Signals Blog

 I am a third year PhD student who likes to call herself a stem cell biologist and I have a confession to make: I sometimes forget that there are many other stem cell types in addition to the stem cells that I study (embryo-derived stem cells).

HydraTo expand my knowledge of stem cell biology, I attended the 7th annual European Summer School on Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, which took place in September on the Greek island of Hydra. Organized by Austin Smith and Clare Blackburn, Hydra VII provides an interactive learning environment for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. The format of the week-long course is consistent, with lectures on a variety of topics running throughout the day followed by evening workshops and poster presentations.

During evening sessions, small groups of students armed with whiteboards and markers worked together to identify key concepts of each lecture, common themes across lectures as well as unanswered questions in the field. PIs were assigned the same task. Students and PIs then came together to compare their assignments and to discuss experimental ideas and methods that could be used to move the field forward.

One evening, my group and I spent time discussing Jane Visvader’s talk on mammary stem cells. We concluded that the major messages of Jane’s talk were:

  1. mammary stem cells that are capable of repopulating the mammary lineage are found in the CD29low CD24+ compartment,
  2. mammary stem cells are highly sensitive to female ovarian hormones despite lacking key receptors, and
  3. the RANK ligand can mediate steroid hormone signaling in mammary stem cells.

Following our presentation, Jane presented her version of the assignment. While our group focused on major findings in the field of mammary stem cells, Jane focused on important technical issues including; 1) the potential for cell culture to change the property of a cell and 2) the importance of improving in vivo assays to evaluate stem cell function (for example, improving humanized mouse models). Jane reminded us that we must be cautious when thinking about experimental results and piecing them together to answer scientific questions and to think about how experimental design can impact results and subsequent interpretations of those results.

By the end of the discussion, I felt that I had come full circle. I arrived on Hydra focused on my thesis work and experimental system eager to expand my knowledge of stem cell biology. During the course, I learned an incredible amount about other stem cell systems from lectures and interactions with summer school delegates. Towards the end of the week, Jane then brought me back to the basics again of experimental design and ensuring that each experiment is designed appropriately for the question being asked.

What made Hydra VII such a valuable experience was interaction. PIs and students worked together throughout the week to answer scientific questions as well as to pose new questions. Hydra expanded my knowledge of the stem cell field and provided me with the opportunity to learn from scientists such as Jane in multiple contexts including; lectures, small group discussions and even on sailing trips. Such learning experiences are essential in instilling a value for collaboration, communication and critical science that will move the field of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine forward.


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Angela C. H. McDonald

Angela C. H. McDonald

PhD candidate at Hospital for Sick Children
Angela is a PhD student in the Stem Cell and Developmental Biology program at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. She is currently utilizing pluripotent stem cells to understand the genetic regulation of endoderm development. As an avid supporter of public science education, she co-founded the high school outreach initiative StemCellTalks sits on numerous public education committees including the International Society for Stem Cell Research Public Education Committee and the Stem Cell Network Public Outreach Committee.