High school SPARK intern presents stem cell research to academic audience 

Earlier this year, CIRM welcomed many energetic and enthusiastic high school students at the 2022 SPARK Program annual conference in Oakland. The SPARK program is one of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (CIRM) many programs dedicated to building a diverse and highly-skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy right here in California.   

At the SPARK conference, a handful of students presented the stem cell research they did over the summer. It was a great opportunity to share their experiences as well as findings to their high school peers. 

Just recently, Simran Ovalekar—a 2022 SPARK program intern—had the unique opportunity to share her research and findings with a wider audience, including undergraduate and PhD students at STEM Shadow Day in San Diego. The event aims to provide college prep students from San Diego and Imperial Valley counties with a unique experience to witness the “real world” of work in an engineering or scientific environment. 

“At first I was nervous because I understood that I would be presenting not only in front of high school students, but also undergraduates and PhD candidates,” Simran says. “After reviewing my research, I felt solid and excited to present. I absolutely loved working in the lab so I knew all I had to do was be myself and show my enthusiasm.”

During the SPARK summer internship, Simran joined the Sacco Lab to study Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) and how stem cells can be used to provide treatment. DMD is a progressive muscle wasting disorder with life expectancy of approximately age 20. There are around 17,000 people, the vast majority of them boys, diagnosed with DMD in the US

Dr. Sacco’s lab—which has also received CIRM funding—is researching ways to generate healthy adult muscle stem cells using the patient’s own cells to generate healthy skeletal muscle. 

For Simran, conducting research for DMD was personal, as her sister was born with a defect affecting the heart.  

“When I began this program, I had a superficial understanding of what a stem cell was. Now, however, I am amazed at the possibilities stem cells provide, and with certainty, can say stem cells are the future of medicine.” 

After her presentation at STEM Shadow Day, Simran says she received a positive response from attendees and was reminded why she loves science and of her passion for pursuing a career in stem cell research.  

“I am looking forward to continue skeletal stem cell research and am even open to experimenting with other avenues of molecular medicine,” Simran says. “I am eager to have the opportunity to pursue the hands-on research I enjoyed this past summer.” 


CIRM has also funded a clinical trial for people with DMD. We blogged about that work and how the impact it is having on some people’s lives.  

 

A timeless message about stem cells

Dr. Daniel Kota

The world of stem cell research is advancing rapidly, with new findings and discoveries seemingly every week. And yet some things that we knew years ago are still every bit as relevant today as they were then.

Take for example a TEDx talk by Dr. Daniel Kota, a stem cell researcher and the Director, Cellular Therapy – Research and Development at Houston Methodist.

Dr. Kota’s talk is entitled: “Promises and Dangers of Stem Cell Therapies”. In it he talks about the tremendous potential of stem cells to reverse the course of disease and help people battle previously untreatable conditions.

But he also warns about the gap between what the science can do, and what people believe it can do. He says too many people have unrealistic expectations of what is available right now, fueled by many unscrupulous snake oil salesmen who open clinics and offer “treatments” that are both unproven and unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration.

He says we need to “bridge the gap between stem cell science and society” so that people have a more realistic appreciation of what stem cells can do.

Sadly, as the number of clinics peddling these unproven therapies grows in the US, Dr. Kota’s message remains all too timely.

Why the future of regenerative medicine depends on students getting a living wage

The headline in the journal Nature was intended to grab attention and it definitely did that. It read: ‘The scandal of researchers paid less than a living wage’ The rest of the article built on that saying “The cost-of-living crisis is a fundamental threat for PhD scholars and early-career researchers. They need to be paid properly.”

So, just how poorly are these researchers – PhD candidates and postdoctoral students – paid? Well, according to one survey salaries for PhD students in the biological sciences are below the cost of living at almost every institution in the United States. And imagine trying to live on a sub-standard income in a state as expensive as California?

The outrage is fueled by a survey of more than 3,200 students, three quarters of whom are PhD candidates. Around 85% of the students said inflation is making things even worse and almost half said it was making it hard to complete their courses.

The situation isn’t any better in other countries. In the UK, PhD students often get the equivalent of just $20,400, and that’s after getting a recent big boost of more than $2,000 per year. It’s no wonder English students organized protests calling for better funding. Students in Ireland also staged protests, saying the money they get simply isn’t enough.

