October 2, 2013
Launching our StemCellShorts animation project!

It took a little while, but we’ve finally launched our StemCellShorts animation project! Mike and I applied for a Stem Cell Network Public Outreach award to fund this endeavour back in March of 2012 and finished the production of the pieces in May of 2013. We decided to wait to launch the shorts until this fall to synchronize the release with the upcoming Till and McCulloch Meetings in Banff and the return to school. It’s great to finally release them!

The three videos were released on September 27th, October 11th and October 25th.

1. “What is a stem cell?” narrated by Dr. Jim Till

2. What are embryonic stem cells? Narrated by Dr. Janet Rossant

3. What are induced pluripotent stem cells? Narrated by Dr. Mick Bhatia

We got a lot of excellent assistance in distributing and promoting this piece from a number of different science outreach and stem cell organizations. Here are links to some:

Signals Blog: http://www.signalsblog.ca/introducing-a-new-series-of-animated-stem-cell-videos-stemcellshorts/

Elsevier Connect: http://www.elsevier.com/connect/animated-videos-introduce-stem-cell-science-in-one-minute-bursts

CIRM: http://cirmresearch.blogspot.ca/2013/09/introducing-new-series-of-animated-stem.html

Science.ca: http://www.science.ca/scientists/scientistprofile.php?pID=467&pg=1

CurioCity: http://www.explorecuriocity.org/content.aspx?contentid=2620

Stem Cell Assays: http://stemcellassays.com/2013/09/stemcellshorts/

We were also able to receive a second SCN Public Outreach Award for $5000 back in May as well as matching funds from the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation to continue this project. We have also begun production on an additional five videos in this series and manage to secure some excellent narrators for the following themes:

4. What is stem cell tourism? Narrated by Tim Caulfield

5. What is a cancer stem cell? Narrated by Dr. John Dick

6. What is a hematopoietic stem cell? Narrated by Dr. Connie Eaves

7. What is a retinal stem cell? Narrated by Dr. Derek Van Der Kooy

8. What is a neural stem cell? Narrated by Dr. Sam Weiss

September 23, 2013

This is part one of a four part series that Gerrit van Woudenberg and I put together for Sands and Associates. A mutual friend, Dave Malicki, was incredibly open and honest about sharing his experiences filing for bankruptcy and we decided to do a series of shorts exploring what this process was like. It was a very fun project to be involved with!

Parts 2, 3 and 4 to come!

September 23, 2013

Since the lovely (and recent mother!) Lauren Elliott and I first embarked on our amateur epigenetic epic “Epigenetic Landscapes" in the fall of 2010, we’ve been able to get involved in a number of different film and animation projects in Vancouver. Working with different media has been a great learning experience and a lot of fun. Much of this work has been completed for a good friend of ours, Blair “Mega” Mantin, who is a true bon vivant and one of the most generous people I know. As senior vice president at Sands and Associates, a leading bankruptcy firm here in BC, Blair was adventurous enough to task Lauren and I with some marketing projects for the company after our first film. Since then, we (alongside my dear friend/her husband Marcus Kaulback and the talented Gerrit van Woudenberg) have produced a number of pieces that include animation, documentary interviews (see below), financial advice and contributions to his website. Having such a productive and fun professional relationship with one of your good friends is the best.

Gerrit recently cut a number of trailers to be used on the Sands and Associates YouTube channel which highlight a lot of the work we’ve been doing over the past few years. It’s awesome to see it displayed in such a concise and dynamic format.

September 2, 2013
Wandering in Nigeria and Benin - pt 5 - Holidays

*Wrote this last week on the way home but just getting around to posting it now. An album of pictures from the trip can be seen here and some on my Instragram here.*

"Like all the trips before it, this one has come to an end. I had a busy week voyaging around Nigeria & Benin and will hopefully capture some of thoughts/insights I’ve had here while waiting for my return flight home (found a seedy restaurant on the top floor of the Abuja airport where all the employees eat (cheap!) and 63cl Star beers are only 500 Naira (~$3), compared to 600 Naira for a 33cl in the airport in Lagos, score!). My Moleskin is a messy scrawl but carries a lot of the sights and sounds from my time here. Adventures!

