Science and adventures…and science adventures

Science and adventures…and science adventures

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BY: Krystal Jacques


In the last issue of Travel Bites, Beatrice described her trip  to Hawaii for her first international conference-the International Stroke Conference 2019 (ISC2019). Next year, ISC will be held in Los Angeles (LA), California. Coincidently, this year’s four-day International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) conference was also hosted in LA, California in June. This year, ISSCR had about 4000 attendees-a nice middle ground between the more intimate Till and McCulloch Stem Cell Meetings (about 400 attendees), and the sprawling Society for Neuroscience Conference (SFN), with upwards of 40 000 attendees.

As a second year PhD student, this year’s ISSCR was my very first international conference. I remember it like it was yesterday-I ventured to the subway, commuted to Union station, and hopped on the UP express-a train that transports you to Pearson Airport within 20 minutes. I recommend this “planes, trains & automobiles” mode of travel to anyone who wants to save money or doesn’t have someone to drive them to the airport. After arriving at the LA airport, I travelled through classic California palm trees, past the Hollywood sign visible in the far distance, and to my hotel room. The next day, ISSCR begins.

ISSCR focuses on all types of stem cell topics. Such examples include discussions on different human embryonic stem cell (hESC) states, differentiation of hESCs-or induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs)-into mature cell types or organoids, progenitor lineages, how stem cells make fate decisions, oocytes and spermatids, blastocyst complementation to generate whole organs within animals, transdifferentiation between different cell types, and ethics in stem cell research.

Despite the variety of research topics presented, this year’s major on-stage plenary talks and posters were dominated by organoid research. For those unfamiliar with stem cell research, organoids are miniature, often simplified, versions of an organ (ie. the heart). They’re grown in vitro (eg. in petri dishes) from tissue or stem cells, which organize to form little 3D structures resembling an organ. This year ISSCR attendees heard about a wide variety of these fascinating structures-from brain organoids, to intestines, and even the first ever non-mammalian organoid-one coming from a snake venom gland! Hot topics such as organoids become popular soon after their discovery and establishment. This year’s conference has been frequently compared to the ISSCR five years ago, where the hot topic at this time was induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSC’s). IPSC research boomed after Dr. Shinya Yamanaka first revealed to the world the four Yamanaka factors (klf4, c-myc, sox2 and oct 4) that had the ability to direct somatic skin fibroblast cells into induced pluripotent stem cells at ISSCR 2006.

The great thing about large international conferences is the chance to meet “Hollywood celebrity” researchers you’ve only just read about. Dr. Doug Melton’s lab, based in Harvard, publishes prolifically in area of beta cell research, development and diabetes. After hearing one of his past students, Dr. Felicia Pagliuca, give a talk on hESC-derived beta cell transplantation undergoing clinical trials, I had the chance to ask her a few questions. During that conversation she shared some of her failures and offered me words of encouragement. While keeping in mind that every successful researcher experiences their own set of challenges, I left this amazing conference more inspired and motivated than ever to reach my own research goals.

After ISCCR was over my colleague and I decided to take an extra four-day trip to San Francisco, California, which is an hour and half flight, or a scenic eight-hour Megabus ride, from LA . The bus passes through hilly mountains and vast stretches of beautiful farm land. We chose San Francisco because there is so much to see and do there, such as riding the historical cable car, visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate park, the beaches, Muir Woods, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory, Alcatraz, and Fisherman’s Wharf. While in Fisherman’s Wharf, we paused to enjoy San Francisco’s famous clam chowder in a sour dough bread bowl. We also took a walk through the alleyways of San Francisco’s elaborate, historically rooted Chinatown for a visit to the fortune cookie factory, and to see exactly where Bruce Lee shot many of his famous street fight scenes. Therefore, if you are travelling to California for a conference soon, I recommend going to San Francisco for an adventure! Take a tour of downtown on your first day, and always carry a phone charger and an external battery with you at all times. Last, pack a sweater or two, as LA and San Francisco can get quite cold!