York University hosts annual Gairdner Lecture to celebrate exceptional science across the world


The Canada Gairdner Awards recognize the world’s most creative and accomplished biomedical and health scientists who are advancing humanity and the world.

On Oct. 24, more than 300 Toronto-area high school students gathered in the Sandra Faire and Ivan Fecan Theatre at the Keele Campus for the 2019 Gairdner Student Outreach Lectures.

The Gairdner Lectures, which include both a student outreach and a faculty event, are an annual national event, brought to universities across Canada through the efforts of the Gairdner Foundation and, to the Keele Campus in particular, by York University Professor Emeritus Ronald Pearlman, who is the associate scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation. The event celebrates award-winning scientists whose research creates significant advances in the field of science. This year’s speakers were University of California at San Francisco Professor Ron Vale and Dr. Rulan Parekh, a physician and researcher.

From left, York biology student Julieta Rybnik, York University Professor Ronald Pearlman, Dr. Rulan Parekh, and University of California, San Francisco Professor Ron Vale
York U Student Julieta Rybnik was the event emcee

Fourth-year York University biology student Julieta Rybnik began the Gairdner Student Outreach Lecture by introducing Vale, a biochemist and cell biologist and professor at the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology and the W. K. Hamilton Distinguished Professor in the Department of Anesthesia, University of California, San Francisco. Vale was the winner of the 2019 Canada Gairdner International Award. In his remarks to the students, he explained his findings in the field of biomolecular motion in a presentation titled “Biological Molecular Motors: How Life Generates Motion.” Vale and his research team have studied the motion of organelles located within the axon of squid. They isolated the motor protein that they named Kinesin, a microtubule-bound molecular motor that is involved in directed transport of organelles, cellular organization, mitosis, and signaling regulation.

Professor Ron Vale of the University of California, San Francisco

Vale also spoke about his early interest in science and how his journey began when he was in high school. The son of a screen writer and an actress, he spoke about how despite below average grades on childhood science fair projects, a passion for science was his driving force for a career in the field. “If you’re interested in science, it’s not about the grades,” he said. “The excitement of discovery is really what science is all about. Keep your eyes on the prize.”

Event participants also heard from Dr. Rulan Parekh, a physician, clinician scientist and professor of medicine and paediatrics at the University of Toronto, The Hospital for Sick Children and the University Health Network. Parekh is also a member of the Medical Review Panel, which is one of the Gairdner Foundation Peer Review Committees. The focus of Parekh’s research is the study of risk factors, both clinical and genetic, leading to the progression of chronic kidney and cardiovascular disease. She has published more than 90 peer-reviewed manuscripts and book chapters, and has mentored more than 25 postdoctoral fellows and students.

In her presentation, “How Did I Get Here (Not a Rap Song),” Parekh explained her role as a co-investigator on the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Kidney Disease Research Network. In this role, she studies the genetic risk, specifically APOL1, for chronic kidney disease in West and East Africa.

Dr. Rulan Parekh

Parekh also spoke at length of her early interest in sciences in high school and how it began through an interest in puzzles. Like Vale, she said that she also didn’t excel in her high school science fair, but that didn’t stop her from pursuing her passion. “You have to be passionately curious and really interested in trying to figure things out,” said Parekh, noting that as the pursuit of sciences increases, the puzzles encountered also become more complex. Parekh, who is a successful geneticist and diagnostician, describes her work as “solving a puzzle every single day.”

Following the lectures, high school students had the opportunity to ask questions of the award recipients, generating a deeper conversation about the role of interdisciplinary approaches to modern science.

GTA high school students listen to the researchers’ presentations during the 2019 Gairdner Lectures at York University’s Sandra Faire and Ivan Fecan Theatre at the Keele Campus

“That’s why I do it,” said. Pearlman after the event.  “They’re young and they’re enthusiastic and we just try to work on that enthusiasm and foster it.”

Students then 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.

Following the morning high school program, there was an informal lunch with the presenters, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, where those present had an opportunity to interact with the researchers. This was followed by the York Gairdner Lectur, presented by Vale to 100 faculty, staff, and trainees. Vale’s lecture, titled “Molecular Motors: From Kinesin to Dynein,” was the end to the exciting day focused on exceptional science.

The Gairdner Foundation was established in 1959 with the goal of recognizing and rewarding international excellence in fundamental research impacting human health. Since then, the Gairdner Foundation has celebrated and inspired generations of young scientists and health professionals worldwide.

Visit York University’s Explore Science page for more opportunities to experience science programs.