Final day at NABDA in Abuja

The course ended on August 17th and I quickly met up with my new friend Emeka Ogbogu, who I would spend the night in Abuja with, and his cousin Victor. He gave me an awesome tour of the city centre (Abuja is Nigeria’s version of Ottawa, Lagos, its crazy version of Toronto) and all the government buildings. The celebrations that I had been craving all week finally arrived, and we got started at a garden in the city for a couple of beers before piling into Emeka’s car and headed to the outskirts of the city for the birthday party of a girl named Sandra. This proved incredibly difficult to find (I’m not sure why) but I was buzzing from the Star’s at the garden bar and loving the “Highlife” music I had heard about numerous times in the books I’d been reading but never listened to, so was happy to zip around the country side with music in my ears. The party was a lively affair. Sitting around a table near a well by a shop, the group gathered for Sandra’s birthday quickly warmed up to me and we drank, danced and took crazy photos until the night was dark.  My head was weary and patience thin then next day for my journey south to Lagos (buying a ticket proved to be very difficult and involved numerous steps before actually getting it, much to my chagrin).

Sandra’s birthday party in the outskirts of Abuja

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out that Lagos was exactly where I needed to be. Arriving (somewhat hungover) at the airport I was met by George, the extremely excitable and vivacious driver of my new friend Timi and her husband Bode. He is also one of the wildest drivers I’ve ever ridden with in my whole life. A madman on the roads, he danced in and out of oncoming traffic and pulled all sorts of crazy stunts (e.g. flooring it down a turning lane only to weave back into the intersection at the last moment) over and over again. It was great. Upon arrival at Timi and Bode’s lovely flat (and meeting them for the first time!), I was greeted with a beautifully smelling candle-lit room with a bathroom full of an assortment of fancy toiletry samples and other general pleasantries that were just what was needed to refill my cup. Timi (who has recently started a wedding planning business) was somewhat appalled at my travel plans (e.g. not flying to Cotonou but rather taking a string of cars/motorcycles, as is the cheapest way to get there) and seemed happy to provide some respite from the strange. Her husband Bode (a special assistant to the governor of the state of Lagos who also works on managing public-private-partnerships for the state as well as running his own gym – great to talk with and learn about the city/country more) took me to the “Lagos Boat Club” for some whisky and suya (delicious grilled meats) and we finished the night back at their place hearing lavish tales of physical adventures from some of their friends.

Checking out the beaches of Lagos

The journey to Benin the next day was somewhat hectic, much due to the fact that I didn’t really know where to go and how much to pay at each step. The cheapest option always involves a car/bus with the most amount of people in it (without AC obviously) and negotiating with the hoards of people trying to take you can be somewhat trying at times (think of a dozen people surrounding you and shouting for you to get in their car), but viewing it as just another part of the adventure makes it a fairly amusing process. Arriving in Cotonou about 5 hours after I departed (a car, a motorbike and another car later) I called Francois (who owned the flat I was renting for the week) and was taken to my lovely and lush home. I spent the lion’s share of the 5 days I spent there sitting in sunshine in the garden reading (made it most of the way through The Thing Around Your Neck and Purple Hibiscus) and working on a grant application for my PhD that is due at the end of the month. Became a tourist and explored the area a little (visiting Ganvie, a town of 20,000 that is built in a lake and is all on stilts – the “Venice of Africa” they say) as well as visited with some wonderful friend-of-friends Leslie and John who are a Canadian/American couple that have lived abroad for most of the last 20 years and it was inspirational to see their zest for adventure (emboldened my desires to work internationally to say the very least).

Dinner with Leslie and John in Cotonou!

 After returning to Lagos and spending a couple more relaxing days with Timi and Bode (so lovely!), I’m now waiting for my flight to Paris and then Seattle and then am extremely excited to arrive back home in Vancouver and hit my PhD head-on after my 2nd incredible African adventure!”

August 19, 2013
Scientific Wanderings in Nigeria - pt 4 - Finishing up at NABDA

The week is over! We struggled and toiled and troubleshot and talked all week; after this all I’m quite sure that everyone in the course learnt a lot as well as further developed their national & international scientific network. The final 3 days of the course brought some well-needed scientific success and we were able to accurately detect the presence of tuberculosis in 2 of 8 sputum samples (the 6 courageous course participants who donated their phlegm all being unsurprised, but none-the-less happy to confirm their health) using real-time PCR. This method offers a far quicker diagnosis of the disease which is classically detected using cell culture (requiring 6-8 weeks to detect) or sample smears (quick, but lack of sensitivity & significant inter-observer variability). We then moved onto GMO detection and were able to identify the presence of genetically modified genes in a sample of soy beans that were provided, again providing an excellent example of the merits of “next generation” molecular biology techniques for scientists here in Africa. The continued mishaps in the first 4 days of the course can mostly be attributed to higher complexity of these experiments (involving components/processes not included in the kits used) and continued power outages, and it was nice to get some success in the final legs of the workshop.