The Nature Editorial said this isn’t just a matter of inconvenience for the students, it’s a threat to the future of science: “If students don’t have the resources to support themselves, they can’t put their full efforts into their training and development. And if their stipends aren’t keeping pace with rising rents and the cost of groceries and fuel, any gaps will only grow with time — with devastating results for the ability of research to attract the best talent.”

That’s one of the reasons the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) tries to make sure all the students in its internship programs have enough money to live on. We know it’s hard to focus on work if you are hungry or worried that you don’t have enough money to pay your bills.

When our Board approved a new internship program, called COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science) they made sure that enough money was included to cover students living expenses, course fees and even travel to scientific conferences. The Board allocated more than $58,000 a year to support each students, many of whom will come from poor or low-income communities and might not otherwise be able to afford to stay in school.

For our Bridges students, many of whom are also from low-income communities or are the first in their family to attend college, the Board allocated each one around $72,000 worth of support per year.

We know that the future of regenerative medicine in California depends on having a skilled, well-trained, diverse workforce. That doesn’t just mean PhDs doing the research, it also means the technicians and support staff that can help with manufacturing etc. Without a living wage that makes this possible many students will drop out and the field as a whole will struggle. Those most affected will be students from poor backgrounds or from disadvantaged and historically marginalized communities.

We need to support these students in every way we can. If we don’t provide enough financial support for these students to succeed, the field as a whole will be a lot poorer.

CIRM Board Approves Funding for New Clinical Trial Targeting Brain Tumors

The governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has awarded almost $12 million to carry out a clinical trial targeting brain tumors.

This brings the total number of CIRM funded clinical trials to 83.  

$11,999,984 was awarded to Dr. Jana Portnow at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. They are using Neural stem cells (NSCs) as a form of delivery vehicle to carry a cancer-killing virus that specifically targets brain tumor cells.

Glioblastoma is the most common malignant primary brain tumor in adults and each year about 12,000 Americans are diagnosed. The 5-year survival rate is only about 10%.

The current standard of care involves surgically removing the tumor followed by radiation, chemotherapy, and alternating electric field therapy. Despite these treatments, survival remains low.

The award to Dr. Portnow will fund a clinical trial to assess the safety and effectiveness of this stem cell-based treatment for Glioblastoma.

The Board also awarded $3,111,467 to Dr. Boris Minev of Calidi Biotherapeutics. This award is in the form of a CLIN1 grant, with the goal of completing the testing needed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to start a clinical trial in people.

This project uses donor fat-derived mesenchymal stem cells that have been loaded with oncolytic virus to target metastatic melanoma, triple negative breast cancer, and advanced head & neck squamous cell carcinoma.

“There are few options for patients with advanced solid tumor cancers such as glioblastoma, melanoma, breast cancer, and head & neck cancer,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM. “Surgical resection, chemotherapy and radiation are largely  ineffective in advanced cases and survival typically is measured in months. These new awards will support novel approaches to address the unmet medical needs of patients with these devastating cancers.”

The CIRM Board also voted to approve awarding $71,949,539 to expand the CIRM Alpha Clinics Network. The current network consists of six sites and the Board approved continued funding for those and added an additional three sites. The funding is to last five years.

The goal of the Alpha Clinics award is to expand existing capacities for delivering stem cell, gene therapies and other advanced treatment to patients. They also serve as a competency hub for regenerative medicine training, clinical research, and the delivery of approved treatments.

Each applicant was required to submit a plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to support and facilitate outreach and study participation by underserved and disproportionately affected populations in the clinical trials they serve.

The successful applicants are:

