Stories from Gairdner award-winning scientists inspire high-school students

How does a high-school student one day become an award-winning scientist? The answer lies in hard work, determination and a passion for science. That was the message delivered to high-school students by two leading biomedical scientists at a special presentation during the 2010 Gairdner Foundation Student Outreach lecture Oct. 27 at York’s Keele campus.

Dr. Phillip Marsden, MD, co-chair of the Gairdner Medical Review Panel, and Dr. Gregg Semenza, also a medical doctor and the 2010 Canada Gairdner International Award recipient, delivered the Gairdner Foundation lecture to some 300 local high-school students as part of an annual event offered each year at York University. The lecture took place in the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre on the Keele campus and was hosted by Professor Emeritus Ron Pearlman of York’s Department of Biology, Faculty of Science & Engineering.

Above: Some 300 students from 10 local high-schools were on campus for the 2010 Gairdner Foundation Student Outreach lecture

The first to the podium, Marsden, who is a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and holder of the Keenan Chair in Medical Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, talked to students about his journey to become a scientist. Marsden began with an overview of what society has learned from the Human Genome Project and its effect on health, specifically kidney function and oxygen regulation in the body. A practising neurologist, Marsden combines work as a physician with that of a researcher. His findings have been published in more than 50 peer reviewed articles in scientific journals worldwide.

Left: Dr. Phillip Marsden encouraged students to follow their passions despite obstacles

He told the students that “my destiny was not pre-ordained” and encouraged them to follow their passions despite obstacles. He used his own experience as an example. “I walked into my boss’s office at Harvard Medical School after only a year and quit.” He said he found that he had a passion for exploring how disease develops and it was a force that he just couldn’t ignore. Responding to numerous questions about his life as a scientist, Marsden stressed that “curiosity-based experiments need to delve into issues that are relevant to today’s population.”

In his talk to students, Semenza recounted how his experiences influenced his decision to pursue research, and the importance of his research into physiological and molecular regulatory pathways in the context of human physiology, development and disease. Semenza is a biomedical researcher and the C. Michael Armstrong Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

Semenza delivered a nod to interdisciplinary education as he pointed to Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. He spoke of how a foundation in literature, experiences with his high-school teachers and his passion for science mirrored that of the Sleepy Hollow protagonist’s, shaping his decision to pursue medical research. He also drew on the title of Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Breathing Lessons to explain the reflexive action of breathing, oxygen regulation in the body, and the possible diseases related to oxygen regulation, specifically irregularities associated with a protein, a gene regulatory factor called HIF-1.

Left: Dr. Gregg Semenza, the 2010 Canada Gairdner International Award recipient, began his presentation with a nod to interdisciplinary education

York University has invited local high-school students to attend the Gairdner lectures for the past six years as a means of encouraging them to consider entering science programs and eventually undertake careers in either science or medicine. This year, students from Earl Haig Secondary School, T.L. Kennedy Secondary School, Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School, St. Basil the Great Catholic School, St. Joseph’s Catholic School, St. Elizabeth Catholic High School, Lincoln M. Alexander Secondary School, A. Y. Jackson Secondary School, Father Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School and Runnymede Collegiate Institute attended the Gairdner lecture.

The students remained on campus for lunch and took a tour organized by the Faculty of Science & Engineering of York University’s laboratory and research facilities. Following the lecture, they listened to a presentation by the Office of Admissions & Recruitment. Students were encouraged to enter the “txt 4 tuition” contest and to fill out replay cards so that they can be kept up-to-date about on-campus and recruitment events such as Fall Campus Day.

A survey administered by the Gairdner Foundation also gathered feedback about the event. In past surveys, students have indicated that student outreach events by the Gairdner Foundation positively influence their desire to study science and consider biomedical research as a possible career path.

The Gairdner Foundation was established in 1957 by Canadian philanthropist James Arthur Gairdner as a way to recognize the accomplishments of medical researchers who improve the quality of human life. The Canada Gairdner Award is regarded as one of Canada’s top international awards, and the top award in biomedical science, with 79 of 298 winners having gone on to become Nobel laureates.