Using liquid nitrogen to crush up some soy beans to isolate their DNA for GMO detection

 I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to take part in this experience and see how science is approached in a developing nation. Science certainly has it’s challenges here but this just seems to inspire a tenacity in all those ensnared by it’s charms. The location and environment also provide them with regionally specific scientific pursuits not available elsewhere (e.g. specific GMO detection, readily available TB samples) and the potential to tackle problems that are specific to Nigeria and Africa.

Jake teaching the students how to diagnose TB with PCR technology

It’s certainly sad to have finished up and said goodbye to all the participants who I really enjoyed spending time with. I’m hoping the international nature of sciences manages to have our paths cross in the future and am encouraged by the chance to stay in touch and help them as they move forward in their scientific careers. I’m really happy that my new Korean friends, Jake and David, were here for the week as well. They are both hilarious and were the source of constant amusement during the week (we also drank quite a few Star Beers during the week. “Star Beer is #1 Beer” as David likes to say). Hopefully I will get to see both of them in Vancouver before I leave.

One of many Star Beers imbibed over the week

What’s next? I’m meeting up with Emeka Ogbogu (brother of Ubaka Ogbogu, one of my favourite professor friends and part of the incredibly talented academic clique headed by Tim Caulfield at the University of Alberta) today and will spend the night with him here in Abuja. Really excited to get out and see some of the city as, save for two dinner’s we went out for, I’ve been relegated to the hotel or NABDA for the entire week. Tomorrow I will fly south to Lagos (45 min flight) to stay with Timi (who I was connected to by my magical friend Jenny Greengrass) and her husband for the evening. I’m then heading West into the country of Benin and will spend most of the week at a lovely apartment – the Majorelle Cotonou in Cotonou. The plan is to chill out as much as possible (as always when visiting a new country, I’m VERY excited to try their beers). I need to catch up on some reading/writing and PhD things and am also hoping to explore the area and get some beach time.

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En route to Cotonou (Benin) from Lagos (Nigeria)!

I posted this on Facebook already, but for those that haven’t seen it, I have been uploading a number of my photos to Instagram since arriving. These can be viewed here.  

Also, on recommendation I’ve been listening to a lot of Fela Kuti this week, a prolific Nigerian artist that is probably one of their most well-known internationally (one likened him to Nigeria’s Bob Marley, only bigger). If you want to soak up some incredibly funky African rhythms, find some of his music and prepare to dance about.

August 15, 2013
Scientific Wanderings in Nigeria - pt. 3 - No wahala!

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Jake explaining BIONEER’s Exiprogen protein synthesis system, the first in Africa!

I’ve been here for 1 week today and we are over halfway through our molecular biology workshop at NABDA. Plenty of stories and impressions to report on, but where to begin? I guess a good place is to correct an assumption made in the last post….

Having BIONEER provide all the kits and instruments required has made the risk of things catastrophically failing fairly small and it is great to have them here handling all the experimentation.”

Totally wrong on this one! Having finished the 4-day gene cloning portion of the course I can report that almost every step of the past 4 days went awry. A combination of missing supplies, continual power outages, students being fairly green, and various other as-of-yet unexplained errors have subverted our experimental progress at every-step. Jake brought back-up samples for most key points in the experiments so that if things didn’t work we would still have materials to move forward with. These have been used at almost every step. Even so, experiments still didn’t work! This is not the end-of-the-world as the goal is primarily to train the participants rather than produce any novel experimental data, and (as any scientist reading this can attest to) continual and at times unexplainable failure is an integral part of the scientific process. The participants have certainly been learning a lot however, so in that regards it has been a success. We will now spend the remaining 3 days teaching the students how PCR can be used to diagnose tuberculosis and detect modifications present in GMO crops.

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Jake reviewing our data from Day 3 - where are the bands indicating our PCR amplification worked? Not on this gel!

