UCLA scientist shares stem cell research with the next generation

CIRM grantee at UCLA Michael Teitell spoke with high school students on Stem Cell Awareness Day

Michael Teitell working with one of his lab students

When speaking with high school students one learns to always expect the unexpected. Such visits can be exhilarating and surprising and are never boring. I was asked to write a guest blog for CIRM because of a wonderful interaction I had recently with a biology class at Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta, California, as part of the CIRM sponsored Stem Cell Awareness Day. It is inspiring to talk to young people about stem cell research and the work we do at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. Yet, this visit was special because of the very open and interactive discussion the students and I had that day.

The students shared with me their knowledge of the basics of stem cell biology, so we skipped over the usual introductory material and instead we engaged in an in-depth discussion of the cutting edge work supported by CIRM, including research at UCLA’s Broad Stem Cell Research Center (those awards are listed here), and the potential real-world application of stem cell research in the development of treatments and cures for a wide range of diseases. Among the topics that particularly energized the students was that of induced pluripotent stem cells, by coincidence the discovery that resulted in the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine a few days later.

One student wrote to me afterwards saying:

‘The thing that interested me most was {that Dr. Yamanaka} discovered how to take mature adult cells and turn them into stem cells. I find that backwards process fascinating. This presentation me consider an occupation in stem cell research.”

The students were surprised and fascinated to learn that tissue-specific cells such as skin or blood could be reprogrammed to be pluripotent stem cells. Their questions were sharp and thoughtful and I found them very curious about the subject. Some of the students said that our discussion inspired them to possibly seek careers in molecular biology and stem cell research. One wrote:

“Before today I had very little intuition about stem cells and was not really interested in that field of study. However, your lectures totally changed my attitude towards the topic. When I got home, I spent three hours on my computer researching about stem cells. Every website I opened just increased my interest about stem cells.”

Other questions dealt with life in college, getting into college, and the students asked about doing research, such as pursuing a career in biology. As a member of a college admissions board, I noted that getting into a college they wanted and doing well there depended upon more than just studying and getting good grades. The college admissions reviewers will want to see demonstrated leadership in extracurricular activities inside and outside of high school to help assess whether the students will be productive members of the academic community. For some of the students it was important to have an opportunity to see inside this college experience:

“I found your background information and advice about college very inspirational. I gained a better understanding about what college was like and what I need to do to get where I want.”

I received a flood of emails afterward, one from nearly every student. I was impressed by the maturity, thoughtfulness and sincerity of their responses.

As the students discussed the amazing advances we are making in stem cell research it was clear that they are inspired by science. In turn, I was inspired by these students as they potentially represent the next generation of scientists who will build on our many current discoveries and transform stem cell research into the discoveries and treatments of the future.

Michael Teitell, MD, PhD
Eli & Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research
Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
University of California, Los Angeles

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