual property management.  We fund lab exchanges and travel to project team meetings, recognizing the central role students play in our research program.  And we have sought to involve students in all aspects of what we do.  There are trainees on our Research Management and Policy Development Committees. They provide input and direction to our communications and education program.  And more often than not students themselves take the initiative, and all we do is encourage, enable and get out of the way!  There couldn’t be any better example of this than the recent StemCellTalks program put on last month at the MaRS Centre.

As of the end of March 2010, close to 1,000 graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, undergraduate co-op students and technicians had participated in a SCN project, workshop, committee or our Annual Meeting.  We consider this the most important thing the we can do to ensure Canada’s long-term capacity to benefit from stem cell research, and to, not only provide hope to patients, but to deliver clinical therapies in the decades to come.

Drew Lyall is the Executive Director of the Stem Cell Network, and is learning to think big about students.

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