My involvement in the course has been somewhat marginalized unfortunately. I was able to give a 1-hour lecture about “Current Topics in Stem Cell Biology” on Wednesday, which was well-attended (Nash opened it up to the whole institute rather than just the course) but other than this my teachings have been limited. Between the continual delays (we are generally 1-2 hours behind), the experimental schedule being so full, Nash giving some lectures and Jake spending a lot of time discussing why things went wrong (his English only further confusing things at times), I have delivered only a few of my prepared lectures. I’m still able to contribute background teachings during different experimental steps and have spent a lot of time speaking with the participants (who are thoroughly awesome) one-on-one, but there has certainly been a fair amount of twiddling my thumbs (leaving ample time for blogging and chatting with friends all over!). I have been able to get to know the students quite well however and I’ve been continually impressed with the attitude and capacity of the participants, who have been happy to elaborate on the numerous obstacles they face as scientists in Nigeria. With very little government support (e.g. no student loans, no grants, no fellowships) and difficulties accessing necessary infrastructure & equipment, being a scientist here certainly has it’s challenges and seemingly necessitates a stronger dedication than in North America.

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Nash, the autocratic course leader, with David and I out front of the research facilities

One of many stories about the delays/irregularities in our schedule. On Monday, Nash Jake and David all mysteriously vanished around 4pm while we were waiting for the next step of our experiment (ready to be performed around 5pm). We had been told numerous times during the day that we would be having a “Cocktail Party” at 6pm after work (a portion of the parking lot had been blocked off with rope since the start of the course in anticipation of this party) and everyone was excited. Fast forward a couple hours, to 6pm, and there was no sign of any of the three (the participants and I had spent the time just hanging out and chatting). I assumed that they had went back to the lecture room (where there was internet) to do some troubleshooting (I was pretty sure the last experimental step hadn’t worked) so Moses, one of my best buddies in the course (he is a joker), and I decided to go for a walk and see if we could find them. Upon arrival at the classroom (a 10 min walk), it was locked up and one of the NABDA staff told us they had went to the medical centre. Oh no! I knew Jake had a headache earlier, so maybe he was sick? We walked over to the medical centre (6:30 at this point) and found a mass of people out-front for a big group photo - with Nash David and Jake all present - it was a party! They had been at a party the whole time! I guess when they left, Nash had spotted a party for a visiting professor, so they had joined, Hah!. Jake asked “Has everyone left?” and I told him that the whole course was back at the lab waiting for them so they could do the next step and he quickly scampered off. We ended up finishing around 8:30pm on this day, and Nash told everyone that he had cancelled the cocktail party because he had found another party that had good food where they weren’t invited. I had a good chuckle about the whole situation.

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Another late night working out experimental kinks at NABDA

Having finished our gene cloning experiment (which ran for 4 days involving several steps, offering plenty of opportunity for things to go foul), we have moved onto two practical experiments that I have more confidence will work. We will demonstrate how molecular biology can be used to diagnose tuberculosis and detect the presence of genetic modifications in GMO crops. A guest medical doctor lecturer from Ibadan arrived today and will be teaching the students about traditional methods to diagnose TB (smear, cell culturing) and the advantages of using PCR for this purpose (primarily speed in diagnosis, but also reliability and accuracy). We will then use a BIONEER kit designed for this purpose, and will hopefully find some elusive scientific success in detecting tuberculosis in the patient samples our guest has brought with her!

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The long under-construction head office at NABDA. Nobody knows when it will be finished except that it won’t be anytime soon.

It’s amazing how easy it has been to stay in touch people all over the world while here. This struck me while sitting on the stoop in front of the lecture hall yesterday, chatting internationally on my phone, essentially in the middle of a big field in Africa! Thanks to all those who have sent kind words about the blog in the last week (and to my Nigerian arts/culture consultant Ubaka as well my talented research assistant Shannon!)

August 11, 2013
Scientific Wanderings in Nigeria - pt. 2 - Getting started at NABDA!

After three days in Abuja, it is quite clear that this portion of my African adventure is going to be very different from my last jaunt in this storied continent (an adventurous 2010/11 trip to Gambia/Senegal/Guinnea Bissau with my bestie Dan, chronicled photographically here, here and here). Arriving late Thursday afternoon, I was picked up at the airport by our host Dr. Nash and whisked away to our tidy hotel, the Bolton White. The streets of Abuja were new, clean and quiet; the city lacking the healthy dose of chaos that I expected from the country. This is largely due to a 4-day weekend that started on Thursday, a national holiday for the end of Ramadan, that has scores of people leaving the city to spend time with their families elsewhere. I’m excited for the masses to return on Monday (the hotel is pretty much empty, and daily buffet not running because of this…) and to see this young capital city spring into action.

