UniStem 2020 – Knowledge, innovation and the never-ending journey of stem cell research

Students from 11 schools attended Stem Cells @ UniMelb, a special event designed for high school students to gain a deeper understanding about the ‘real science’ of stem cell research and what is holds for the future. This event was run in conjunction with our international partner UniStem.

UniStem is the largest global stem cell education event dedicated to high school students. The annual event occurs on the same day for students from across the globe. This year on Friday 6 March, over 100 universities and research centres opened their doors to high school students to discuss the latest discoveries in the stem cell field and their clinical applications.

Stem Cells @ UniMelb was attended by 90 students from 11 Victorian schools, who gained a deeper understanding of the history and "real science" of stem cell research and what it holds for the future.

Professor Megan Munsie (Deputy Director of the Centre for Stem Cell Systems in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience) started the day by unpacking the science of stem cells, including induced pluripotent stem cells, which were discovered in 2006 and have expanded our understanding of disease and health. Megan explained the vernacular used by stem cell researchers and teased out the different types of degrees and qualifications that researcher complete to work as scientists.

The students then heard from leading University of Melbourne researchers, who discussed their cutting-edge research and their journeys into science.

Meet the experts

Professor Alice Pébay and her lab use human induced pluripotent stem cells to create a model of eye diseases in a dish.  “I actually thought I would grow up to be an Olympic Fencer but after being inspired by a biology teacher, I changed my mind completely,” said Alice.

“How does a single cell generate the diversity of organs and tissues?” asked Professor Gary Hime, a lab head in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience. This was the question that started Gary’s journey into stem cell science and evolutionary developmental biology. Gary also spoke about the mechanisms behind scientific breakthroughs, including serendipitous collaboration.

Dr Christopher Gyngell from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute explained how his research balanced his interest in biology and philosophy, and motivations for research into complex questions around bioethics. “If we can alter life – should we do it?” asked Chris.

After a short break, the students had the opportunity to meet young post-graduate students and researchers from six labs across the Centre for Stem Cell Systems. The students were able to appreciate the breadth of the stem cell field as they listened to young scientists share their research topics and how they use stem cells in the lab, as well as what inspires them to continue research.

“The researchers were really welcoming and friendly, and it was great to be able to ask them some in-depth questions about studying science at university” said one high school student.

Getting into the lab

The students also experienced an interactive stem cell lab tour from five labs across the Centre, engaging with the concepts and methodologies involved in stem cell research and data science.

In the Wells Lab, Nadia Rajab discussed making immune cells from stem cells and showed the students both cell types down the microscope. Sabrina Islam discussed how cells and molecules can be classified and sub-classified based on data. Vanta Jameson, manager of the Flow Cytometry facility, showed the students unsorted cells down a microscope and explained how her facility can sort cells, a service used by many labs across the University. The Hime Lab showed students Drosophila with different phenotypes and explained how fruit flies are great model organisms for understanding how our genes control development. Grace Lidgerwood and Damian Hernandez from the Pébay Lab showed students their iPSC cells and the machines they have that automate the cell culture process, and the Stemformatics group and Clark Lab teamed up to demonstrate to the students how cell classification can be done on different scales.

“I LOVED the lab tour because it was a really good look into what scientists do on a daily basis” said a student.

Learning more about stem cells

Stem Cells @ UniMelb concluded with an interactive session led by Megan and Dr Jennifer Mansfield, a Lecturer in Science Education from Monash University. Together they discussed the concept of Science as a Human Endeavour and delved into ethical considerations when conducting stem cell research and its communication to the general public.

“When we talk about stem cells to patients or the public, we need to talk about the potential of stem cells, but we also need to manage the hype and openly discuss the ethical considerations and how we address these,” said Megan.

Stem Cells @ UniMelb received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the attending students and teachers.

“A great professional development activity with further ideas of how to approach stem cell teaching and to highlight stem cells as a research tool…it was great to have some ideas on how to approach ethical considerations in this area” said a teacher.

It was clear as the students filed out of the event space that conversations around the science of stem cells would continue long after the event.

The University of Melbourne’s UniStem event Stem Cells @ UniMelb was hosted by the Centre for Stem Cell Systems and organised by Professors Megan Munsie and Alice Pébay, and Helen Braybrook.

If you are interested in being contacted about future Centre events, please email stem-cells@unimelb.edu.au.

We would like to thank Dr Jennifer Mansfield from Monash University for participating in this event and providing all the materials for the final session 'Learning more about stem cells'.

Thank you to all the teachers and students from the following schools for taking time out of your school day to come to our event:

  • Academy of Mary Immaculate
  • Alice Miller School
  • Brunswick Secondary College
  • Keysborough College
  • Kilmore International School
  • Mary MacKillop Catholic College
  • Melbourne Girls' College
  • St Francis Xavier College
  • St Leonard's College
  • Surf Coast Secondary College
  • Wallan Secondary College

We would also like to thank the following Centre researchers who volunteered their time to make this event possible:

About UniStem

UniStem Day is a one-day meeting organised for high school students since 2009. This event, solely dedicated to the dissemination and outreach of stem cell science and research, provides an opportunity to foster learning, discovery and debate on the themes of knowledge and innovation starting from stem cell research.

UniStem 2020 brought together universities and high schools from all over the world by involving 101 Universities in Australia, Austria, Colombia, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Sweden.

Article written by Helen Braybrook