Todd’s favorite stem cell pitches: enthusiastic students and post-docs

If we build it, will they come?

That’s the question Amy, Kevin, and I (aka the CIRM film crew) were asking a few Thursday mornings ago in the lobby outside the CIRM Grantee Meeting. All systems were go with our makeshift film studio: camera on the tripod – check; microphones live – check; lighting in position – check; mural hung up against wall to prettify the background – check.

Waiting patiently for elevator pitch volunteers

Then, only crickets. Would not even one of the several hundred CIRM grantees in attendance participate in our Elevator Pitch Challenge? Hours seemed to go by, in reality probably many minutes. Suddenly a figure emerged from the throngs of CIRM scientists hanging out in the lobby during an intermission. It was a UCLA graduate student, William Kim. “Is this where I do the video pitch contest?” he asked.

Thank goodness for the enthusiasm of students. By taking that first plunge in front of the camera, I think William helped set off the avalanche of 43 pitches we would end up filming over two days (remarkably, 14 others also submitted their own videos). I particularly liked how William made a connection between his work to generate an unlimited supply of embryonic stem-cell derived red blood cells with the promise of one day helping soldiers in the field where blood is in short supply. (You can watch his video here.)

Time and time again, I’ve been so impressed and inspired by the undergraduates, graduates, postdocs, and even high school students that I’ve had the privilege to film over the past few years. The enthusiasm they show while explaining their research is contagious. Our elevator pitch interviews were no different. Of the 57 total pitches, 29 were in our non-lead scientist category (those just starting out or in the early days of their career). And though we only announced a few winners for the purposes of our contest I think there are several other non-lead scientists, like William, that deserve a shout-out:

Stefano DaSacco (Postdoctoral Fellow at Children’s Hospital, Los Angeles)– It was great to see Stefano’s friendly face again and to see that his excitement for stem cell research still thrives. Amy and I had filmed a short interview with him at the 2011 grantee meeting. At that time, I wasn’t able to use any of the footage in the final edit. While filming his video pitch this year, it was clear to Amy and me that he had improved his communication skills and he nailed his project aim of identifying an amniotic fluid-derived stem cell to generate kidney cells for development of a kidney failure therapy. He received several top votes from our judges. Here’s Stefano’s pitch.

Joseph Hargan Calvopiña (Graduate Student at UCLA)- I have to give Joseph props for taking on the challenge of explaining genetic imprinting in 30 seconds. Many of the other pitches were more straight-forward: “in disease x, cell type A is destroyed , our approach is to grow stem cell derived cell type A and put it back in the body to cure disease X.” Joseph didn’t have that luxury but clearly did a lot of preparation and was very open to our suggestions. In the end, his pitch was a bit over 30 seconds but he gave an easy to understand explanation of how genes from your mother vs. your father are distinguished through imprinting and the implications for disease when the imprinting goes awry. Here’s Joseph’s pitch.

Lina Nih (Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA). Lina dropped by our film booth on the first day to watch her lab mate Jonathan Lam give what became the first place pitch in the non-lead scientist category. Lina seemed interested to give her own pitch but then we lost sight of her that day. I’m really glad she came back the next day because she delivered a very compassionate pitch about her research on stroke. Her opening was very compelling and made me want to hear more and I thought her conclusion was one of the most unique in that she spoke on a personal level to the public by saying: “and in the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine we believe in a better future where these [stem cell based stroke] treatments would be true and so we need you to believe in this too.” Here’s Lina’s pitch.

I also really enjoyed watching Youngtae Jeong from Stanford University give his pitch. He had clearly worked hard to come up with an analogy that would explain his research to a person who doesn’t understand the relationship between stem cells and cancer. That kind of creativity will serve him well when trying to communicate complex science.

I didn’t get to meet Victoria Bendersky from Scripps Research Institute because she recorded her pitch and sent it to us, but she also shows incredible passion for the kids who might benefit from her research. It’s nice to know that the people who will be leading stem cell labs in the future have such compassion for the patients they might end up helping.

I could tell you behind the scenes stories about all of the scientists who pitched at the meeting and I actually feel bad for leaving so many people out of this blog. I really do think everyone was a winner and we hope all of the pitchees gained a little more experience for their next elevator ride.


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