It was a day that changed Prajay Shah’s life and set him firmly on his current career path.
The 16-year-old high school student sat riveted as neurosurgeon and scientist, Dr. Raj Midha, talked about his research. At that very moment, down the hall in his lab at the University of Calgary (U of C), Dr. Midha and his team were growing cells derived from skin and transplanting them into nerves to repair injuries.
“I was fascinated. This was real science – cutting-edge stem cell research happening right now,” recalls Prajay. “They didn’t cover anything like this in my Grade 11 classroom.”
That life-changing experience happened in 2011 at the first StemCellTalks symposium organized in Calgary. A volunteer for StemCellTalks came to Prajay’s school to encourage Grade 11 and 12 science students to attend the free symposium. “I was interested in stem cells and medicine and I thought it would be cool to hear professors talk about research in Calgary,” says Prajay. “I didn’t realize how much it would impact my life. Hearing Dr. Midha’s passion sparked my own. It supported my interest for what I wanted to do in the future.”
Sparking students’ passion and curiosity for science is at the heart of StemCellTalks – a national stem cell biology outreach initiative in partnership with Let’s Talk Science and the Stem Cell Network. High school students are invited to the one-day symposium, taking place in cities across Canada, to learn advanced biological concepts related to stem cell science and biotechnology. The event gives students an opportunity to interact with leading researchers in the field through knowledge sharing sessions. Students also participate in breakout discussions led by academics and researchers to discuss controversial topics like ethics in stem cell research.
“I took away ideas that were new to me, that drew me to science and research,” Prajay remembers. “I was amazed that a neurosurgeon was running a lab. When I saw how research can integrate with clinical practice it was a pivotal moment for me.”
A few months after the symposium, Prajay contacted Dr. Midha and asked if he could volunteer in his laboratory. That summer he shadowed students in the same lab he had toured at StemCellTalks. A year later, he started his Bachelor of Science at U of C while continuing his work with Dr. Midha. “When I began university I already had hands-on exposure to stem cell research. I knew how much I enjoyed it,” Prajay says.
Today, Prajay is in his fourth year at the U of C. He’s now working with Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, Assistant Professor of Stem Cell Biology, on understanding how to use stem cells in the brain to enhance stroke recovery. And, because Dr. Biernaskie’s lab also organizes StemCellTalks, Prajay is pleased to have the opportunity to volunteer at the symposium. “I now have the chance to talk to the high school students and tell them about my journey,” he says. “It’s rewarding to give advice to youth and share things they can do to follow their passion.”
Following his passion is exactly what Prajay continues to do, recently applying to medical school with the goal of one day becoming a clinician/researcher. He’s very grateful to everyone who was a part of his experience at StemCellTalks, including Let’s Talk Science volunteers and supporters.
“I wouldn’t be here today without StemCellTalks. Everything I’ve done has been inspired by it,” he says. “[StemCellTalks gave me] the opportunity to achieve my goals, setting me on the exciting path of stem cell research.”