York hosts Gairdner Lectures to celebrate innovation in biomedical science

More than 300 high school students visited York University on Oct. 25 to learn about the research and academic achievements of award-winning scientists David Julius and Lea Harrington.

High school students gather in the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre for the Gairdner Lectures

Students gathered in the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre for the Gairdner Student Outreach Lectures, which are held annually in association with the Gairdner Awards and celebrate biomedical scientists whose findings significantly advance medical and pharmaceutical research to improve health.

Julius is a professor and chair of the Department of Physiology and the Morris Herzstein Chair in Molecular Biology and Medicine at the University of California San Francisco. He is a 2017 Canada Gairdner International Laureate.

Harrington is a professor of medicine at the Université de Montréal and a visiting professor at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. She is a co-chair of one of the Gairdner peer review committees involved in choosing the Gairdner Laureates, the Medical Review Panel.

The event began with a welcome and opening remarks from Ronald E. Pearlman, a science professor at York University and the associate scientific director for the Gairdner Foundation. The speakers were introduced by Giovanni Burke, a biomedical student at York completing his honours research thesis.

David Julius

Julius started his discussion with a warm and humorous sketch of his personal and educational background growing up near Coney Island, N.Y., and what inspired him to become a scientist. His love of the subject was sparked by an influential high school teacher who encouraged him to pursue his interest and taught him about the impact a career in the sciences can have.

“Science is really about coming up with ideas, being creative and testing new hypothesis,” he said.

Julius expanded his talk to address why everyone should engage with science in their daily lives.

“[My teacher] taught me that thinking critically is powerful and it frees up your brain to know what questions to address and how to solve them for yourself. It gives you a sense of freedom and empowerment to understand the world around you.”

Julius also spoke to the students about his research, where he uses distinctive molecules from the natural world – such as toxins from tarantulas and coral snakes – to understand how signals responsible for temperature and pain sensation are transmitted by neural circuits to the brain, informing human survival instincts. He researches how the over-sensitization of somatosensation, our sense of touch and pain, can contribute to chronic pain. His work also examines how the positive and negative aspects of pain arise and how this knowledge can inform a new generation of painkillers for those who suffer from chronic pain.

Julius closed his talk with an inspiring piece of advice for aspiring scientists in the crowd. Drawing on his own research experience, he said: “The most important things in life are curiosity and to develop a passion for something. Find out what really drives you.”

Lea Harrington

After an engaging question period, Harrington spoke to students about her research, the benefits of a career in science and the creativity inherent to scientific thinking.

Harrington is interested in the mechanisms by which chromosome ends, telomeres, are maintained and protected from degradation and recombination. She researches the ways in which critically short telomeres negatively affect cell viability and how the regulation of enzymes responsible for telomere addition is critical to normal and cancer cell proliferation.

Harrington explained her research to students by using an iPad drawing tool to sketch telomeres and DNA strands, which was projected on a screen. This interactive presentation helped students envision her research, and their rapt engagement led to a lively question period.

Like Julius, Harrington also spoke about her mentor and the creativity that is a part of scientific thinking. She noted that her mentor, a university professor, gave her “the gift of learning to think like a scientist, opening my mind to give me the freedom to be curious, to be creative, to think logically and the joy of discovery when you find something out that’s unique.”

Following the presentation for the high school students, graduate students had an opportunity to meet with and speak informally with Julius and Harrington. Faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students then attended a research lecture delivered by Julius.

High school students at the event also had the opportunity to tour the campus and learn more about the 17 undergraduate science programs and the unique collaborative learning environment offered by the Faculty of Science.

Visit York University’s Explore Science page for information.

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