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28
Apr 2010
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Your goals beat ours in Stem Cell Shinny

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Over the past month, we — and stem cell science supporters across the country — have been Shinny-ing for stem sell science.…

Over the past month, we — and stem cell science supporters across the country — have been Shinny-ing for stem sell science.

In March, the Foundation staff held a game of street hockey in Ottawa. We got together on a Saturday morning, spent time together, talked stem cells and played hockey. Another Shinny game was hosted by Alessandra Pasut, whom you may remember from her profile. Read about how her team caught “stem cell fever” here.

We set a modest goal for our games — we wanted to raise $1,961 to recognize the discovery of stem cells in Canada in 1961. But it would seem that your goal was a little higher. Between the two games, Stem Cell Shinny raised almost $2,500.

Just as important was the time spent engaging in some truly Canadian activities — playing hockey, eating timbits and talking stem cells. A resounding success, is what we’d call it, and we plan to make Stem Cell Shinny a yearly tradition.

We’ve also got some other interesting friend-raising events in the works. Up first is the Stem Cell Patio Party in June. Intrigued? We’ll be posting details soon, so check back on a regular basis.

Thanks to everyone who shinny-ed, donated and helped out.

Trefor Munn-Venn is VP of Operations & Development at the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. And if you think he likes shinny, you should see him in front of a barbeque.
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28
Apr 2010
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Game On!

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It started with a simple question: “Do you want to be a Stem Cell Shinny-er?” And a simple answer: “Yes, of course!…

It started with a simple question: “Do you want to be a Stem Cell Shinny-er?” And a simple answer: “Yes, of course!

I posted a team profile online, sent a few emails and recruited some friends for the game. Then we gathered on a Sunday afternoon to play some shinny. It was a beautiful day, perfect for street hockey.

Team Stem Cell Talks

In line with tradition, we started out by singing “O Canada”.  Then it was GAME ON!

We decided to play shinny beginners against shinny experts with a special referee keeping an eye on the game. To distinguish between the two teams we used different Canadian Stem Cell Foundation buttons and stickers — we ended so covered in different colours it looked like we had some sort of stem cell fever!

Given that some of us had never seen a hockey stick before in our lives, we set up a brief lesson with the experts showing the beginners how to handle a stick, and what NOT to do with a stick.

Alessandra and her teammates covered in stickers and buttons

But it was all in vain — the game turned out to be a funny mix of hockey and soccer, with some of us playing with our hands and some with our feet, all the while reinventing the rules. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of laughs.

I would like to thank the friends that came to the game, all of those who donated and sponsored our team, and, in particular, I would like to thank the Foundation for bringing scientists a step closer to the people.

Alessandra Pasut is a PhD student in the Rudnicki lab at the Sprott Centre for Stem Cell Research. She’s now a shinny expert.

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26
Apr 2010
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Those who like it, like it a lot

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A couple of weeks ago, we asked if you thought it was a good idea to create Canadian Stem Cell Foundation Clubs at Canadian universities.…

A couple of weeks ago, we asked if you thought it was a good idea to create Canadian Stem Cell Foundation Clubs at Canadian universities. And your answer came through clearly — you said “yes”. In fact, no one said “no”.

Like us, it would seem that you see a great way for university students to play a direct role in raising awareness about stem cell science, educating each other, and helping to build commitment. Exciting.

The real question is “Now what?”

So you said yes. And while the number of votes wasn’t huge, what was clear based on comments and other feedback was that those who voted are seriously behind the idea. (We also know that we asked university students to vote during the middle of exams — sorry about that.) The next steps are very important.

We have some ideas about what the Clubs could look like, but we need your thoughts and your leadership — let’s face it, you’re going to be the ones bringing this to life.

So, if you want to see a club at your university, and you’re prepared to help bring it to life, here’s what needs to happen:

  • Send me an email tmunnvenn@stemcellfoundation.ca and let me know what school you’re at, your program and year – and include your contact information.
  • Pull together a small group at your school and make sure you understand what you particular school’s requirements are for a Club. Think about what you could do to: raise awareness; get others involved; and raise funds.
  • Give some thought to what the Foundation could do to support your activities.

If we start to see a few groups form, we’ll find a way to get together — in person, on the phone, Skype — and make a plan for establishing the Clubs.

You’ve led this. And it’s a good idea. Keep leading.

(Thanks again Samuel. )

Trefor Munn-Venn is VP of Operations & Development at the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation. And he thinks that Samuel is on to something — and other people think so too.
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22
Apr 2010
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Thanks for your support

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We’ve been nominated as one of five finalists worldwide for a Webby Award in the category of Activism. Webbys are big — these are the Oscars of the Internet.…

We’ve been nominated as one of five finalists worldwide for a Webby Award in the category of Activism. Webbys are big — these are the Oscars of the Internet. A panel of judges is evaluating us against only four other sites. We’ve got our fingers crossed.

