On March 24, 2014, three Ottawa high school students had the chance to attend a StemCellTalks symposium at the University of Ottawa. Osman, Fayza and Ayni Sharif are all student ambassadors for the Canadian Young Scientist Journal. So they’re used to telling other students about opportunities for learning about science and conducting research. This was their chance to take advantage of one of those opportunities for themselves.
They all reported feeling a little anxious and intimidated about what awaited them, but they were also looking forward to an opportunity to learn about science outside the classroom. As Ayni explains, what a student learns in “a high school course is very limited. Teachers only cover what is required to be taught and not much more. Because of this, I try to find other opportunities that really go beyond what’s offered in a typical high school course.”
Once they arrived at the symposium, Osman, Fayza and Ayni were quickly made to feel at home. They all thoroughly enjoyed a full day of learning about stem cells, talking to researchers and meeting other young people who share their interest in science.
Osman describes how, “upon arriving at the facility, I was amazed at the sight: rows and rows of students waiting in line to enter the symposium. I was thrilled to be able to meet new people and share my interest in science with fellow scientists. … We were placed at random tables with completely new people. I got to meet new students from all over Ottawa!”
Likewise, Fayza reports how, “as one of only a few representatives from my school, I did feel a little out of place, since most of the other students seemed to know one another. The organizers, however, tried to make everyone feel welcomed. All the participants were placed at random tables with completely new people. Before the first presentation started, I got to know some of the people at my table, who came from all over Ottawa. Some students had even made a one-hour drive from other cities to attend, and I was amazed at their commitment!”
According to Fayza, “the lectures were intimidating at first, with all the technical jargon being thrown at me, but the graduate students who sat at our tables helped tremendously in explaining some of the more complex topics. Case studies, discussions, questions: the morning was filled with enriching sessions.”
Osman had a similar experience. He tells how “understanding the mechanics behind stem cells was daunting as I tried to swallow all the technical jargon in lecture after lecture. While the lectures were bewildering at first, the graduate students who sat at our tables helped immensely by simplifying the complexity of stem cells. They used the most compelling analogies!”
The learning and networking even continued over lunch. In fact, this was the part of the day that Ayni enjoyed most. “It was a time when you could ask the speakers questions if you were too shy to ask in front of everyone. We also got the chance to play science-related games and experiments, which was entertaining, since there were some experiments I had never performed before, like pipetting. I felt like I was gaining an advantage in science classes I’ll be taking later in high school.”
All three students left the symposium satisfied and feeling like they belonged in the world of scientific research. “The speakers, professors, scientists were speaking in such a way that made you feel like you were one of their colleagues,” explains Ayni. “But at the same time in very understandable way. It was something you had to be there for to truly experience.”
They also gained new perspectives on stem cells. For example, Fayza “found it particularly interesting that the organizers were able to find someone whose quality of life had been improved by stem cells. Listening to real life experiences highlighted the value of stem cell research and provided a more personal side to the very fact-based morning. Listening to her answer other students’ questions was interesting, seeing as how she was still so energetic even after all she had been through.”
Meanwhile, Osman found the second group of lectures, which dealt with biomedical ethics, particularly engaging. “The moral questions surrounding stem cells—from their benefits for mankind to personal ownership—elicited many contrasting opinions. The discussion opened my mind to various perspectives, including those of scientists, patients and even close family members. Discussing the ethics of stem cells with my fellow students gave me an insight into the other people's personal opinions and values. It all made for an enriching debate and discussion.”
To date, over 1500 high school students have attended Stem Cell Talks symposia across Canada. A further 5000 students have participated in pre-symposium classroom activities. The final symposium of the 2013-2014 series is planned for May 16 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
StemCellTalks is an outreach initiative established to facilitate knowledge transfer between academia and high school students pertaining to the science and practical ethics of stem cells. For more information, visit stemcelltalks.ca.