Right Turn: Stem cell researchers develop more than undifferentiated stem cells at StemCellTalks Toronto

Author: Erin Sugar, 03/24/17

StemCellTalks Toronto, March 10, 2017

The eighth annual Toronto StemCellTalks (SCT) symposium took place on March 10, 2017, in Toronto’s urban innovation hub (and CCRM’s new home), MaRS Discovery District. SCT is a national stem cell biology outreach program for high school students in partnership with Let’s Talk Science and the Stem Cell Network. (CCRM is also a proud national sponsor of this annual event.)

This year’s theme was Immune Cells and Cancer; however, for those non-high school students in attendance, it was clear that a more appropriate theme for the day would have been: Incredibly Intelligent Students Explore and Disrupt High School Science. Maybe it’s a little long; I’ll work on a snappier version for next year.

SCT was established to inspire and educate high school students on the science and ethics of stem cells. In Toronto, it is run by students at the University of Toronto (U of T) and features university faculty and local industry. After listening to the impressive opening speech delivered by one of the SCT volunteers, it was evident that SCT is a success. The speaker, Caitlin, attended SCT Toronto in 2010 as a grade twelve high school student. She said SCT was fundamental to her decision to pursue stem cell research, and she implored the students in the crowd to listen closely to the talks, befriend the graduate student volunteer at their table and to pursue their scientific passion.

As mentioned in the introductory lecture to stem cell biology delivered by U of T’s Dr. Brian Cox, stem cells are undifferentiated biological cells that can differentiate into specialized cells and divide to produce more stem cells. While this definition was the tip of the day’s scientifically dense iceberg, I was struck by how fitting and relatable it was to the students in the room. It occurs to me that they are a lot like stem cells.

Stem Cell Classroom. Illustration by Erin Sugar

Grade eleven and twelve students are unsure – “undifferentiated” – regarding the path that lies ahead of them outside of high school. Each student possesses a unique set of DNA, and an even more unique skill set and collection of interests and passions that will guide them through postsecondary education and adulthood, helping them differentiate into their final form. However, much like a stem cell, the students who feel sure of their current direction may be in for a surprise when they develop into something else.

To keep the comparison going, once these high school students mature into adulthood, ideally they will work with one another to better the good of society (or regenerate damaged tissue in the body, for example). The uncertainty and desire to benefit a greater good is the most striking similarity of the two. That, and the potential they have to give rise to infinitely more cells of the same type, but I have a feeling that their parents might object until they’re older.

L-R Rob Tonus (Senior Development Officer, Let’s Talk Science), Dr. Christopher McCabe (University of Alberta), Patrick Bedford (CCRM) and Dr. Harry Atkins (Ottawa Hospital Research Institute)

Before students go to university, they need to be inspired to apply to a program, determined to get the grades, and motivated to do the work and stay in school once things get tough. The graduate student mentorship that takes place at SCT Toronto hopes to supply that motivation, with the help of the expert lecturers, debaters and panelists. In this case: Dr. Brian Cox, Dr. Janet Rossant, Dr. Paul Cassar, Dr. Juan Carlos Zuniga-Pflucker, Dr. Christopher McCabe, Dr. Harry Atkins, patient Dan Muscat, industry CEO Dr. Philip Toleikis and regulatory expert Patrick Bedford.

For the parents, students and educators who couldn’t attend SCT Toronto, you can access STEM programs, activities and workshops on Let’s Talk Science’s public engagement pages, as well as CurioCity’s web-based program that connects grade eight to twelve students and educators with the STEM community. If you would like to engage further with stem cell science, you can inquire about having a stem cell research student attend your class and inspire the bright minds within.

For more information on SCT Toronto, you can check out the SCTTO2017 Tweets from the event, or you can learn about past SCT Toronto and Vancouver events here.

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Erin Sugar

Erin Sugar

Erin Sugar has returned to the land of business savvy scientists once more as a communications coordinator at the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM). A recent BAH English Literature graduate from Queen’s University, Erin is on a mission to integrate herself fully into the stem cell and regenerative medicine (RM) community by scouring the deepest and darkest corners of the web. Here to make sure you are not left in the dark about the lighter side of RM news and culture, Erin delivers Right Turns that satisfy the most multifarious of cravings. You can reach Erin at erin.sugar@ccrm.ca
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