Top science students hear Gairdner Award winners speak

0n October 24, York hosted its third annual Gairdner High School Student Lecture in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall, Accolade East. The setting was a perfect complement to the captivating presentations made by two renowned scientists, one a Gairdner Award recipient. This invitation-only event brought together an audience of more than 300 top high-school science students from the Greater Toronto Area as well as a small group of recent recipients of prizes at the sanofi-aventis Bio Tech Challenge event.

Above: More than 300 of Ontario’s top high-school students attended the third annual Gairdner High School Student Lecture at York

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. This year’s presenters included Professor C. David Allis and Professor Janet Rossant.

Allis, a 2007 Gairdner award recipient, spoke about "Translating the Histone Code: A Tale of Tails.” Allis is the head of the Laboratory of Chromatin Biology at The Rockefeller University in New York City. He has published more than 240 scientific papers and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the University of Rochester Davey Award and the Massry Prize.

Right: Professor C. David Allis

Allis’ team studies what happens to genes when histones – DNA-packaging proteins – are chemically modified. These modifications, which involve the addition or removal of specific chemical groups to individual amino acids in the histones, can activate or silence genes. Over the last decade, Allis and his colleagues have provided evidence that suggests that patterns or combinations of these histone marks represent another layer of gene regulation that takes place away from DNA itself.

Professor Janet Rossant, Fellow of the Royal Societies of both Canada and London, spoke about "Stem cells: Hype Versus Hope.” Rossant is a professor of medical genetics and microbiology at the University of Toronto and chief of research at the Hospital for Sick Children. She is a world leader in mammalian developmental biology and genetics, and is recipient of numerous prestigious awards including the 2004 Killam Prize for Health Sciences and the Eli Lilly/Robert L. Noble Prize from the National Cancer Institute of Canada.

Her research program aims to understand the genetic underpinning of early lineage development in the mouse embryo in order to understand human embryo development and stem cell origins. Recently, her stem cell research has involved the discovery of a novel placental stem cell type, the trophoblast stem cell. Rossant is also very involved in developing public policy for stem cell research.

Left: Professor Janet Rossant

The presentations were followed by a spirited discussion period with the students. The Gairdner High School Program is designed to expose students to exciting innovations and discoveries in science while providing inspiration and information about possible careers. Students were also exposed to York’s involvement in cutting-edge research and its 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.

Following the talks, Allis and Rossant 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. Allis then presented the Annual York Gairdner Lecture to more than 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.

A total of four Gairdner lecturers at York, three since 2000, have gone on to win a Nobel Prize. A past Gairdner recipient and Gairdner lecturer to both high-school students and research personnel at York in 2005, Dr. Andrew Fire, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2006. Dr. Mario Capecchi won the same Nobel Prize this year. Capecchi was the York Gairdner Lecturer in 1993, prior to the involvement of high-school students to the Gairdner events. Capecchi also spoke at a symposium at York in 2003 sponsored by York Biology graduate students, who continue to attract world-class scientists to York to share their research.

The Gairdner Lectures and the high-school outreach program are developed in cooperation with the Gairdner Foundation. 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. These events are supported by York University, the Government of Ontario and sanofi pasteur.