A little background, the capital of Nigeria (rapidly growing pop. of 170 million, the largest in Africa with approx. 1/6th of it’s population) was formerly located in the seething sprawling city of Lagos (pop. 8 million), until 1991 when it was moved to Abuja, a smaller planned city in the middle of the country that is a stark contrast to the chaos of it’s older and crazier sibling in the south (from what I’ve been told). Having seen very little in the last few days (since arriving I have only been at the hotel, the NABDA facilities’ (National Biotechnology Development Agency, where we are running the workshop), or the well kept roads between them) I haven’t got even a even glimpse of the massive scale of this country (6th most populous in the world) or the poverty it contains (unemployment nearly 50%, GDP per capita just over $600). Abuja is certainly a marvel of city planning and evidence of the progress associated with the political and commercial concentrations present here, but I can’t help but feel a little sheltered.

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Jake and David getting their tourist on at the entrance to the NABDA facilities

Friday was spent visiting the NABDA facilities and dealing with a little jet lag before Jake (scientist) and David (sales), two representatives from BIONEER (South Korean biotech partner for the course), arrived in the evening and we spent the evening drinking tall bottles of Star beer as well discussing plans for the week. 

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David and Jake, my new Korean friends

Everything began on Saturday morning and I quickly learned that the “schedule” we had prepared was more of a suggestion rather than a rigid template for the week to come. Only 10 of the 28 participants had arrived by 9am (our start time) and we delayed beginning until 10am in hopes of a visit from Nash’s boss, NABDA Director General Prof. Bamidele Soloman to give an opening address (he visited around 2pm). After some introductions and Nash delivering an opening lecture for the course (which contained much of the content from the introduction lecture I had prepared to deliver and sent him a few days prior…) we were almost two hours behind in our packed schedule (Jake, the BIONEER scientist, is continually in a state of consternation about these delays, much to my amusement).

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Jake working his timid magic

Day One had the students isolating genomic DNA from a strain of bacterium isolated here in Nigeria, and then using a commonly known molecular technique known as polymerase chain reaction (which garnered scientist Kary Mullis the Nobel Prize in 1993, alongside UBC’s Michael Smith who also won the prize that year) to amplify (create numerous copies of the DNA) a gene, alpha glucosidase, present in this strain. They will then clone this gene (copy it) into a vector (essential a vehicle to deliver the gene into something else) that will be used to insert it into E. Coli bacteria (a process called transformation) that normally doesn’t harbour this gene. The ultimate goal is to use the E. Coli (which will now possesses the bacterial alpha-amylase gene) to produce large quantities of gene which can be used to create the protein (the protein could be used in various industrial applications, and would be sourced from a Nigerian strain [a source of pride for Nash]). This experiment will take four of the seven days of the course (the remaining three will be focused on Tuberculosis and GMO detection).

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Getting their hands dirty with some Next Generation Molecular Biology

The numerous delays required us to drop several planned portions of the day (the students have Sunday off and Jake and I have been catching up today) but, other than that, things went relatively smoothly. Having BIONEER provide all the kits and instruments required has made the risk of things catastrophically failing fairly small and it is great to have them here handling all the experimentation. With my introductory lecture largely delivered by Nash, my role was mainly to explain some of the techniques, answer questions and provide guidance to participants as they followed the experimental plan.

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The fearless (and at times ruthless) course leader, Dr. Nash, who works tirelessly to improve Nigeria’s scientific community

The participants are mostly Masters students at Universities scattered around the country, with a few PhD students (some having trained/training abroad) and some employees at NABDA (a federally funded institute). Their ambition and enthusiasm in the group is quite impressive and I’m looking forward to learning more about them and their interests during the week (about 15 were present yesterday, with the rest expected to arrive on Monday after the holiday ends). Despite numerous BSc/MSc/PhD programs across the country, I was surprised to learn that there are almost no labs performing research in the country (Nash hopes for his facility to be the first). Looking at Nash’s background (PhD in South Korea, Post-docs in UBC and New York) it is clear that networking is highly important for a Nigerian scientists career, although training abroad seems to be an opportunity for only some. Without research labs in the country, those that aren’t able to go abroad will go on to either teaching or diagnostic positions from what I understand.

More to come later in the week!

