Reflections on the Stem Cell Network Part 1: Establishing the next generation of stem cell academics

Author: David Kent, 02/02/15

As many of our readers are aware, the Network of Centre of Excellence known as the Stem Cell Network (SCN), which was created in 2001, will wind down the majority of it’s activities this year. I have been a trainee/alumnus since the start of my PhD in 2003 and have therefore spent my entire stem cell career alongside this network. It will be a big loss to the stem cell community, especially the work that was completed by the Ottawa office both from a research support and a trainee development point of view. The closure of such networks does however offer a wonderful opportunity to assess the value of the investment ($82.8 million for its 15 years of operation, 2001-15) by the Canadian public and this two-part series of blog posts focuses not on the research produced, but rather the people trained by SCN.

Over the past 15 years, SCN has been at the forefront of dedicated trainee development (with the trainee advisory committee, the Network-sponsored workshops, full travel expenses for SCN trainees to the annual scientific meetings). It had enormous backing from the group leaders involved who consistently gave their time to support these activities (I had my posters and talks judged by top experts over the years including John Dick, Guy Sauvageau, Norman Iscove, and Fabio Rossi) and through its interactive grants, SCN stimulated numerous collaborations across the country. It clearly had the mission to improve the lot of its trainees, but evaluating the “success” of people is a difficult job. Is producing a stem cell-competent patent lawyer as “successful” as a stem cell-competent high school teacher or medical doctor? One of the very easy things to measure, however, is the production of future academic group leaders that will take up the charge for the next 20-30 years of cutting edge research and this first article will focus on SCN trainees becoming academic group leaders.

Two great examples of schools that have benefitted from this focused production of young stem cell biologists are McMaster University and the University of Calgary. McMaster has populated its relatively new Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute with former SCN trainees and the University of Calgary has hired both biologists and bioengineers straight from their time in SCN labs. The cohort of emerging talent in stem cells across the country is impressive and (almost!) gender balanced:

These names are compiled through my own knowledge of former SCN trainees and almost certainly under-estimate the sum of exciting new researchers that now lead stem cell research groups in Canada. While SCN could not possibly claim to be the sole purveyor of success for these individuals, it does appear to be a pretty decent track record of academic group leader production with all of them have spent years interacting with each other while based in labs that promote a highly collaborative and open culture of science. Overall, I think it would be extremely worthwhile for someone to invest some proper research time into comparing SCN trainees to average success rates of PhD graduates in Canada. I would contend that, on average, SCN trainees have been extremely well-positioned for success by this highly interactive network of stem cell scientists.

One possible (and cynical!) argument against this correlation would be that networking and a multi-year SCN-mediated assessment process does not equate good science, but rather gives this particular group of early career researchers access to already powerful networks which can then bestow jobs and grants onto the people they’ve come to know and love. I think that the success of SCN-trainees worldwide argues against this though with group leaders with Canadian PhDs having already begun labs in the USA, United Kingdom, and Europe with more certainly to emerge from those currently doing postdoctoral work at top-tier institutions. Indeed, my own journey has led me to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom where I and numerous other Canadian-trained academics maintain strong links with Canadian universities and regularly encourage Cambridge-trained researchers to consider Canada for the next stage of their careers. The taxpayer may argue that this “brain-drain” to other countries is a waste of Canadian research dollars, but I would remind such people that we import an incredible amount of internationally trained talent at our universities and exporting well-trained Canadians as international group leaders is one excellent way of ensuring that such links remain strong.

Stay tuned for part two of this series which focuses on the value of creating a stem cell biology educated workforce – in particular a plea to help steer this cohort of young scientists into a long term national strategy focused on regenerative medicine and cell therapy.

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David Kent

David Kent

Principal Investigator at University of Cambridge
Dr. David Kent is a Principal Investigator at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute ( His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009. He has been writing for Signals since 2010.
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