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March 16, 2010

High school students engaged by stem cell symposium

Paul Cassar talking to students at StemCellTalks  About 130 high school students gathered with a group of leading research scientists, teachers, and graduate students on Friday, March 12 for the inaugural StemCellTalks symposium at the MaRS Collaboration Centre Auditorium in Toronto. The group was together for a full day of discussion on the science and ethics of stem cell research.

StemCellTalks was co-founded by Paul Cassar, David Grant and Angela McDonald, all graduate students at the University of Toronto who were particularly interested in developing an outreach activity to better inform people about stem cells. The three leveraged support from the Stem Cell Network, Let's Talk Science as well as other a number of other sponsors and volunteers in order to organize the day-long event. The attending students were from Grade 11-12 classrooms from across the Toronto area. They were selected through an application process administered in collaboration with the schools.

Janet Rossant and Jim Till  The day started off strong, as Jim Till and Janet Rossant, two of Canada’s most respected stem cell researchers, sat down to a “fireside chat” with each other. They talked about their work with stem cells, what got them interested in the field, and what they are currently working on. 

After a brief Stem Cells 101 presentation by Cindi Morshead, researchers Peter Zandstra and Derek van der Kooy debated different stem cell-related treatment options for case studies on diabetes and acute lymphatic leukemia. After each debater made his argument, the students at each table, along with some post-graduate volunteer liaisons, discussed the treatment options and came up with their conclusion of which would be best, given the situation. The debates underlined the fact that scientific research isn’t always as cut-and-dry as is presented in high school textbooks; researchers can defend alternative viewpoints on a given issue, and can make very convincing arguments in favour of their opinions.

Questionfromstudent  The day kept moving quickly after lunch, as attendees began the ethics portion of the symposium. Ian Rogers introduced the group to cord blood banking, both private and public, and the treatment options it can offer as well as the issues facing the industry. The ethics discussion ramped up through a presentation by Tim Caulfield, who discussed the ethical, legal and political realities of stem cells, and particularly cord blood banking.

Panel discussionAfter another series of breakout sessions to discuss the challenges of cord blood banking, Caulfield chaired an expert panel featuring Rogers, Rosario Isasi, Barry Pakes, and Thu Minh Nguyen to answer questions about ethical issues behind the topics discussed through the day, but students focused largely on the cord blood banking issue, asking a number of insightful questions and posing plenty of possible solutions to the pressing concerns therewith.

Students were reluctant to leave at the end of the symposium, milling around in the auditorium and continuing conversations with their breakout session leaders and the scientists who’d just finished presenting. The day was an engaging and informative introduction to many different aspects of stem cells, and was a terrific beginning to the StemCellTalks symposium series.

The next StemCellTalks is scheduled to take place in Vancouver this coming November.

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