This is the first of a series of posts from Vancouver high school students who attended the ISSCR conference after winning an essay contest sponsored by the Stem Cell Network, ISSCR and Let’s Talk Science. The contest was organized by Vancouver StemCellTalks. Congratulations to the five winners: Lauren Dobischok, Tanner Jones, Mindy Lin, Vivian Tsang, and Michelle Tse.
Post by Vivian Tsang
“So tell me how old you are again?”
I gave a hearty laugh and jumped into my ‘elevator speech’.
As one of only five high school student bloggers who attended the ISSCR 12th annual meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, I slowly became accustomed to the quizzical looks given by presenters, exhibitors, and researchers throughout the day. The five of us in our matching grey T-shirts navigated the multi-floor convention centre and tried to blend seamlessly into the string of high profile conference attendees. Slowly, instead of allowing my age to become a source of isolation and discomfort, I embraced the opportunity to use the ‘student blogger’ profile to connect with speakers and guests at the conference.
The first focus session I attended shed light on ways in which public and private partnerships between academia and industry can help facilitate more efficient translation. As a leader in One Match Stem Cell Initiatives, I was spurred on in search of successful techniques and challenges faced by the two parties with stereotypically opposing views. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. There were numerous ideas but two in particular stood out to me the most. Peter Andrews from the International Stem Cell Initiative spoke about the solution of not generating IPs and having no preferential payments in order to avoid controversy while Beth Hill from Johnson and Johnson Innovation focused on gaining close proximity to innovators in order to facilitate translation. She was also adamant about providing facilities, expertise, investment, and RAD capabilities in order to connect researchers and their innovative product ideas with industry and the need for new products for patients. From her presentation, I also learned that the process from discovery and research until global development often takes from 10-15 years! Hearing about these different perspectives as well as the complications of bringing research into clinical practice gave me a new dimension of understanding and respect for professionals who work in this field. This session also highlighted that the ultimate aim of research is to increase our understanding of diseases at the cellular level with the end goal of developing clinical practices that will improve the wellbeing of patients who are afflicted with illnesses. To do so, I discovered, involved not only scientists who conduct experiments in laboratories but also a network of other professionals including ethicists, knowledge translators, the media, pharmaceutical companies, investors, and other aspects of industry.
The Presidential Symposium in the afternoon enlightened me on the variability and dynamic forms of stem cells. Dr. Oliver Pourquie gave an inspiring plenary session on the difficulty of in vitro myogenesis from pluripotent cells. Despite the fact that these results have only been shown in vivo, Dr. Pourquie didn’t take this as a sign of defeat. Rather, his study on Duchene Muscular Dystrophy showed his perpetual perseverance to reproduce the branching of mdx muscle fibers in vitro in order to further understand this disabling disease. Dr. Brigid Hogan spoke about another set of challenges in dealing with stem cells in different bodily organs, specifically the lungs. Throughout her message, I found striking significance in the applicability of her work to the area of therapeutics. Her research, centered on basal stem cells, explored their roles in lung development and post-traumatic repair in hopes of treating millions who suffer from pulmonary disorders. A notable correlation between Dr. Pourquie and Dr. Hogan’s work was their unwavering persistence to push for answers. No matter how impossible the task seemed to be, these researchers, as well as hundreds of others who spoke at the conference were fueled by hopes to educate, empower, and enrich the lives of members of their local and global communities.
Although I must admit that the bewildering data, conjoined acronyms, and scientific vocabulary presented often flew past my understanding, I’m glad to say that I brought home more than mere head knowledge. Through my time at an international event of this calibre, I took away more than an armful of facts or a slur of newfound words. Instead, I found motivation knowing that there are like-minded individuals who, despite living halfway across the world, will carry on their work in the face of trials and tribulations and will continue to inspire my future journey in the science field.
So instead of cringing when people asked me “how old are you again?” these remarks helped me come to the critical realization that not many students my age have the opportunity to attend international conferences. They urged me to appreciate that the opportunity for insight and understanding at the plenaries, exhibits, and focus sessions was only made possible due to mentors who saw enough passion and potential in young people to give us a chance—and it is for these people that I will be eternally grateful.