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Tired Jake heading back to the classroom after a LONG day in the lab

August 8, 2013
Scientific Wanderings in Nigeria - Part 1

"If Africa were a pistol, Nigeria would be the trigger" - Michael Peel

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Every since participating in Jay Ingram and Mary Anne Moser’s ( awesome) Banff Science Communication program in 2011, I’ve been lucky to have numerous projects emerge from interactions with other alumni of the program. Running since 2006, there are roughly 160 of us “Sci Comm” alumni from a wide variety of different backgrounds scattered across the country. It’s a really cool network to be plugged into and led to an opportunity I’m hoping to blog about for the next couple of weeks…..

It all started with a brief email, from 2012 participant Agatha Jassem, I received at 11pm on a Saturday in early July (while drinking wine on the beach with Neala!)….

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My interest was piqued. The trip being proposed was to a place I knew very little about - Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, Africa’s leviathan - to help run a 1-week molecular biology course. And it was starting in a little over a month! Amazing! One of the joys of a PhD is the flexibility to be able to shuffle things around and accommodate opportunities like this (at times to the chagrin of your incredible & supportive supervisor [maybe he will read this]). Suffice to say, with an appetite for adventure, I signed on and am en route to Abuja now (Agatha unfortunately had to drop off due to academic obligations and put the call out for a replacement which ended up being me - thanks for thinking of me Agatha!)

The course is being run by a Nigerian individual named Oyekanmi Nashiru - or “Nash” - who spent some time as a post-doctoral fellow at UBC and was involved with some programs that our local science communicator extraordinaire Dave Ng runs out of his AMBL facilities at UBC’s Michael Smith Labs (Dave has visited Nigeria previously and, if you’re interested, wrote a GREAT account of his time in Nigeria, although it should be stated that this was over 10 years ago and a lot has changed in the program [from what I’m told….] including relocating from Lagos to Abuja).

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David Ng’s account of his experiences in Nigeria

We will be running a workshop with a group of roughly 30 PhD/Post-Doc/Professor’s on a number of molecular biology techniques - including cloning, transformation, PCR, western blotting - as well as some training participants in some relevant experiments such as how to diagnosis tuberculosis and detect GMO organisms using molecular biology.

Lucky for me, there is also an industry sponsor for the course this year and all the experiments we will be doing are being facilitated by a South Korean biotech company - Bioneer - who are sending a representative named Younggil “Jake” Cha to run all the practical elements of the course. This leaves me the responsibility of delivering daily lectures covering the theoretical underpinnings of the experiments which I am very much looking forward to! I’ll also be doing a lecture on stem cell research (and my thesis) for the participants as well as delivering a social media workshop (similar to one I recently delivered at UBC) at the campus we are at.

The course will be run at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (part of the Ministry of Science and Technology) in Abuja from August 10-17th. Afterwards I’ve booked some vacation time and will travel through Lagos to Cotonou (in neighbouring Benin) where I’ve rented a flat on Airbnb for the week on of August 19-23rd to chill out by the beach (and practice my French)! Travelling again!

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I’ll try to write a couple posts during the course with some reflections on my experiences. Until then! Apologies for any grammatical mistakes in this, I haven’t slept and my free airport WiFi is about to expire!

P.S. I was recommended a number of books to read as background material on Nigeria which have been great. First up was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the “archtypal modern African novel in English” (thanks Wikipedia). It was simple and engaging and a good start (also the title of an awesome Roots album!). On the plane flight over (sitting in Paris now), I just finished Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which I really enjoyed as it elegantly wove a tragic love story with a powerful historical account of the Civil War in Nigeria in the late 1960s. It has also been made into a movie coming out later this year (Trailer) - looks good! Now I’m reading A Swamp Full of Dollars by Michael Peel which is a very well written non-fiction account of the history of oil in Nigeria. Fascinating stuff!

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July 14, 2013
Bringing The Blog Back to Life - halfway through 2013….

Whoah! You take a break from blogging in January and suddenly it’s mid-July and you’re in your basement furiously devouring the end of a 1lb bag of radishes you only opened an hour ago. What happened? Time moves so quickly

Apologies to those who have been checking the site daily for an update only to be repeatedly let down and discouraged by my inattentiveness (who am I kidding, nobody reads this!). I’ve been busy as always with a variety of different projects and thought to write a dense summary of everything I’ve done over the past 6 months in order to catch up. With new scientific adventures on the horizon, it would be nice to have this grisly beast up and running again.

