Celebrating Creativity – a new generation of scientists shines

Jonathan Thomas is Chair of the CIRM Governing Board

Photos courtesy Steve Cohn Photography

Last Friday, I and a number of my colleagues from the stem cell agency had the privilege of attending a wonderful event at USC honoring a summer internship program for local high school students in the USC Stem Cell labs. A number of the internships were sponsored by CIRM as part of our “Creativity Award” program; the rest through other sponsors in a program dubbed the “Star Scholars.”

While there were speeches by USC Medical School Dean and fellow CIRM Boardmember (and Red Sox fan) Carmen Puliafito. CIRM Vice Chair Senator Art Torres, Rabbi David Wolpe, Los Angeles Times science reporter Eryn Brown and me, it was the kids who stole the show. Each of the speakers was introduced by one of the students in the program in remarks that were unfailingly eloquent. With each introduction, the student commented on what he or she was doing in the lab. All of their comments were very interesting, leading most all adults in the audience to wish they had had the same opportunity when they were in high school.

Here’s a sample of what two of them had to say:

“Stem cell research is very promising as these cells have the ability to differentiate into virtually any cell within the human body. For this reason stem cells have revolutionized the way scientists approach the study and treatment of human diseases. Their benefits range from finding a cure to HIV/AIDS to creating a whole organ, to preventing and even reversing birth defects. Accordingly, stem cell research is important for the development of new opportunities, new medicines, new solutions and a new society.” Aimee Mendoza, Bravo Medical Magnet High School

“Stem cell research provides opportunities for big scientific breakthroughs and new potential therapies. The replacement of cells such as neurons, previously thought to be irreplaceable if damaged or destroyed, is now a possibility that researchers are exploring. This means that in the future, Alzheimer’s Disease and related neurological disorders could be treated through the use of stem cell differentiation and other techniques.” Omar Lopez, Bravo Medical Magnet High School

After the speakers, a panel of six students convened and answered a number of questions from the audience, comprised of USC stem cell researchers, benefactors, parents, CIRM officials and other students. This panel was impressive for a variety of reasons. The questions weren’t easy, particularly since the students had only been interning at that point for two weeks. All answers were insightful (several comments on the relevance of the individual research being undertaken by the speaker on the incurable disease or condition in question), brutally honest (“I was surprised that they actually let me do anything because I assumed they thought I’d mess the whole thing up”) and at times very funny (“my biggest surprise was that I had to keep the lab bench clean”…wonder what his room looks like at home? or “I became interested in the summer program when I saw they had refreshments at the introductory meeting”). What was really impressive was how the students already had a grasp of a lot of the details of their work in such a short period of time.

All-in-all, each of the various students who spoke gave those watching great confidence that the future of research is in good hands. These were really smart young men and women! CIRM is proud to sponsor these students and those throughout the State in our Creativity Awards program. We congratulate USC and the other Creativity Award host institutions for so ably engaging and preparing the future researchers of tomorrow. We look forward to tracking their progress and to their contributions to the field downstream.

Jonathan Thomas

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