Training the Next Generation of Stem Cell Scientists

Nobel prize winners don’t come out of thin air, they were all young, impressionable kids at one point in time.  If you ask any award-winning scientists how they got into science research, many of them would likely tell you about an inspiring teacher, an encouraging parent, or a hands-on research opportunity that inspired or helped them to pursue a scientific career.

Not every student is lucky enough to have one of these experiences, and many students, especially those from low income families, might never be exposed to good science or have the opportunity to pursue a career as a scientist.

CIRM is changing this for students in California by committing a significant portion of its funds to educating and training future stem cells scientists.

Yesterday, the Board approved over $42 million to fund two of CIRM’s educational programs, the Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy Awards (Bridges) and the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge (SPARK).

Bridging the Stem Cell Gap

The Bridges program supports undergraduate and master’s level students by providing paid research internships at California universities or colleges that don’t have a major stem cell research program. This program has evolved over the past seven years since it began, and now includes training and education courses in stem cell research, and direct patient engagement and outreach activities within California’s diverse communities.

CIRM’s president, Randy Mills explained in a press release:

Randy Mills, Stem Cell Agency President & CEO

Randy Mills, CIRM President & CEO

“The goal of the Bridges program is to prepare undergraduate and Master’s level students in California for a successful career in stem cell research. That’s not just a matter of giving them money, but also of giving them good mentors who can help train and guide them, of giving them meaningful engagement with patients and patient advocates, so they have a clear vision of the impact the work they are doing can have on people’s lives.”

Chairman of the CIRM Board, Jonathan Thomas, added:

Jonathan Thomas

Jonathan Thomas, Chairman of the CIRM Board

“The Bridges program has been incredibly effective in giving young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, a shot at a career in science. Of the 700 students who have completed the program, 95 percent are either working in a lab, enrolled in school or applying to graduate school. Without the Bridges program this kind of career might have been out of reach for many of these students.”

The CIRM Board voted to approve $40.13 million for the Bridges program, which will fund 14 programs at California state universities and city colleges. Each program will be able to support ten students for five years.

SPARKing Interest in Stem Cells

The SPARK program supports summer research internships for high school students that represent the diversity of the state’s population. It evolved from an earlier educational program called Creativity, and now emphasizes community outreach, direct patient engagement activities, and social media training along with training in stem cell research techniques.

“SPARK is all about helping cultivate high school students who are interested in science, and showing them it’s possible to have a career doing something they love,” said Randy Mills.

The Board approved $2.31 million for the SPARK program, which will provide California institutions funding support for five to ten students each year. Seven programs received funding including the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, UC San Francisco, UC Davis, Cedars-Sinai, City of Hope, USC and Stanford.

2015 Creativity Program students (now called SPARK).

2015 Creativity Program students (now called SPARK).

Training the Next Generation

For years, national leaders, including President Obama, have warned that without skilled, experienced researchers, the U.S. is in danger of losing its global competitiveness in science. But cuts in federal funding for research mean this is a particularly challenging time to begin a scientific career.

Our goal with the Bridges and SPARK programs is to address both these issues and support young scientists as they get the experience they need to launch their careers.


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CIRM Scholar Spotlight: Matt Donne on Lung Stem Cells

CIRM has funded a number of educational and research training programs over the past ten years to give younger students and graduate/postdoc scholars the opportunity to explore stem cell science.

Two of the main programs we support are the Bridges and the CIRM Scholars Training Program. These programs fund future scientists from an undergraduate to postdoctoral level with a goal of creating “training programs that will significantly enhance the technical skills, knowledge, and experience of a diverse cohort of… trainees in the development of stem cell based therapies.”

The Stem Cellar team was interested to hear from Bridges and CIRM scholars themselves about their experience with these programs, how their careers have benefited from CIRM funding, and what research accomplishments they have under their belt. We were able to track some of these scholars down, and will be publishing a series of interview-style blogs featuring them over the next few months.

Matt Donne

Matt Donne

We start off with a Matt Donne, a PhD student at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in the Developmental and Stem Cell Biology graduate program. Matt is a talented scientist and has a pretty cool story about his research training path. I sat down with Matt to ask him a few questions.


