Bridging the gap: helping create a new generation of stem cell scientists

Inspiration comes in many different shapes and sizes, but when you see it there is no mistaking it. And when you meet and talk to the students in our Bridges program you find inspiration in each and every one of them.

The program is designed to train the next generation of stem cell scientists, bridging (hence the name) the gap between undergraduate and Master’s level training in research. But it’s so much more than just a recruiting and training program because one of the goals of Bridges is to find students who are often overlooked for opportunities like this: students who may be the first in their family to go to college, who don’t come from a wealthy family or fancy school. These students seize the opportunity with both hands and their sense of delight at being given a chance, and enthusiasm for the work is exciting and infectious.

We held our annual Bridges Trainee Meeting in Burlingame this week, a chance for all the students in the program to come together, listen to lectures from world-class stem cell researchers, and show their posters describing the work they have done over the past year.

At first many of them seem a little shy but once you ask them about their experiences their enthusiasm simply bubbles over. Shayda Kianfar graduated from Berkeley City College and is now studying at the University of California, Berkeley. She says she was accepted into the program even though she had no prior lab experience:

“This has given me an amazing experience. To be surrounded by so many incredible people, to have great mentors is life changing. You learn so many new skills and it opens your eyes. I hadn’t thought about stem cell work before but now I would love to do this. It’s so exciting.”

Kevin Martinez talks to fellow Bridges student David James

Kevin Martinez talks to fellow Bridges student David James

Kevin Martinez graduated from San Francisco State University and says getting a chance to work with extraordinary researchers like Thea Tlsty, Ph.D., at the University of California, San Francisco, was incredible. Kevin got to work with Tlsty and her team on their discovery that certain rare cells extracted from adult breast tissue can be instructed to become different types of cells – a discovery that could have important potential for regenerative medicine.

He says what surprised him most of all was how much independence they gave him, he wasn’t treated like a student but like a colleague:

“They trained me and gave me the experience and opportunity to do amazing work. This is great training for a career either in academia or industry because they teach you how to do research independently, but to also work as part of a team.”

Eleanor Kim, spent her year at City of Hope near Los Angeles. She focused on leukemia stem cells (LCS), testing different medications to see if they could be effective at preventing recurrence of the leukemia or the speed with which it spreads.

Bridges student Eleanor Kim

Bridges student Eleanor Kim

Eleanor was a pre-med student who hadn’t really thought about research until she found out about the Bridges program. Now she’s set her sights on becoming an MD/PhD:

“This got me much more interested in the biology of cancers, what is driving them, what controls them. I want to be able to talk to my patients about what is happening to them but also to be able to do research that might be able to help them.”

Eleanor says she also learned a valuable lesson about the need for a good night’s sleep:

“I learned that you have to work hard but that you also can’t work to the point where you are sleep deprived. This is such detail-oriented work that being sleepy can lead to mistakes and one mistake can set you back days.”

Each Bridges student has their own story; each brings their own unique perspective to their work and to the field. You can hear some of our students talk about how important this opportunity was for them, and how it has changed them in so many ways.

kevin mccormack

In an auditorium with 200 high school students CIRM grantee connected with one who is now heading to UCLA to study stem cells

When part of your job is to reach out to the community, share information and perhaps get the people you connect with excited about what they hear, it can be difficult to point to tangible examples of success. One arrived in my email inbox last week.

Tommy Nguyen in front of an image of nerve stem cells

Tommy Nguyen in front of an image of nerve stem cells

Each year for Stem Cell Awareness Day in October we arrange for CIRM grantees and staff to go out to high schools and give guest lecture on stem cell science. Last year we reached more than 3,000 students. Probably no one reached more students than Julie Mangada of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato. She has talked to students at 15 schools in the past year. Another 21 classes have visited the Learning Center she manages at the Buck.

In a wonderful turn of events, Julie’s talk at Piner High School in Santa Rosa last October caused one student in the auditorium to completely change the trajectory of his upcoming college pursuits. He went on to become class valedictorian and in his commencement speech last month mentioned Julie’s talk and his plans to now attend the University of California, Los Angeles for biological engineering and stem cell science.

Someone in the graduation crowd called the Buck Institute after the talk and asked if the student could have a private tour of the stem cell facilities there. That student, Tommy Nguyen, joined Julie at the Buck last week to walk through the many stem cell projects there, several funded by CIRM. In particular, he saw how embryonic stem cells were grown into nerve stem cells that were transplanted into the brains of an animal model of Parkinson’s Disease (in photos).

Julie Mangada shows Tommy where cells would be implanted for Parkinson's Disease.

Julie Mangada shows Tommy where cells would be implanted for Parkinson’s Disease.

We believe getting young people into the stem cell career pipeline early is essential. That is why I conceived and managed the development of a five-unit high school curriculum in 2009 that is freely available at our Stem Cell Education Portal.

This story about Tommy shows early outreach to students can work. And it is fun when a colleague in the field can write as Julie did in her email last week, “I love my job.”

She also conducts tours for the public at the Buck every Thursday from 10:30 to Noon. To reserve a spot, call (415)209-2245.

Don Gibbons