ApplicationProgram TitleInstitution/Principal InvestigatorAmount awarded
INFR4-13579The Stanford Alpha Stem Cell ClinicStanford University – Matthew Porteus  $7,997,246  
INFR4-13581UCSF Alpha Stem Cell ClinicU.C. San Francisco – Mark Walters  $7,994,347  
INFR4-13586A comprehensive stem cell and gene therapy clinic to
advance new therapies for a diverse patient
population in California  
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – Michael Lewis  $7,957,966    
INFR4-13587The City of Hope Alpha Clinic: A roadmap for equitable and inclusive access to regenerative medicine therapies for all Californians  City of Hope – Leo Wang  $8,000,000
INFR4-13596Alpha Stem Cell Clinic for Northern and Central California  U.C. Davis – Mehrdad Abedi  $7,999,997  
INFR4-13685Expansion of the Alpha Stem Cell and Gene Therapy Clinic at UCLA  U.C. Los Angeles – Noah Federman  $8,000,000
INFR4-13878Alpha Clinic Network Expansion for Cell and Gene Therapies  University of Southern California – Thomas Buchanan  $7,999,983  
INFR4-13952A hub and spoke community model to equitably deliver regenerative medicine therapies to diverse populations across four California counties  U.C. Irvine – Daniela Bota  $8,000,000
INFR4-13597UC San Diego Health CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic  U.C. San Diego – Catriona Jamieson  $8,000,000

The Board also unanimously, and enthusiastically, approved the election of Maria Gonzalez Bonneville to be the next Vice Chair of the Board. Ms. Bonneville, the current Vice President of Public Outreach and Board Governance at CIRM, was nominated by all four constitutional officers: the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Treasurer and the Controller.

In supporting the nomination, Board member Ysabel Duron said: “I don’t think we could do better than taking on Maria Gonzalez Bonneville as the Vice Chair. She is well educated as far as CIRM goes. She has a great track record; she is empathetic and caring and will be a good steward for the taxpayers to ensure the work we do serves them well.”

In her letter to the Board applying for the position, Ms. Bonneville said: “CIRM is a unique agency with a large board and a long history. With my institutional knowledge and my understanding of CIRM’s internal workings and processes, I can serve as a resource for the new Chair. I have worked hand-in-hand with both the Chair and Vice Chair in setting agendas, prioritizing work, driving policy, and advising accordingly.  I have worked hard to build trusted relationships with all of you so that I could learn and understand what areas were of the most interest and where I could help shed light on those particular programs or initiatives. I have also worked closely with Maria Millan for the last decade, and greatly enjoy our working relationship. In short, I believe I provide a level of continuity and expertise that benefits the board and helps in times of transition.”

In accepting the position Ms. Bonneville said: “I am truly honored to be elected as the Vice Chair for the CIRM Board. I have been a part of CIRM for 11 years and am deeply committed to the mission and this new role gives me an opportunity to help support and advance that work at an exciting time in the Agency’s life. There are many challenges ahead of us but knowing the Board and the CIRM team I feel confident we will be able to meet them, and I look forward to helping us reach our goals.”

Ms. Bonneville will officially take office in January 2023.

The vote for the new Chair of CIRM will take place at the Board meeting on December 15th.

How this scientist changed paths to become a stem cell researcher

Aaliyah Staples-West didn’t originally envision becoming a stem cell researcher. As a student at San Diego State University, she admits that she sometimes struggled with reading protocols or finishing experiments on time. She also was originally studying chemistry, a very distinct scientific field from regenerative medicine. 

But when she saw a post on Instagram about the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy internship program, she did a bit of research about it and ultimately stepped up to pursue the opportunity.   

“Everything I was looking for aligned with what I wanted to do,” she says. “I applied and I was greeted with open arms to an acceptance about a week later.” She even stayed in college for an extra semester so she could enroll in the CIRM internship program.

During the year-long internship—which took place at UC San Diego in the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine—Aaliyah studied and modeled a rare disease called Cockayne Syndrome B (CSB). CSB is a rare disease which causes short stature, premature aging, severe photosensitivity, and moderate to severe learning delay. 

In the lab, Aaliyah worked with stem cells to derive brain organoids, which are three-dimensional, organ-like clusters of cells. She also researched vascular endothelial cells, which form a single cell layer that lines all blood vessels. She tested and observed these to further understand the causes of CSB.  

Aaliyah also had opportunities to do work outside of the lab, traveling to various scientific conferences across the state to explain her work to other scientists.

She enjoyed sharing her findings, but Aaliyah says it was a challenge at first to learn all the complex science and terminology relating to stem cells. She overcame that obstacle by asking lots of questions and putting in extra effort to understanding the biology and reasoning behind her work.  

“I would write down all the terms my mentor would say that I didn’t understand and look them up,” she says. “I would even practice using them in a sentence. I made it very intentional that if I wanted to continue researching in this field I needed to be on the same page.”

