ATHABASCA — Haley Stang, resident of Sturgeon County, biomedical engineer, and 2022-23 Rotary Global Grant Scholar for District 5370, stopped in at the Athabasca Legion mid-January to provide local Rotarians with an update on her ongoing international education and research, and speak to the impact their dollars have had on her life.
Stang, a 27-year-old hailing from the Legal-Sturgeon County area, received more than $40,000 from a total of twelve local clubs in Rotary District 5370, which spans from as far north as Whitehorse, Yukon, and Yellowknife, N.W.T, to clubs in B.C. and Saskatchewan, and as far south as Jasper.
“Your district is only allowed to have one per year,” said Stang. “There was just no way I could have studied at one of the best institutions in the world without this funding. It has opened up so many doors for me.”
Athabasca Rotarians Brian Scott and Francis Hachey, among the others present for Stang’s Jan. 17 visit to the community, said the update on her research into an alternative delivery model of stem cell therapy was much appreciated — and impressive.
“It’s a step above our paygrade,” said Hachey with a laugh.
“The experiences she’s got already, and the knowledge she’s got already … she’s quite the young lady,” said Scott.
Scott announced the club would be making a donation on Stang’s behalf to Rotary International’s PolioPlus initiative focused on eradicating the disease across the globe.
After returning to her Albertan hometown with a Masters of Science in biomaterials and tissue engineering from the University College of London in 2023, Stang said she’s been busy with Rotary presentations like the one given in Athabasca. She’s visited many of the clubs that contributed to the Global Grant Scholarship, as well as others across the province.
“I just really like connecting with Rotarians,” said Stang. “I think there’s a generational gap … historically, what people think of Rotarians is ordinarily old men, and the truth of the matter is there’s really incredible young adults, young professionals, and youth involved, and they’re very passionate about their community.”
“It’s also a way for me to say thank you for your support in every capacity, whether that be mentorship or financial contributions,” she added.
Roots in Rotary
Although Stang has her eyes on medical practice overseas after her education is complete, she got her start in northern Alberta, spending time in Sturgeon County, Morinville, and Legal growing up.
“It’s a close-knit community that really spans generations. The families that are in Legal, my grandparents know them, my parents know them, and now us kids,” said Stang. “I loved growing up there because you walk across town to get to school, but you also know every single one of your neighbours.”
Rotary has been a consistent theme in Stang’s life: she attended high school in Morinville, where she founded the Interact Club in her graduating year of 2014. After school, she was involved with the University of Alberta’s Rotaract Club, serving on the executive team as community service chair.
It was here she led projects like a clothing drive for the Mustard Seed, a book drive for an inner-city elementary school, and volunteer efforts for Ronald McDonald House Charities.
“I’ve been a student pretty much my whole life. I don’t have money to just write you a cheque and here’s me donating to charity,” said Stang. “The way that I could help instead of finances was my time … whatever capacity I can give, I’m happy to do that.”
International education experiences
In 2018, she began her Bachelors of Engineering at the University of Sheffield in England. During her studies, Stang was involved with the Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy, a competitive two-year program involving weekly seminars from industry leaders, like executives from Siemens International.
During her first year of the academy, she led a team studying antibiotic resistance. “We actually were able to develop an educational, interactive game that was delivered to over 50,000 people in the city centre of Sheffield,” said Stang. In her second year, she looked at the barriers to the adoption of artificial intelligence within Britain’s National Health Service.
Following convocation from the University of Sheffield, Stang capitalized on a partnership between her English alma mater and world-renowned Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass. She studied the nuances of 3D printing using two novel biomaterials to create tissue scaffolds — or “a structure that would then be implanted or utilized within a biological context.”
“There’s a lot that goes into the design of one,” she said. The chosen material and its properties, such as porosity, strength, malleability, texture, and more, all impact the effectiveness of biological scaffolds. “This project was actually looking at all those different design parameters, and if I can change one of those things, what does that actually mean in the grand scale of it?”
One year later, in 2022, Stang began her Masters of Science in biomaterials and tissue engineering, again gravitating towards England. Her focus was on exploiting stem cells in a lab environment to stimulate stem cell production of therapeutic proteins.
“There’s actually a lot of issues with stem cell therapy as we know it at the minute,” she said. “One of the biggest, biggest ones is cell survivability. If I have stem cells in a lab, the environment that they’re grown in is so controlled — the temperature, the pH, the nutrients, everything.”
Once cells are removed from their controlled environment, a laundry-list of factors can render them useless long before they make it into a patient in need. As a solution, Stang utilized poly lactic-co-glycolic acid and microcarriers to grow stem cells on a 3D growing plane.
The solution, and everything secreted by the cells during the process, is filtered by size of particles. Then, Stang said she used a laser to examine the size and concentration of nanoparticles in the sample.
The proteins extracted were then used to, “Stimulate other cells to see what they would do, and that can be used in a therapeutic sense,” said Stang.
“This platform here is actually exploring ‘cell-free’ therapy. If I can use the cells in the lab, but then extract the therapeutic parts then give you that — kind of best of both worlds,” said Stang.
Potential uses for cell-free therapy include treatments for issues such as cardiac ischemia by stimulating cell replication. Stang said it can help with blood vessel growth, or tissue repair, like menisci, or cartilage cushions in joints.
Stang is currently back in Sturgeon County while she awaits responses for her PhD applications, which she hopes to complete in the U.K. “For me, it is one of the most beneficial academic environments, there’s so much opportunity for me in England.”
Her goal is to attend medical school following her PhD, and one day open a simultaneous medical practice and research centre. “If I could dream dreams about it, I would love to be in Switzerland,” said Stang.
She said the country is home to the medicinal equivalent of Silicon Valley. “The health innovation that’s coming out of Switzerland is absolutely incredible, and that’s really what’s appealing to me.”