Q: Tell us how you got into a Stem Cell graduate program at UCSF.

MD: I was fortunate to have Dr. Carmen Domingo from San Francisco State support my application into the CIRM Bridges Program. I’d been working for Dr. Susan Fisher at UCSF for a couple of years and realized that I wanted to get a PhD and go to UCSF. I thought the best way to do that was improve my GPA and get a masters degree in stem cell biology. I applied to the CIRM program at SF State, and was accepted.

The Bridges Program has been a great feeder platform to get students more science experience exposure than they would have otherwise received, and prepares them well to move on to competitive graduate schools.

After receiving my Masters degree, I was admitted into the first year of the Developmental and Stem Cell Biology program at UCSF. When the opportunity to apply for a training grant from CIRM came about between my first and second year of at UCSF, I knew I had to give it a chance and apply. With the help of my mentor, Dr. Jason Rock, I wrote a solid proposal and was awarded the fellowship.

While at SF State, Carmen was extremely supportive and always available for her students. Since then, many of us still keep in touch and more have joined the UCSF graduate school community.

Q: Can you describe your graduate research?

MD: The field of regenerative medicine is searching for ways to allow us to repair injuries similar to how the Marvel Comic Wolverine can repair his wounds in the movies. One interesting fact which has been known for several decades, but has not been able to be investigated more deeply until now, is the innate ability for the adult lung to regrow lost lung tissue without any sort of intervention. My thesis focuses on defining the molecular mechanisms and stem cell niches that allow for this normal, healthy adult lung tissue growth. The working hypothesis is if we can understand what makes a cell undergo healthy tissue proliferation and differentiation, we could stimulate this response to cure individuals who suffer from diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Similarly, if we understand how a cell decides to respond in a diseased way, we could stop or revert the disease process from occurring.

One of the models we use in our lab is a “pneumosphere” culture. We essentially grow alveoli, which are the site of gas exchange in the lung, in a dish to attempt to understand how specific alveolar stem cells signal and interact with one another. This information will teach us how these cells behave so we can in turn either promote a healthy response to injury or, potentially, stop the progression of unhealthy cell responses. The technique of growing alveoli in a dish allows us to cut down on the “noise” and focus on major cellular pathways, which we can then more selectively apply to our mouse model systems.

Pneumospheres. (Photo by Matt Donne)

Pneumospheres or “lung cells in a dish”. (Photo by Matt Donne)

Lung cells.

Lung pneumospheres under a microscope. (Photo by Matt Donne)

We are now in the process of submitting a paper demonstrating some of the molecular players that are involved in this regenerative lung response. Hopefully the reviewers will think our paper is as awesome we as believe it to be.

Q: How has being a CIRM scholar benefited your graduate research career?

MD: Starting in my second year at UCSF, I was awarded the CIRM fellowship. I think it helped the lab to have the majority of my stipend covered through the CIRM fellowship, and personally I was very excited about the $5,000 discretionary budget. These monies allowed me to go to conferences every year for the past three years, and also have helped to support the costs of my experiments.

The first conference I attended was a Gordon Conference in Italy on Developmental Biology. There I was able to learn more about the field and also make friends with many professors, students, and postdocs from around the world. Last year, I went to my first lung-specific conference, and attended again this year. That has been one of the highlights of my PhD career. While there, one is able to speak and interact with professors whose names are seen in many textbooks and published papers. I never thought I would be able to so casually interact with them and develop relationships. Since then, I have been able to work on small collaborations with professors from across the US.

It was great that I could go to these conferences and establish important relationships with professors without being a major financial burden to my Professor. Plus, it has been hugely beneficial for my career as I now have professors whom I can reach out to as I look towards my future as a scientist.

Q: What other benefits did the CIRM scholars program provide you?