Aaliyah and her Bridges cohort at the CIRM Bridges conference in San Diego.

Now that her internship is over, Aaliyah is much more confident and has learned various techniques to successfully complete research projects. She now works for biotechnology company Resilience as a research associate working with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and hematopoietic stem cells. Though she originally intended to go to medical school, she is now looking into MD/PhD programs where she can apply all that she’s learned in her training and education.  

“I never thought I would have a love for stem cell research until participating in this program,” she says. “Stem cell research and regenerative medicine provide infinite opportunities for developing, understanding and potentially curing diseases. It’s important to continue this type of research to ensure science is quickly evolving and to make an impact on overall health.” 

To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees are completing their internships in 2022.  Learn more about CIRM’s internship programs here

All photos courtesy of Sarah White/SDSU and Aaliyah Staples-West.

A newfound passion for stem cell research

All her life, Madison Waterlander knew that she wanted to be a part of the medical field. But soon after graduating from the University of Hawaii with her undergraduate degree, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was during this time that she noticed how crucial biomedical research was in the medical field and lives of patients, and when she realized she had a passion for research.  

She soon after found a master’s program in biotechnology and bioinformatics at California State University Channel Islands (CI), just a few minutes from Camarillo, the town she grew up in.  

Looking further into the program, she learned that to pursue a Stem Cell Technology and Laboratory Management emphasis for the degree, she would have to complete a one-year lab internship funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The internship was part of CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy Program, which prepares California undergraduate and master’s graduate students for highly productive careers in stem cell research and therapy development.  

The opportunity to have hands-on experience in a lab through the internship solidified her decision to join the graduate program. 

Once she settled into the program at CSU Channel Islands, she began her internship, which took place at UC Santa Barbara in the Weimbs Lab. While there, she researched the underlying mechanisms and possible new therapies for Autosomal Dominant Polycystic Kidney Disease (ADPKD), a genetic disorder characterized by the growth of numerous cysts in the kidneys.  

“This CIRM-funded internship was so enriching for me, and I was able to expand my knowledge and skill set immensely in the laboratory,” Madison says. “I always knew that I loved science and the medical field, but this experience truly helped me realize that my strongest passion resides in the scientific research that goes into improving the quality of patient care and treatments.” 

While Madison says the internship supported her knowledge in the lab and was an overall positive experience, she also faced some personal challenges during that time, including losing her grandma. She struggled with the loss, but Madison says her time in the lab allowed her to focus on something she loved doing and that her grandma always encouraged her to do. 

“My grandma never would have wanted me to give up, so that truly helped to push me to continue on, and to try my hardest in every day to make an impact,” Madison says. 

After a year of hard work in the lab, Madison officially graduated from CSU Channel Islands this summer with a Master of Science Degree in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics with a Stem Cell Technology and Laboratory Management emphasis. Now, Madison is pursuing a role in the biotechnology industry within translational biomedical research.

“I truly enjoyed every moment of my CIRM internship, and I feel that it truly revealed to me just how much I enjoy participating in biomedical research,” Madison says. “I’ve always felt that research feels like a treasure hunt looking for cures and treatments, so the more of us that are partaking in the treasure hunt, the quicker we can find new treatments and provide solutions for patients.” 

Stories like Madison’s are why CIRM remains committed to training the next generation of scientists to conduct research and deliver regenerative medicine and stem cell therapies to patients. To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees—including Madison—who are completing their internships in 2022.   

Stem Cell Agency Invests $46 Million in New Education Program

CIRM Bridges students 2022. The CIRM Board approved funding for a program to help even more students advance a career in science.

The governing Board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has approved $46,076,430 to invest in its newest education pillar- the COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem cell Science) training program.

Education is at the core of CIRM’s mission of accelerating world class science to deliver transformative regenerative medicine treatments in an equitable manner to a diverse California and world. And funding these additional programs is an important step in ensuring that California has a well-trained stem cell workforce.

The objective of COMPASS is to prepare a diverse cadre of undergraduate students for careers in regenerative medicine through combining hands-on research opportunities with strategic and structured mentorship experiences.

