By Sarthak Sinha
In the two weeks following their release, over 250,000 individuals worldwide have watched and shared these two TED-Ed lessons (see below); a project we worked on for three months. As a reflection on this work, I wanted to share where it all started, what it means in the context of sciences beyond just these two videos and finally, an idea that’s worth considering long after the initial excitement of seeing soldier-like macrophages or seeing a robot share its fascination towards the human skin.
One of my most cherished memories from high school is the time I spent visiting patients who have been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis as part of the MS Society’s friendly visiting program. My Saturday mornings would start with conversations that would resonate with me all weekend and some that have stayed with me ever since. It was one of those unforgotten conversations from a forgotten morning that inspired my interest in pursuing an idea — an idea, which has taken me down various paths, one of them being these lessons on wound healing and scarring. It presented itself as a question posed by one of the patients I had been visiting for over a year.
She asked me, “Is being an explorer the same as being a lab rat?” As you can imagine, it was enough to wake me up on a Saturday and respond by saying that it’s such a silly comparison and asking why she would ever compare the two. And it was this response that I’ll never forget. She told me that a lab rat doesn’t really know what it’s being subjected to but yet it’s an “explorer” of a medical treatment that holds the potential to save lives of many behind him. Then she added that it’s how they (referring to the peers within the MS circle and her neighbours at the care center) feel about a lot of the experimental drugs and clinical trials they’re a part of.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about this analogy between people and lab rats, both knowing very little about their situation or what they’re being subjected to. For me, this has raised both concerns and optimism. Concerns about the fact that researchers, clinicians and even basic scientists can sometimes be so preoccupied by reporting their findings and discoveries to their peers within the scientific community that they miss the opportunity to share it with people who have the highest stake of benefiting from it. Or alternatively, the thick walls of jargon and pay walls standing in the way of effective dialogue between the science and society can leave a lot of patients in the same boat as a lab rat, secluded from the excitement and the kick we all feel when we take a moment to step back and reflect on what all of this work could mean for someone somewhere someday.
The good news is, I think we are living in an exciting era to see this shift take place and be catalyzed by organizations like the Stem Cell Network. What gives me optimism is to see that how a patient feels about a therapy, their opinions, concerns, fears and hopes are being taken as a priority and are being studied in a scientifically rigorous manner. Even with research happening in our own lab, one of our aims is to fully understand both patient and public perception towards therapies involving the use of stem cells and the ways we can couple education with therapies.
Watching these videos being shared on social media, reading the comments people left behind and seeing how the appreciation of science comes so naturally to us was a reminder of why we completed this project in the first place. People’s comments about how they now understand why they have a scar from an old surgery or seeing that they read the follow-up supplementary leaves me smiling and reminds me why we took this initiative in the first place. I truly believe that solutions offered by science are life altering, but I think it’s the translation of sciences that can empower an individual to lead a more fulfilling life.
In grade 9, Sarthak Sinha began volunteering at the University of Calgary to investigate more about stem cell biology and its role in healing skin burns and hair follicle regeneration. Sarthak started experimenting with retinoic acid, which led to an exploration of stem cell therapies and drugs that can potentially regulate hair regeneration. Sarthak has received many awards for his work, has been recognized as an “Under 25: Ones To Watch” by Macleans Magazine, and shortlisted for “Top 20 Under 20 in Canada” by Youth in Motion, among other honours.