MD: Dr. Susan Fisher has been in charge of the CIRM program at UCSF. She organized lunch-time research talks that involved both academic as well as non-academic leaders in the field. I enjoyed the extra exposure to new fields of stem cell biology as well as the ability to learn more about the start-up and non-academic world. There are not many programs that offer this type of experience, and I felt fortunate to be a part of it. Also, the free lunches on occasion were a nice perk for a grad student living in San Francisco!

I attended the CIRM organized conferences whenever they happened. It’s always great presenting at or attending poster sessions at these events, seeing familiar faces and meeting new people. I took full advantage of the learning and networking that CIRM allowed me to do. The CIRM elevator pitch competition was really cool too. I didn’t win, came in third, but I enjoyed the challenge of trying to break down my thesis project into a digestible one-minute pitch.

Q: Where do you see the field of lung biology and regenerative medicine heading?

MD: My take away from the research conferences I have attended with the help of CIRM-funding is that we are in a very exciting time for lung stem cell research. The field overall is still young, but there are many labs across the world now working on a “lung mapping project” to better define stem cell populations in the lung. I see this research in the future translating in to regenerative therapies by which diseased cells/tissue will be targeted to actually stop the disease progression, and in turn possibly repair and regenerate healthy new tissue. This research has wide reaching implications as it has the potential to help everyone from a premature baby more quickly develop mature healthy lungs, to adults suffering from COPD brought on by environmental factors, such as air pollution. As many scientists are often quoted, “This is a very exciting time for our field.”

Q: What are your future plans?

MD: I expect to graduate in about a year’s time. In the future, I want to pursue a career focusing on the social impact of science. I aspire to be someone like UCSF’s former chancellor Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmand. It’s really cool to go from someone who was the president of product development at Genentech, to chancellor at UCSF, to now president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bringing science to impact society in that way is what I hope to do with my future.


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Bridging the gap: training scientists to speak everyday English

Getting a start in your chosen career is never easy. Without experience it’s hard to get a job. And without a job you can’t get experience. That’s why the CIRM Bridges program was created, to help give undergraduate and Master’s level students a chance to get the experience they need to start a career in stem cell research.

Last week our governing Board approved a new round of funding for this program, ensuring it will continue for another 5 years.

But we are not looking to train just any student; we are looking to recruit and retain students who reflect the diversity of California, students who might not otherwise have a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

Want to know what that kind of student looks like? What kind of work they do? Well, the Bridges program at City College of San Francisco recently got its latest group of Bridges students to record an “elevator pitch”; that’s a short video where they explain what they do and why it’s important, in language anyone can understand.

They do a great job of talking about their research in a way that’s engaging and informative; no easy matter when you are discussing things as complex as using stem cells to test whether everyday chemicals can have a toxic impact on the developing brain, or finding ways to turn off the chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome.

Regular readers of the CIRM blog know we are huge supporters of anything that encourages scientists to be better communicators. We feel that anyone who gets public funding for their work has an obligation to be able to explain that work in words the public can understand. This is not just about being responsive, there’s also a certain amount of self-interest here. The better the public understands the work that scientists do, and how that might impact their health, the more they’ll support that work.

That’s why one of the new elements we have added to the Bridges program is a requirement for the students to engage in community outreach and education. We want them to be actively involved in educating diverse communities around California about the importance of stem cell research and the potential benefits for everyone.

We have also added a requirement for the students to be directly engaged with patients. Too often in the past students studied solely in the lab, learning the skills they’ll need for a career in science. But we want them to also understand whom these skills will ultimately benefit; people battling deadly diseases and disorders. The best way to do that is for the students to meet these people face-to-face, at a bone marrow drive or at a health fair for example.

When you have seen the face of someone in need, when you know their story, you are more motivated to find a way to help them. The research, even if it is at a basic level, is no longer about an abstract idea, it’s about someone you know, someone you have met.

Improving process drives progress in stem cell research

shutterstock_212888935Process is not a sexy word. No one gets excited thinking about improving a process. Yet behind every great idea, behind every truly effective program is someone who figured out a way to improve the process, to make that idea not just work, but work better.

It’s not glamorous. Sometimes it’s not even pretty. But it is essential.