“Education and infrastructure are two funding pillars critical for creating the next generation of researchers and conducting stem cell based clinical trials,” says Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., J.D., Chair of the CIRM Board. “The importance of these programs was acknowledged in Proposition 14 and we expect that they will continue to be important components of CIRM’s programs and strategic direction in the years to come.”

Most undergraduate research training programs, including those targeting students from underserved communities, target individuals with predefined academic credentials as well as a stated commitment towards graduate school, medical school, or faculty positions in academia. COMPASS will support the development and implementation of novel strategies to recognize and foster untapped talent that can lead to new and valuable perspectives that are specific to the challenges of regenerative medicine, and that will create new paths to a spectrum of careers that are not always apparent to students in the academic, undergraduate environment.

COMPASS will complement but not compete with CIRM’s Bridges program, a subset of which serve a different, but equally important population of undergraduate trainees; similarly, the program is unlikely to compete for the same pools of students that would be most likely to receive support through the major NIH Training Programs such as MARC and RISE.

Here are the 16 successful applicants.

Application numberTitlePrincipal InvestigatorAmount
EDUC5-13840  The COMPASS Scholars Program – Developing Today’s Untapped Talent into Tomorrow’s STEM Cell Researchers    John Matsui, University of California, Berkeley    $2,908,950
EDUC5-13634  COMPASS Undergraduate Program  Alice F Tarantal, University of California, Davis    $2,909,950  
EDUC5-13637  Research Mentorship Program in Regenerative Medicine Careers for a Diverse Undergraduate Student Body    Brian J. Cummings, University of California, Irvine    $2,729,900
EDUC5-13665  CIRM COMPASS Training Program (N-COMPASS)  Cindy S Malone, The University Corporation at California State University, Northridge    $2,909,700  
EDUC5-13817  COMPASS: Accelerating Stem Cell Research by Educating and Empowering New Stem Cell Researchers  Tracy L Johnson, University of California, Los Angeles    $2,910,000  
EDUC5-13744  Training and mentorship program in stem cell biology and engineering: A COMPASS for the future  Dennis Clegg, University of California, Santa Barbara    $2,746,000  
EDUC5-13636  Research Training and Mentorship Program to Inspire Diverse Undergraduates toward Regenerative Medicine
Careers (RAMP)
  Huinan Hannah Liu, The Regents of the University of California on behalf of its Riverside Campus    $2,910,000  
EDUC5-13679  Inclusive Pathways for a Stem Cell Scholar (iPSCs) Undergraduate Training Program    Lily Chen, San Francisco State University    $2,894,500
EDUC5-13733  A COMPASS to guide the growth of a diverse regenerative medicine workforce that represents California and benefits
the world
  Kristen OHalloran Cardinal, Cal Poly Corporation, an Auxiliary of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo    $2,887,939  
EDUC5-13619  Increase Diversity, Equity, and Advancement in Cell Based Manufacturing Sciences (IDEA-CBMS)  Michael Fino, MiraCosta College    $2,894,500  
EDUC5-13667  COMPASS Program for Southern California Hispanic Serving Institution  Bianca Romina Mothé, California State University San Marcos Corporation    $2,877,200  
EDUC5-13653  Student Pluripotency: Realizing Untapped Undergraduate Potential in Regenerative Medicine  Daniel Nickerson, California State University, San Bernardino    $2,909,853  
EDUC5-13647  COMPASS: an inclusive Pipeline for Research and Other Stem cell-based Professions in Regenerative medicine
(iPROSPR)  
  Alison Miyamoto, CSU Fullerton Auxiliary Services Corporation    $2,883,440
EDUC5-13686  Training Undergraduates in Stem Cell Engineering and Biology (TUSCEB)    Kara E McCloskey, University of California, Merced    $2,909,999
EDUC5-13853  COMPASS: Guiding Undergraduates to Careers in Regenerative Medicine    Senta Georgia, University of Southern California    $2,899,999
EDUC5-13910  IDEA-CBMS – Increase Diversity, Equity, and Advancement in Cell Based Manufacturing Sciences    James Dekloe, Solano Community College    $2,894,500

CIRM Bridges intern researches stem cells to grow kidneys 

David Anjakos in the lab. Photo courtesy Sarah White/SDSU.

When he was younger, David Anjakos experienced kidney failure due to an autoimmune disease, leaving him without kidneys in his body. As a trainee in the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research Internship Program, Anjakos is researching methods of growing organs for transplantation to help people on a transplant list, himself included. 