The lion’s share of my time is always dedicated to my PhD. Between experiments, writing papers, having meetings, analyzing data, going to conferences, getting animal protocols, etc. - things are quite busy. I’m 3 1/2 years into my studies here at UBC now and have begun to architect a plan to finish my doctorate. Ideally this will involve me finishing my experiments sometime late next spring and hopefully defend in the fall of 2014. Besides these day-to-day PhD struggles (which I won’t bore you with details of), this is what I’ve been up to!

- Action Canada: My incredible year as an Action Canada fellow ended the first of week of February with a spectacular bang (other conferences summarized here, here and here). It truly was one of the most unique experiences of my life and I am privileged to have been able to take part in this program. My fellow Fellows are a magic group of awe-inspiring change wizards and I’m so happy I am able to call them colleagues, and friends (they are really neat).  A couple things we got up to: In early February we published our AC policy report titled "Future Tense: Adapting Canada’s Education System for the 21st Century" which led to a few media engagements for some of my Task Force members (I had my first radio debut on CBC Montreal Daybreak!) and our attendance at the Canadians for 21st Century Learning annual summit to present this report (it was a hit). We also got to chat briefly with one of the keynote speakers, the right honourable Paul Martin! My 2012/13 cohort has went back to the (semi) regular lives (I miss them all) but the 2013/14 Action Canada cohort was recently announced. I’m looking forward to meeting all of them soon!

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My Action Canada Task Force (Team Awesome!) and the Right Honourable Paul Martin

- Op. Ed. written during my AC Fellowship: All AC fellows are coached by some great writers over the year to write an Op. Ed. for publication in the mainstream media. I managed to have mine, about the role of science & public education in forming evidence-based policy, published in slightly different versions in both the Vancouver Sun and the Huffington Post. It was also picked up on Elsevier Connect, a science news site. I got a lot of great feedback on this piece and hope to write more for the mainstream media (and on this topic!) in the near future.

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Published a hypothesis article in F1000Research - Last summer I wrote a hypothesis that is very much related to my thesis and submitted it this spring for publication in a cool new journal called F1000Research. The journal is open-access (anyone can read its articles, this is not standard for academic journals sadly!) and uses “post-publication peer review” where all papers submitted are published on the site immediately and the review process is completely transparent and not anonymous (again not standard). This is the 7th manuscript I’ve been included as an author on and over the next will will be focusing on finishing off a couple 1st author data papers that are necessary to finishing my PhD.

- Organized and hosted our third StemCellTalks symposia at the TELUS World of Science here in Vancouver (we are now running in 6 cities in Canada). The day-long event involved around 130 grade 11/12 students, 35 graduate student volunteers and 10 faculty/expert speakers….it was great. I had an excellent team to work with (as is the case each year) and it was a learning experience to expand our capacity up to 130 kids (it has been 60-70 in 2010 & 2012). One of our participants wrote about her experience at the event. A lot of effort is involved as we expand this initiative across the country and grow as an organization and I’m happy to be involved at such a crucial time.

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Some of the distinguished speakers (Kelly McNagny, Fabio Rossi, Tillie Hackett & Bruce McManus) at StemCellTalks-Vancouver 2013

 - Accepted to CIHR Drug Safety and Effectiveness Cross-Disciplinary Training Program1-year fellowship I was accepted to that involves some online lectures, group work and a couple of trips to Hamilton where the program is based. There are 20 trainees from all different backgrounds (e.g. public health, epidemiology, clinical, basic science) so it’s cool to be able to interact with people with different perspectives (always into this). The program also has somewhat of a health policy tilt to it, something I’m increasingly interested in. I don’t exactly do drug safety or effectiveness research, but I applied with some questions about regulation of stem cell therapies (a lot of discussion going on about if they should be regulated in a similar manner as pharmaceuticals. Complex topic!)

Selected as RBC Emerging Scholar for Spur Vancouver Festival
One of twenty “Emerging Scholars” (having completed this, does this mean I’ve emerged?) selected for a local festival focused on politics, arts and ideas. I was made aware of this by my AC Colleague Vass Bednar who was involved in the Toronto iteration of the event. Being selected meant we were able to attend a number of lectures about ideas surrounding change as well as the chance to interact with the other 19 scholars who were from all different backgrounds. It was interesting (and also involved liberal amounts of free wine!).

- Co-chair of Outreach for the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) and Panel Submission for CSPC2013 conferenceFollowing Action Canada, all jazzed up on policy I was, and I joined the organizing committee (as Co-chair of Outreach) for the CSPC2013 conference which will be held in Toronto in November. It’s the largest science policy event in Canada and has been an excellent way to branch out and learn about this broad and diverse domain. I also put together a panel session on the interplay between public opinion, law and policy for emerging biotechnology for this conference with my wonderful friends/colleagues Julia Belluz, Zubin Master & Ubaka Ogbogu and are waiting to hear if we will be running this session at the conference this fall. Fingers crossed!

