“Celebrating, convening and inspiring” are the themes that support and motivate the Gairdner Foundation. Each year, the foundation hosts a series of student outreach lectures given by leading scientists. This year’s lectures took place Oct. 24 at York University’s Keele Campus.
If the response from the more than 300 high-school students gathered in the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre to hear this year’s Gairdner Student Outreach Lectures is anything to go by, the motivation to explore science as a career is strong.
The Gairdner Lectures are an annual and national event brought to universities across Canada through the efforts of the Gairdner Foundation, and brought to York University in particular by York University Professor Emeritus Ronald Pearlman, who is also the associate scientific director for the Gairdner Foundation. The event celebrates award-winning scientists whose research creates significant advances in the field of science. This year’s speakers were Professors Lewis E. Kay and Nada Jabado.
Fourth-year York University biology student Avani Abraham kicked off the lectures by introducing Kay, a biochemistry and chemistry professor at the University of Toronto in the Department of Molecular Genetics and a senior scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Kay, the winner of the 2017 Canada Gairdner International Award and the recipient of the 2018 Herzberg Award (the most prestigious award for Canadian scientists, presented by the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada), explained his findings in the field of biomolecular nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Along with his team, Kay discovered methods that “visualize” protein molecules in their natural environment and learn about how the shapes of proteins evolve in time and lead to biological function. He jokingly referred to his research as “how molecules dance.”
He was able to make advancements on how molecules involved in neurodegeneration could form abnormal structures that would eventually lead to diseased states. The work of Kay and his colleagues has led to new insights into how “cellular machines” function and how the communication between different parts of these machines can be targeted for the development of drugs in the fight against certain cancers. His methods and research tools, freely disseminated, are used in labs across the world by teams researching diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The lectures continued with Professor Nada Jabado, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Academy of Science, Life Sciences Division. Jabado is currently a professor of pediatrics and human genetics at McGill University and a principal investigator at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, where her research program focuses on pediatric brain tumours. Jabado explained how she focused on the 10 per cent of cancers that cannot be prevented, which are the cancers that occur in children and young adults. Her work aims to detect and treat cancer as early as possible.
Her team discovered that pediatric brain cancers, astrocytomas, are molecularly and genetically distinct from an adult tumour. Jabado and her team were the first to identify a previously unknown molecular mechanism driving a pediatric high-grade cancer, namely “recurrent somatic driver mutations” in histone molecules. Histones are involved in regulating the expression of genes and in the development and growth of many body tissues, including in the brain.
These mutations partly explain why this cancer may remain unresponsive to treatment. Jabado’s groundbreaking work has contributed to a paradigm shift in cancer treatment with the identification of histone mutations in human disease, and she and her team hope to translate these findings into optimal detection and therapeutic possibilities. The team is also exploring how best to engage children, parents and health-care professionals in therapeutic decision-making based on the genetic makeup of the tumour.
Following the lectures, the high-school students had the opportunity to tour the Keele Campus with a senior undergraduate student and to find out more about the science programs offered at York University.
Visit York University’s Explore Science website for more opportunities to experience science programs.
Following the student lectures, a small lunch was held for the speakers with faculty and research trainees. This was followed by a presentation by Kay of the York Gairdner Lecture titled “NMR, Why Bother? Studies of the p97 Molecular Machine Provide an Answer” to an enthusiastic and engaged audience of more than 150 who gathered in the University’s Senate Chamber. The lecture capped off an exciting day that showcased the highest quality science supported by York University and the Gairdner Foundation.