By now, Anjakos thought he’d have his own kidney and that he would be off the transplant list and dialysis. That’s not the case, so he realized he wanted to try and do something about it.  

“Fifteen years later, we haven’t really gotten there. It just shows how complex the problem is and how even with thousands of hours and scientists working on this, we still haven’t quite got there,” he says. “What that showed me is that I needed to step in. We need more people on these problems.” 

David Anjakos in the lab. Photo courtesy Sarah White/SDSU.

That’s what inspired him to join the CIRM Bridges Program at San Diego State University. Specifically, he wanted to get into stem cells to try to control them to do what he wanted them to do. He’s completing his internship at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, where he is working toward developing a protein that will be able to activate stem cells to turn into different organs. 

If successful, this will be important for drug discovery, growing organs and vascularization, the process of growing blood vessels into a tissue to improve oxygen and nutrient supply. 

“CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research program has really been a huge opportunity for me to get into science, to practice science, to practice the skills that I’ll need,” said Anjakos. “It has really helped me in my confidence in my ability to do science.” 

After finishing his Bridges internship at the Sanford Consortium, Anjakos plans to start a PhD program so he can apply all he has learned from creating approximations of the Wnt protein that is essential for turning stem cells into organs with functioning vessels.  

To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees are completing their internships in 2022. 

Started in 2009, the Bridges program provides paid stem cell research internships to students at universities and colleges that don’t have major stem cell research programs. Each Bridges internship includes thorough hands-on training and education in regenerative medicine and stem cell research, and direct patient engagement and outreach activities that engage California’s diverse communities. Click here to learn more about CIRM’s educational programs.  


This story was first covered by Sarah White and Susanne Clara Bard. Read the original release on the San Diego State University website.  

 

A grandmother’s legacy, a stem cell scientist

Emily Smith, CIRM Bridges student

The California Institute for Regenerative (CIRM) has a number of education programs geared towards training the next generation of stem cell and gene therapy researchers. Each student comes to the program with their own motivation, their own reasons for wanting to be a scientist. This is Emily Smith’s story.


Surrounded by the cold white walls of a hospital room, my family suddenly found themselves on the other side of medicine. Void of any answers or cures, this new reality was full of doubt. As we witnessed assurance dwindle into a look of angst, the doctor’s lips stiffened as he faltered to say the words that would change my grandmother’s life forever. The spinal cancer they had gone in to extract was a misdiagnosed nothing. Instead, the exploration of his scalpel left her paralyzed from the chest down.

Seemingly simple day-to-day moments of my life became the building blocks of my passion for science today. Early realizations of the hurdles laced throughout my grandmother’s life. Vivid memories of my mother’s weary smile as she read articles on the newest advancements in stem cell research. Collectively, what these fragments of time nurtured was hope. I grew to have a dream that something different awaited us in the future. With purpose, I dove into the world of research as an undergraduate.

Today, I am a CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research Intern at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. I received my acceptance into the program about a month after my grandmother’s passing. She never saw a cure, let alone an effective treatment.

My position allows me to understand why stem cell research takes time. The road from the bench to the clinic is a painstakingly deliberate one. And although we seek reason and order from the world of science, what we often find is how imperfect it all can be. At its root, I found that research is truly a human endeavor. That is why, as scientists, we must grapple with our lack of knowledge and failures with humility.

CIRM’s programs that train tomorrow’s scientists, such as Bridges, are important because they do more than simply transfer over skills from one generation to the next. Over the next year, I get the valuable experience of working with scientists who share a common dream. They understand the urgency of their research, value the quality of their findings, and put patient needs first. This mentorship ensures that a sense of responsibility is carried on throughout this field.

I applied to this program because stem cell research gave my family the gift of hope. Now, on the other side of the wait, I wish to serve patients and families like my own. I am incredibly grateful to be a part of the Bridges program and I will devote the full extent of my knowledge towards the advancement of this field.

Life lessons learned in the CIRM summer intern program

SPARK poster session; Photo by Esteban Cortez

When I was in high school I spent my summers working in a shoe shop and playing soccer with my mates. It never occurred to me that I could do something really  worthwhile with that time. So, when I meet the high school students who took part in the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s SPARK program I realized I had wasted a lot of time.

