York Science Forum draws full house for discussion on gene editing

Featured image for Hacking the Genome
Feng Zhang

On the evening of Nov. 2, some 500 people came out for the second York Science Forum, a high-profile public engagement initiative of York’s Faculty of Science that explores the latest mysteries and discoveries in science.

The event, titled “Hacking the Genome: The Brave New World of Gene Editing,” featured a keynote address by bioengineer Feng Zhang from MIT, who recently co-developed a new gene editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9. Zhang received the Gairdner International Award this year for this work. Hacking the Genome was presented in partnership with the Gairdner Foundation.

“York Science Forum is a key part of our Faculty’s extensive efforts to engage with the broader community and to offer exciting programs that stimulate curiosity and imagination,” said Ray Jayawardhana, dean of science at York University. “We were delighted to focus on the fascinating science and the potentially far-reaching implications of genome editing, and to have one of the pioneers of the CRISPR technology headlining the event.”

High school students pose with Feng Zhang (centre) at the Hacking the Genome lecture
High school students pose with Feng Zhang (centre) at the Hacking the Genome lecture

The event opened with welcoming remarks from Jayawardhana, who then introduced the moderator for the evening, Paul Kennedy, host of CBC Radio’s Ideas. After a short introduction on the topic, Kennedy handed the stage over to Zhang to deliver a keynote.  Zhang took the audience on a journey from his early days of becoming a student and researcher, to the development of the CRISPR-Cas9 system and the many different applications and benefits the technology may potentially bring.

A crowd lines up to ask Feng Zhang questions
A crowd lines up to ask Feng Zhang questions

After his talk, Zhang was joined by Biology Professors Mark Bayfield and Ron Pearlman from the Faculty of Science for a panel discussion, during which the audience also had the opportunity to ask questions. After the formal program, dozens of audience members, mostly high school students and teachers, continued to engage informally with the scientists. Many found Zhang’s address inspirational, and treated him as ‘rock star scientist.’

The forum was held at the Design Exchange downtown and attracted a large, diverse audience of community members, students, researchers, York alumni and journalists. Distinguished guests in attendance included York University’s President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, Ontario Science Centre CEO Maurice Bitran, and Director of the Research Branch at the Ontario Ministry of Research Innovation Allison Barr.