But we’re also eligible to win a People’s Voice Award, and we’ve been asking you to vote for us.

Voting is now closed

We’ll find out if we’ve won on Tuesday, May 4th. Thank you to everyone who voted and helped spread the word.  Your votes helped others recognize the importance of stem cell science. Already, we’ve seen many more people visit the site and send us notes with questions and comments. You’re bringing stem cells to the foreground.

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22
Apr 2010
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Impressive little buggers, aren’t they…?

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David Kent

I was sitting at a microscope, looking down at one single cell – a nice tiny circle, not much different from an air bubble. …

David Kent

I was sitting at a microscope, looking down at one single cell – a nice tiny circle, not much different from an air bubble.  The senior PhD student in our lab shrugged as though this was old hat: “been there done that, now let’s get to work” – but I just sat there, jaw agape, thinking about how this air bubble was about undergo the most rigorous test that exists to tell whether or not it is a stem cell.  If successful this tiny sack of proteins would leave my field of view and complete billions of cell divisions on its way to single-handedly re-creating the entire blood system of a mouse.

The field of stem cell science has proceeded with breathtaking speed over the last ten years, but one thing is for certain – Stem Cells and Canada have a much longer relationship.  Pioneering experiments by Jim Till and Ernest McCulloch are internationally heralded as the first formal proof that stem cells exist. One year, at the Canadian Stem Cell Network’s (SCN) annual meeting – Jim and Ernest had just given a lunchtime talk –the SCN ran a small test. They asked, “If you were directly supervised by one of these men, please stand up”, then “If you were supervised by one of these people standing, please stand up.” After a few iterations, I realized that my grandparents (Jim and Ernest) had a pretty enormous brood: over 80% of the meeting’s 300 + delegates.  I now have thousands of stem cell cousins and siblings, and in my current lab in Cambridge, I just met my nephew for the first time.

Photo courtesy of highwaygirl67 on flickr

Photo courtesy of highwaygirl67 on flickr

It seems a long way from the street hockey and rock fights in St. John’s to my current research on diseases originating from blood stem cells – but if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that great things can come from the most unexpected of places.  It often has much to do with the people around you and a shared enthusiasm for what you are doing. Scientific research is all about inspired discovery – yes, even rock fights can help you discover things – and cultivating the culture of enthusiasm for discovery and critical thinking is the lynch pin for a successful research enterprise.  It means that the role of scientists, especially those in training to be scientists, is an important one and it is the big driver behind my extra-curricular efforts in groups like Let’s Talk Science, and with my newest project, which is a blog on issues affecting the training environment for scientists in our country.  At UBC, Let’s Talk Science consumed a fair amount of time outside the lab, but was a huge personal and professional benefit to me through its community involvement in the school system of British Columbia and through its work within the university to develop the communication and public outreach skills of graduate students and post docs.

I was lucky enough to co-ordinate the program with two amazing co-coordinators (Erika Eliason and Beth Snow).  Both Erika and Beth were also involved in a team of ~20 science trainees who gathered over three years to discuss the ideas and research that form the building blocks of the Black Hole blog which originally posed the question: What’s wrong with the science enterprise? The blog website hopes to reach out to science trainees, established scientists, and science policy makers across the country to identify the (sometimes worrying!) trends in science training, to inform them of excellent resources within and outside of the country, and to stimulate discussion on possible solutions moving forward.

Through this science advocacy work, I’ve learned an amazing amount from the people I’ve interacted with.  One of the most impressive things is the amount of interest there is from the public.  Canadians, when engaged, are actually extremely curious about stem cells and science in general.  I think the biggest roadblock is on the engagement front, but groups like the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, Stem Cell Network, the Science Media Centre of Canada, Let’s Talk Science and numerous others have really generated some excellent energy over the last decade, which is hopefully turning the tide.  Another great thing about public outreach is that the enthusiasm is contagious – day to day work in the laboratory is sometimes mundane, but when you can step back and look at the bigger picture about why you are doing what you do, you often rekindle the spark that originally drove you into that field in the first place.

What’s new and exciting about stem cells?

Even since I started my PhD (2003) at the Terry Fox Lab, there have been massive advances in the field.  Perhaps the biggest of these from a “why you should care” perspective are the reprogramming of cells and the accelerated rate of gene sequencing technologies.  Both of these came directly from the funding of basic “curiosity-driven” research and have evolved to have major clinical implications.  It is now possible to take a normal adult cell from anybody and fiddle with just 4 genes to bring it back to something that looks an awful lot like the most potent stem cells we know so far – embryonic stem cells.  This is very new stuff and lots of work needs to be done, but the possibilities are tremendous and warrant substantial investigation.

