Top science students hear Gairdner Award winners speak

On Oct. 25, York hosted its second annual Gairdner High School Lecture, in the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre in Accolade East. The setting was a perfect complement to the captivating presentations made by two renowned scientists, each recipients of previous Gairdner Awards.

Each year the Gairdner Awards, a strong predictor of future Nobel Prize consideration, are awarded to top medical and research scientists who have made outstanding contributions to medical science.  Building on the success of last year’s inaugural event, which featured recent Nobel Prize recipient Andrew Fire, this by-invitation-only event brought together an audience of more than 300 senior high-school students from the Greater Toronto Area.

Professor Anthony Pawson, a 1994 Gairdner Award winner, spoke about “Discovering how human cells work, and why they go bad”. A scientist at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital, a professor at the University of Toronto and a Distinguished Scientist of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Pawson is renowned internationally for his research into the mechanisms that control cell behaviour. His findings, which were quite contrary to the prevailing wisdom, have transformed how we think about diseases such as cancer.

Left: More than 300 GTA area high-school students attended the Gairdner High School Lecture at York 

Professor Ronald M. Evans, a 2006 Gairdner award winner, spoke about “Nuclear Receptors: Metabolic engineering and the dawn of synthetic physiology”. A professor at the Salk Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory in La Jolla, California, and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Chevy Chase, Maryland), Evans heralded a molecular revolution in 1985 with his cloning and characterization of the first nuclear hormone receptor. This work transformed the understanding of how hormones, fat soluble vitamins and dietary lipids elicit changes in gene expression in health and disease. He has uncovered nearly 50 receptors that represent an important link between diet, exercise and a number of human diseases including cancers, diabetes and osteoporosis. Particularly noteworthy is his discovery of a new hormone that appears to be the molecular trigger controlling the formation of fat cells.

The presentations were followed by a spirited discussion period where the students impressed the speakers with insightful and sophisticated questions.

Right: Gairdner award winners Ronald Evans (left) and Anthony Pawson with Ronald Pearlman, University Professor of Biology and interim dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at York

Following the talks, Pawson and Evans joined a small group of York’s biomedical scientists and senior administrators, along with one of the high-school students and her teacher, at a luncheon. Evans then presented the Annual York Gairdner Lecture to about 100 professors, undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and other research staff in the Senate chamber. The presentation was at a more advanced level but on the same topic as the one presented to the high-school students.

The Gairdner High School Program is designed to provide exposure for students to exceptional science and the excitement of doing science, providing inspiration and information about possible careers in the field of science. Students were also exposed to York’s involvement in cutting-edge research and vibrant science community. York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering provided tours of science facilities and research labs to students who explored the Keele campus for the remainder of the day.

The event was developed in cooperation with the Gairdner Foundation; York is involved with the annual events celebrating the Gairdner International Awards and plans are underway for next year’s event.

The Gairdner Foundation was created in 1957 by James Arthur Gairdner, a scholar, athlete and soldier in the Canadian Army, who wanted to recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers. For more information about the Gairdner Foundation and a history of its prestigious awards, visit the Gairdner Foundation Web site.