StemCellTalks inspires Toronto high school students with the promise of regenerative medicine

Woodlands School at StemCellTalks Toronto 2016

Woodlands Secondary School students and teachers were among 150 participants from across the Greater Toronto Area that came to learn about the promise of stem cell research on March 11 (Photo: Luke Ng / University of Toronto)

March 14, 2016 | By Luke Ng

More than 150 secondary school students from across the Greater Toronto Area descended on the MaRS Discovery District at the start of their March Break to learn about the promise of stem cell research and its potential to cure a range of degenerative diseases, from blindness to stroke.

Hosted by Let’s Talk Science and the Stem Cell Network, Grade 11 and 12 students were invited to the seventh annual StemCellTalks Toronto on March 11. The students attended presentations and heard debates between leading Canadian researchers on hot topics in stem cell science, and the ongoing balance between hype versus hope.

View the event photo gallery here

“Regenerative medicine research can seem out of reach to high school students and this is our way of making it accessible to them,” said Yonatan Lipsitz, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) and one of the symposium’s organizing committee members. “We hope to inspire the future generation to be a part of our scientific community.”

Panel of experts at StemCellsTalks 2016

This year’s panel of experts included a clinician-scientist, a biotechnology specialist from the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), a patient advocate and IBBME assistant professor Sowmya Viswanathan, associate director of UHN’s Cell Therapy Program (second from left). (Photo: Luke Ng / University of Toronto)

Students learned firsthand from renowned stem cell researchers, including an opening address from IBBME professor Penney Gilbert and talks from Dr. Andras Nagy (Mount Sinai Hospital), Professor Derek van der Kooy (Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto), Professor Zubin Master (Albany Medical College) and Dr. Sowmya Viswanathan (University Health Network). The event was supported by hospitals in the University Health Network, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) and the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine, and organized by Let’s Talk Science at the University of Toronto.

“When I was in high school, I was inspired to become a scientist by attending events like these. I feel strongly about engaging current students with role models who have pursued this path and are affecting health-care research in Canada today,” said Dr. Viswanathan, IBBME assistant professor and associate director of the Cell Therapy Program at the University Health Network. “The promise of stem cell therapies to cure a host of degenerative diseases 10 to 15 years from now will be carried out by the generation of students in the room today.”

Students also examined case studies and played interactive games on mobile devices to look at how stem cells could be used to cure eye diseases.

“This event has allowed me to gain further insight as to what is happening in the field of stem cells and their impact on our future,” said Aline-Claire Huynh, a senior student at the Woodlands Secondary School in Mississauga. “The chance to learn about how the world is developing around us is key to knowing ourselves and how we can be a part of it.”

“This program is important for our students because it provides a greater awareness of where their education could be leading them,” said Stella Lee, a teacher from The Woodlands Secondary School. “Events like StemCellTalks gives our students a glimpse of possible career paths and helps them develop a more focused and passionate work ethic towards those goals.”

IBBME organizers, StemCellTalks Toronto 2016

IBBME graduate students formed a large part of this year’s organizing committee, including (L to R): Yonatan Lipsitz, David Zhang, Ronald Ireland, Alex Vlahos, Michelle Kim, Nika Shakiba, Charles Yoon and Richard Cheng (Photo: Luke Ng / University of Toronto)

“This is an opportunity for high school students to be immersed in stem cells science instead of just reading about it on the internet,” said Nika Shakiba, IBBME PhD candidate and StemCellTalks symposium head coordinator since 2012. “Scientists are people too and this is one way we can show students how they can one day do what we do.”

The inaugural StemCellTalks was held at U of T in 2007 and has since grown nationwide. Toronto is now one of eight cities across Canada where annual symposiums are hosted each year.