Dane County High School Students Attend Conference for Stem Cells at Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery

Dane County highschool students in attendance at the stem cell conference.

Embryonic stem cells have the extraordinary ability to divide without limit yet maintain the potential to make all types of cells found in the human body.  This holds tremendous implications for the worlds of drug discovery and testing, cell production, and tissue transplantation medicine.


Overall, I’m really glad I decided to go to the talk.  I got to learn a lot about stem cells, how they are used in different parts of the body, and some of the difficulties with using stem cells.  It was definitely way more enjoyable than anything else I was planning on doing during that time.  If there are more opportunities like this that come up, I would definitely try to go to them. 


Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Dr. James Thomson’s breakthrough work with induced pluripotent stem cells, the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) hosted a panel of University of Wisconsin stem cell scientists to discuss the future of their research on November 13th.  Entitled “Stem Cell Science: The Next 20 Years” and designed for the general public, the audience heard from Drs. Lynn Allen Hoffman, David Gamm and David Vereide, who talked about applying stem cell research to develop clinical applications for skin grafting, vision restoration and regenerative biology, respectively.

As noted in the Badger Herald, “The scientists briefly discussed their work before moving into what the future of stem cell science may look like. Their main hopes centered around moving from a microscopic to a macroscopic scale, from cells to tissues and organs, as well as applying stem cell discoveries to clinical science.”

Each fall, Dr. Amy Prevost (Director, Scientific Courses) leads a group of Dane County high school students enrolled in “Biotechnology and the World of Medicine,” a weekly evening course offered at the BTC Institute in partnership with the Dane County School Consortium. (For course details, please see our October 2016 post.)

Cell density illustration

This panel discussion promised to be a perfect fit for students taking the course this semester, given the strong connections stem cell science has to molecular biology, biotechnology, and medical applications—so arrangements were made to “take class on the road” to WID.  As we highlighted in last month’s blog, conference participation and excursions like this into the broader scientific community often prove to be very interesting and meaningful to high school students.

Overall, class participants were engaged in the discussion, noting their interest in the scientist’s personal stories which came to light as they described how & why they ended up so dedicated to their field of interest and to their ongoing research efforts.  As a follow-up to the event, students were asked to reflect on what they had heard at the panel discussion. Some of their impressions show how important it is for young people to spend time engaging with scientists outside of their everyday classroom experience:

I wasn’t fully sure what to expect going into to the stem cell talk, thinking that it would be more about the medical end of stem cells when I was more interested in the science.  However, the speakers and moderator did a nice job of balancing the medicine, the science behind stem cells, and the applicability to the real world… I hadn’t considered that treatments have to get approved by the government before they can be used on a lot of people…stem cells are even more challenging being a treatment that has no predecessor or path laid out for approval.  I’m interested in science policy and this topic was interesting to consider where science, government, and society all interact…” 


[Dr. Gamm] talking about the retina really stood out to me over the other speakers because it was very in depth.  He talked about the actual cells like rods and cones, and he talked about how he could create the rods, and he could create the cones with stem cells. Then he talked about about how these stem cells could be cultivated in a dish to produce the cells he wants… about how big the challenge he completed was getting enough of the cells to form a working eyeball…Finally, he talked about the next big challenge for the next twenty years is to figure out how to take the artificial eyeball created from stem cells and use it by placing it in a human who needs a new eyeball to see. 


One of the things I found pretty interesting was how different everyone’s experience was on the panel.  They all worked with different parts of the body, like the skin, the eyes, the brain, and organs, and because of that, they had really different experiences and will have even more different experiences working with stem cells. It was also really interesting to hear about the person on the panel that wasn’t taking a biology class, but always pestered his friend about it, and then ended up switching to major in biology after all.  I think it’s really cool that you can change your plans even during college and not get set back so far behind that it isn’t possible.


I also learned about some of the obstacles facing the stem cell industry.  One major obstacle seems to be getting past government regulations.  I learned that the FDA stem cell guidelines are very new and many still have yet to be written.  As a result, the process for getting stem cells in and through clinical trials and getting products approved isn’t running as efficiently as it could be…  I also learned that many stem cell researchers have had to start up their own companies in order to raise money for their research because they aren’t receiving funding, which kind of surprised me, given the numerous benefits stem cells can potentially offer


The opportunity for students to be an active part of the greater scientific community from early on can create a sense of belonging – giving them the confidence and drive to continue to develop their own careers in meaningful ways, even as they are just beginning to figure out where they might fit in best. It is a rare and wonderful opportunity to be so close to such excellent and important science and it’s great to be able to take advantage of that.

This blog was jointly written by Karin Borgh, executive director of BTCI and Amy Prevost.

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Amy Prevost

Amy Prevost

Director, Scientific Courses at BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute
Amy Prevost received her doctorate from UW-Madison in 2012 in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. Amy is a program director at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute), a non-profit located on the Promega campus in Fitchburg, Wis., where she coordinates scientific programs for adult learners. She is also a project manager on a grant aimed at understanding student success in advanced manufacturing programs at two-year colleges with the Center on Education Research at UW Madison. Amy’s primary areas of interest in educational research include understanding educational pathways in STEM programs, improving student outcomes at the post-secondary and graduate levels – including access to careers, and trying to map elements of doctoral programs that contribute to students’ abilities to transfer knowledge.

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