For those not familiar with SPARK, it stands for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge. It’s a summer program offering high school students a chance to work in a world-class stem cell and gene therapy research facility. The quality of the work they do is truly remarkable. By the end of the summer they are doing projects that many full-time researchers would be proud of.

As part of that program the students also must write blogs and post photos and videos to Instagram to chart their progress. The quality of that work is equally impressive. Last week we posted items about the two best blogs from the students. But there were so many other fine entries that we thought it would be worthwhile to highlight elements of those.

For instance, Ricardo Rodriguez at Charles R. Drew University had some interesting observations on life, even when it’s not always working out the way you planned:

Ricardo Rodriguez: Photo by Esteban Cortez

“Cancer is not life going wrong so much as it is life changing. If mutation is random, then so is life. That beautiful randomness that drives evolution and extinction, change and stagnation, life and death, and for you to think that that part of your body could be simple in any way, whether it be simply evil, simply inconvenient, simply structured, is simply hilarious. There is beauty in your body’s complexity, adaptability, and resilience, and these attributes are not barred from any part of your life.”

Mindy Rodriguez at Beckman City of Hope says she learned valuable lessons from working with mice, creatures she previously considered scary, dirty and vicious, but later came to like:

“The CIRM SPARK program reinforced the value of facing my fears by exploring the unknown and most importantly taught me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. In both cases, I found that it is our response to fear that shapes who we are. We can either run away from the thing that scares us or take each moment as a learning opportunity, embracing change over comfort.”

Manvi Ketireddy at work at UC Davis

Manvi Ketireddy at UC Davis had a similar experience, learning to accept things not working out.

“A researcher must be persistent and have the ability to endure lots of failures. I think that is what I love about research: the slight possibility of discovery and answers amid constant defeat is one of the greatest challenges to exist. And boy, do I love challenges.”

Ameera Ali in the lab (fish not included)

Ameera Ali at Sanford Burnham Prebys says she had struggled for years to decide on a career direction, but the internship gave her a fresh perspective on it all.

“Growing up, I never really knew what I wanted to do for a living, and I think that’s because I wanted to do everything. In kindergarten I wanted to be a paleontologist. In 5th grade I wanted to be the CEO of The San Diego Union Tribune, and in 9th grade I wanted to be a physicist at NASA. By 10th grade I was having an existential crisis about what to do with my life, and so began the search for my purpose at the ripe old age of 15.

So now, writing this blog, I never thought I’d end up spending so much of my time in a room filled floor to ceiling with fish tanks. You might be wondering, how does one end up going from physicist to fish farmer? Well, I’m not completely sure to be honest, but it’s been a very fun and interesting experience nonetheless.”

She says by the end she says what initially felt like mundane chores were actually moments worth celebrating.

“These aquatic friends have taught me a lot of valuable life lessons, like being appreciative of the little things in life, caring for others and see things from a different perspective, and realizing that

working in a biology lab allows me to explore my passions, be creative, and be a mother to hundreds of fish children on the side.”

SPARK attracts students from all over California, and it’s that diversity that makes it so important.

Alexa Gastelum

My name is Alexa Gastelum and I am from a small border town called Calexico. It is located in the Imperial Valley around two hours away from San Diego. I found out about this Internship from my Math teacher and Mesa Coordinator. They discussed what it was about, and I immediately knew that I wanted to apply. I have always been interested in doing labs and researching so I knew that it would be the perfect opportunity for me. It is not normal to be presented with an opportunity like this from where I’m from because it is a small and low-income town. When I told my family about this internship they were very supportive. They agreed that I needed to apply for it since it was an extremely good opportunity. Even though I would need to spend my summer away from my hometown, they were okay with it because they knew that I could not miss out on the opportunity. I decided to write my personal statement on a disease that hit close to home with my family which was Alzheimer’s. It is a disease that runs in my family and my uncle passed from it. I believe that this is what sparked my interest because I wanted to understand how it worked and how it affects the brain.

At the SPARK event Alexa told me her grandmother was so proud of her for being accepted at the program that she was going around town telling everyone about it. Her grandmother, and all the other grandmothers and mothers and fathers, had every reason to be proud of these students. They are remarkable young people and we look forward to following their careers in the years to come.