Yesterday in Oakland our governing Board approved two new concepts to improve our process, to help us fund research in a way that is faster, smarter and ultimately helps us better meet our mission of accelerating the development of stem cell therapies for patients with unmet medical needs.

The new concepts are for Discovery – the earliest stage of research – and the Translational phase, a critical step in moving promising therapies out of the lab and toward clinical trials where they can be tested in people.

In a news release C. Randal Mills, Ph.D., CIRM’s President and CEO, said that these additions built on the work started when the agency launched CIRM 2.0 in January for the clinical phase of research:

“What makes this approach different is that under CIRM 2.0 we are creating a pathway for research, from Discovery to Translational and Clinical, so that if a scientist is successful with their research at one level they are able to move that ahead into the next phase. We are not interested in research just for its own sake. We are interested in research that is going to help us help patients.”

In the Discovery program, for example, we will now be able to offer financial incentives to encourage researchers who successfully complete their work to move it along into the Translational phase – either themselves or by finding a scientific partner willing to take it up and move it forward.

This does a number of things. First it helps create a pipeline for the most promising projects so ideas that in the past might have stopped once the initial study ended now have a chance to move forward. Obviously our hope is that this forward movement will ultimately lead to a clinical trial. That won’t happen with every research program we fund but this approach will certainly increase the possibility that it might.

There’s another advantage too. By scheduling the Discovery and Translational awards more regularly we are creating a grant system that has more predictability, making it easier for researchers to know when they can apply for funding.

We estimate that each year there will be up to 50 Discovery awards worth a total of $53 million; 12 Translation awards worth a total of $40 million; and 12 clinical awards worth around $100 million. That’s a total of more than $190 million every year for research.

This has an important advantage for the stem cell agency too. We have close to $1 billion left in the bank so we want to make sure we spend it as wisely as we can.

As Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D. J.D, the Chair of our Board, said, having this kind of plan helps us better plan our financial future;

“Knowing how often these programs are going to be offered, and how much money is likely to be awarded means the Board has more information to work with in making decisions on where best to allocate our funding.”

The Board also renewed funding for both the Bridges and SPARK (formerly Creativity) programs. These are educational and training programs aimed at developing the next generation of stem cell scientists. The Bridges students are undergraduate or Master’s level students. The SPARK students are all still in high school. Many in both groups come from poor or low-income communities. This program gives them a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility and to think about a career in science, something that for many might have been unthinkable without Bridges or SPARK.

Process isn’t pretty. But for the students who can now think about becoming a scientist, for the researchers who can plan new studies, and for the patients who can now envision a potential therapy getting into clinical trials, that process can make all the difference.

Using stem cells to mend a broken heart and winning $6,000 to boot

It’s no secret that the members of the CIRM blog team are all big fans of scientists who are good public communicators. We feel that the more scientists talk about their research, the better the public will understand the importance of science and it’s ability to help them or someone they love.

Grad Slam winner, Ashley Fong from UC Irvine

Grad Slam winner, Ashley Fong from UC Irvine

So on Monday when University of California, Irvine researcher Ashley Fong won the $6,000 top prize in the Grad Slam competition for the terrific explanation of her work in using stem cells to treat heart disease, it was doubly gratifying. You see, not only is Ashley a great communicator, but she’s also someone we have helped support in her career.

The Grad Slam is an “elevator pitch” competition sponsored by the University of California Office of the President. Ten graduate students from across the UC system were given three minutes to explain their work to a live audience, using everyday language and avoiding jargon or technical lingo.

All the students were good. Ashley was great. Want proof? Here you go (Ashley comes on at 39.20 into the video.)

She says she discovered her passion for stem cell research thanks to a CIRM-funded summer undergraduate internship. Now she is working in the lab of Chris Hughes at UCI.

In a UCI News story about the competition Frances Leslie, dean of the Graduate Division who hosted the campus-level competition in April, said:

“It’s important for graduate students to explain their research to the general public in ways that are easy to understand. And it’s also critical for the taxpayers of California to see the benefits of their support of graduate education.”

We couldn’t have put it any better.