- Won UBC’s Edward JC Hossie Leadership Award: I was nominated for this awesome award by Let’s Talk Science coordinators Natasha Holmes and Allison McDonald and with some help from Su-Hui Chu (who got married in April - photos of the adventure here!) to boil my CV down to 2-pages - and I won! The award stems from an endowment meant to support “highlighted undergraduate or graduate students who have demonstrated leadership through volunteerism, community service and/or campus activities.” The award also came with a generous scholarship so I went shopping and bought a whole new wardrobe (my first time doing this since reaching adulthood….).

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UBC President Stephen Toope and I at the Edward JC Hossie Award Ceremony

- Communication Training for Scientists: Back in March I helped organize a “Soft Skills” workshop for about 70 trainees (PhD students and post-docs) that was held in Toronto after a stem cell meeting there. It was awesome! I was in charge (along with the ever effervescent John Rennie & Lisa Willemse) of the half of the workshop focused on communication (the other half focused on commercialization) and the feedback we got was very positive. My colleague Paul Krzyzanowski wrote up a good summary for the Signals Blog. Afterwards, I wrote a blog about the importance of using Twitter as a scientist which got a lot of uptake through a number of different channels (most notably Twitter, duhhh). After this I’ve been asked to run some social media training workshops (the first was last week). Suddenly I’ve been branded as a social media expert, which is a new thing for me.

- StemCellShorts Animation Project and our 2nd SCN Public Outreach Award: Last March my (small) animation company (Infoshots - with my partner Mike Long) won a Public Outreach Award from the Stem Cell Network to create a series of three animated shorts explaining basic stem cell concepts. These finished up this spring (will be launching them in the fall - they’re awesome!!) and we successfully applied for another award (with a co-sponsorship model this time) to produce an additional five videos. We hope to have some of these ready for the Till and McCulloch Meeting in Banff in October as there will be a short period of the conference allotted to screen the videos for the first time. Excited to see this move forward!

- A couple of final fun things: I also wrote/recorded a podcast for my fellow Banff Science Communication alumni Scott Unger's “Experimental" series on some recent beer science for St. Patricks day, wrote a Q&A piece for the Canadian Science Writers Association blog with Claudia Cornwall about her recent book "Catching Cancer" (a great read!) and was also involved in the 6th instalment of the AMAZING Playground.is concert series (get a whole bunch of strangers, tons of beer & an awesome local band then make a music video!). You can see the video itself and a special behind the scenes video by clicking on the linked text. Oh - and I also got diagnosed with MONO at some point during all of this as well (which it turns out wasn’t that difficult to shake).

THAT’S ALL FOR NOW! I’ve got an exciting SCIENCE TRIP lined up for August that I’ll write about next…..

January 1, 2013
Role of Stem/Progenitor Cells in Reparative Disorders

Thavaneetharajah Prethebaan, Dario R Lemos, Benjamin Paylor, Regan-Heng Zhang, Fabio M Rossi

LINK: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23270300

ABSTRACT: Adult stem cells are activated to proliferate and differentiate during normal tissue homeostasis as well as in disease states and injury. This activation is a vital component in the restoration of function to damaged tissue via either complete or partial regeneration. When regeneration does not fully occur, reparative processes involving an overproduction of stromal components ensure the continuity of tissue at the expense of its normal structure and function, resulting in a “reparative disorder”. Adult stem cells from multiple organs have been identified as being involved in this process and their role in tissue repair is being investigated. Evidence for the participation of mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) in the tissue repair process across multiple tissues is overwhelming and their role in reparative disorders is clearly demonstrated, as is the involvement of a number of specific signaling pathways. Transforming growth factor beta, bone morphogenic protein and Wnt pathways interact to form a complex signaling network that is critical in regulating the fate choices of both stromal and tissue-specific resident stem cells (TSCs), determining whether functional regeneration or the formation of scar tissue follows an injury. A growing understanding of both TSCs, MSCs and the complex cascade of signals regulating both cell populations have, therefore, emerged as potential therapeutic targets to treat reparative disorders. This review focuses on recent advances on the role of these cells in skeletal muscle, heart and lung tissues.

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