Lakehead University hosted its first Gairdner Day on Monday, a special event for local high school students that aims to inspire the next generation of scientists and STEM professionals.
Students from Orillia Secondary School, Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School, and Midland’s Georgian Bay District 66Secondary School were on campus in west Orillia to participate in a mini science-based Olympics and attend a lecture on human stem cells and gene editing.
The event was funded through the Gairdner Foundation, which promotes and rewards scientific excellence in human health; this year marks the first time the event has come to Lakehead’s Orillia campus.
“One of the things they do is they sponsor some top scientists from across Canada to come in and talk to high school students, and maybe inspire them about science and consider doing a career in science,” said Lakehead biology professor David Law, who organized the event.
“We have done it in Thunder Bay previously, but it was time to share some of the glory and showcase some of the good science that we do here in Orillia, too.”
Local students from Grade 9 through 12 participated in various events that tested their problem-solving abilities, with the opportunity to win a variety of prizes for their efforts.
Four events were held for the students, which included a competition to build the best balloon-powered car from a kit, and a challenge to re-create a completed Lego set, with the caveat that only one group member was allowed to see the set through the building process.
Students also participated in a chemistry boggle competition, and a “needling” competition where they had to identify a hidden object in a box using only knitting needles as a probe.
One student from Midland said building a balloon-powered car was “awesome,” and hopes Gairdner Day can help her hone in on a specific scientific interest.
“I don't know, really, what I want to do, so that's actually why I came here,” Francesco Salpietro said. “I wanted to see if any careers inspired me.”
A big goal of the event, Law said, is to do just that — show students the wide range of skills required in carrying out scientific work.
“The immediate goal is just to keep the students interested in science, and really push how science is multidisciplinary,” Law said. “It's not just biology or chemistry or physics. If you're going to solve problems, you have to use all those skills.
“(It’s also) just for them to have fun, right? We just wanted to offer an in-person option for students to have fun with science after three years of a pandemic.”
Sreekumari Kurissey, Lakehead’s dean of biology, hopes the event helps to keep students interested in science as they work towards building careers.
“Most of them have some passion in science; that's why they were attending this event,” she said. “The ones that have already a passion in science, we’re kind of thinking of promoting that, and then, some of them who are undecided, we are hoping that we can instill or inspire them to become a scientist.”
Beyond the competitions, students also attended a lecture by Janet Rossant, who is a senior scientist at SickKids, as well as the president and scientific director at Gairdner Foundation, on the ethics of using human stem cells and the use of gene editing to cure disease.
“It's all about how humans develop from one single cell into the 37 trillion cells that we have in our body when we're adults, and all of the really fascinating decisions that cells have to make in order to become us,” Law explained.
Law also hopes Gairdner Day inspires students to study science locally.
“Lakehead Orillia is a potential option for these students if they're considering going to university and they're interested in science,” he said. “We have a lot of new programs here.”