Talking stem cells

23 January 2012

Written by Abra Shen (Student Writer)

I recently participated in StemCellTalks, a one-day symposium for Grade 11 and 12 students in Toronto on March 11, 2011. StemCellTalks, in partnership with Let’s Talk Science and Stem Cell Network, allows high school students to learn firsthand from leaders in the Canadian stem cell community and consists of two sessions, one of which included the applications of stem cells in neuroscience and another on ethics.

Though I was particularly excited for the morning neurology portion, I felt that I did not have enough knowledge of stem cells to be able to actively participate in the Knowledge Sharing sessions and so had spent a few days prior to the event doing research. Now I feel that it was unnecessary. All that I had found in my research (and even what I couldn’t find) was clearly explained by the experts.

During the symposium, we were guided through debates and lectures where we first learned of the different types of stem cells. After each presentations, we were given time to discuss what we had heard. We personally considered a case study (multipotent vs. pluripotent stem cells) and could ask our graduate student leaders any questions we may have had. They encouraged us to participate and to question anything and everything.

The debates at our table were particularly interesting; many of my group members switched sides after we learned new pieces of information and better understood the consequences of our decisions. This proved the importance of knowing all the different arguments of both sides in order to make a clear and informed decision, a key factor in my learning experience. Some arguments were that the risks associated with pluripotent cells were higher; however it is less invasive and are faster to obtain. “There is no research without risk,” says Tara Jeiji, one of the experts.

What added to my experience was the helpfulness of the graduate students. “It’s fun, good to teach everyone and to help people make informed decisions,” said one of my two breakout leaders, Mary Rose Bufalino, in explaining why she chose to participate in StemCellTalks. The experts were especially dedicated: “I’m an enthusiast, like you,” Shane Green, another expert, said, “I’m a stem cell enthusiast!”

I personally found the session on treating spinal cord injuries by replacing either neurons or oligodendrocytes the most interesting. (Learn more about spinal cord injuries here.) We were guided to choose between the replacement of one of the two neural cells and to decide which we thought would be most effective and beneficial to patients. I first decided to choose the oligodendrocytes as they would help preserve the existing neurons, however, after an exciting debate between Cindi Morshead and Molly Shoichet where I learn many additional aspects of both, I switched over to the neurons side. However, you can’t go wrong with both! (Or can you?)

After lunch we began the discussion of clinical trials. We explored different viewpoints of people that would be involved in a typical trial and critiqued the Geron trial, as a panel of experts answered a multitude of questions.

So, why stem cells? “This is really the exciting future of regenerative medicine,” says Derek van der Kooy, one of the expert speakers at StemCellTalks. “There’s a lot of promise in the future.”

Interested in research? “As long as you like it and keep going for it, it’s great. Do your research, find people that you’re interested in and just start bugging them,” advises Jared Wilcox, my second graduate student leader.

Learn more about Stem Cells on our Stem Cells Theme Page!

Abra is a French Immersion high school student interested in a science-related career, who enjoys playing Archery and Curling. She currently volunteers with the Canadian Cancer Society and aspires to become a neuroscientist in the future.

Article first published March 24, 2011.


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