Secondly, the revolution in the speed of gene sequencing now makes the $1000 genome believable and nearly achievable.  Currently, it sits somewhere in the $30,000-50,000 range, but it’s on the way down.  I was at a talk last month, and one of the scientists who was responsible for these advances said: “If we tried to get funding for this today from a granting agency, many would throw it out immediately for being too blue sky” – this is because when they were uncovering the chemistry that drove this technology (in the early 1990s), it had no practical, translatable applications.  This runs counter to current policies which constantly seek proposals with direct clinical relevance or market translatability – a practice that is extremely short sighted.

Excitingly though, we are truly on the cusp of entering the era of personalized medicine (for diagnosis and treatment) and I hope that we do enough to inspire the next generation of scientists while bringing the support of the general public along with us.  For young scientists like me pursuing an academic research career, this means a concomitant emphasis on training/teaching, public outreach, and a general willingness to remove the blinders that academics often have firmly affixed to their heads.  Stem cells have a large role to play in this new age of biology and medicine and I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity and inspiration to be a part of it.

David Kent is currently completing post doctoral research on blood stem cell disorders at the University of Cambridge, UK under the supervision of Professor Tony Green.  He completed his PhD in 2009 in blood stem cell biology under Professor Connie Eaves and has been a member of the Stem Cell Network since 2003.  David will also be one of the Stem Cell Network’s regular trainee bloggers, which can be found at http://scnblog.typepad.com, and continues to write his independent blog at http://scienceadvocacy.org.

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21
Apr 2010
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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.…

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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16
Apr 2010
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What’s a “Webby”?

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Just about the most prestigious award you can receive on the internet—and we’ve just been nominated.

Hailed as the “Internet’s highest honor” by the New York Times, the Webby Awards honour websites, interactive advertising, online film and video, and mobile web sites.…

Just about the most prestigious award you can receive on the internet—and we’ve just been nominated.

Hailed as the “Internet’s highest honor” by the New York Times, the Webby Awards honour websites, interactive advertising, online film and video, and mobile web sites. This year nearly 10,000 entries were received from over 60 countries, so being a finalist is a pretty big deal.

Our website [www.stemcellfoundation.ca] is one of only five finalists worldwide in the category of Activism. This is exciting not just because we might win, but because of the opportunity to reach so many more people about the importance of stem cell science. You might ask, “Will you really reach that many more people?” The answer is yes. The number of visits to the site has increased by 2,000% since our nomination was announced.

If you haven’t been to the site, I encourage you to go. You’ll find compelling videos and other content in plain, clear language. You’ll also find the link to the Stem Cell Charter—a universal statement of principles—that is helping to guide decision-making around the world.

Who Picks the Winners?

There are two answers to that: A panel of (highly esteemed) judges — and YOU!

The Webby Awards are chosen by the International Academy of Design Arts and Sciences. Judges include:

    • Musician David Bowie

 

    • Internet inventor Vinton Cerf

 

    • Martha Stewart

 

    • The Weinstein Company’s Harvey Weinstein

 

    • Arianna Huffington

 

    • Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake

 

    • Ogilvy’s Chief Digital Officer Lars Bastholm

 

    • “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and

 

    • Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson.

As a nominees, we’re also eligible for the People’s Voice award — that’s where you come in.

From now until April 29th, you can cast your vote to help us win the People’s Voice award. Yes, this is a great chance to support the Foundation. But it’s bigger than that. This is a great chance to share with friends, family and co-workers the importance of stem cell science and its potential to bring healing to so many people. So point your mouse HERE and press that button. And once you’ve voted (one vote per email address), get your friends to vote by tweeting, posting, emailing—whatever you can think of to get the word out.

Winners will be announced on May 4th, 2010 and honoured at a ceremony in New York City on June 14th where they will have an opportunity to deliver one of the Webby’s famous five-word speeches. Past Webby Award winners—and their speeches—include:

    • Al Gore – “Please don’t recount this vote.”

 

    • Stephen Colbert – “Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.”

 

    • Michel Gondry – “Keyboards are full of germs.”

(And while we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, what do you think ours could be?)

Thanks for supporting us. Thanks for voting, for sharing and for being a champion for stem cell science.

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16
Apr 2010
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Stem Cells: The Next Generation

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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.

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.

What did you hope to be when you grew hope?

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.

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15
Apr 2010
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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.…

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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12
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.

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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