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.

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.   

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.

[PHOTOS] CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program hosts annual conference in sunny San Diego

For more than a decade, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has funded educational and research training programs to give students the opportunity to explore regenerative medicine and stem cell science right here in California.   

This summer, the CIRM team was thrilled to meet the bright scientists taking part in this year’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program, which culminated at the 2022 Bridges Trainee Meeting in sunny San Diego.  

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. 

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

In addition to networking with other scientists across the state, the annual Bridges Trainee Meeting provides students the opportunity to share their research in poster presentations and to learn about careers in the regenerative medicine field. This year, students also attended talks about cutting edge science research, anti-racism in STEM, science communication through social media, and patient advocacy.  

“As the field advances, we must also meet the demand for promising young scientists,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM (pictured below). “The CIRM Bridges programs across the state of California will provide students with the tools and resources to begin their careers in regenerative medicine.” 

There are currently 15 active Bridges programs throughout California, each with its own eligibility criteria and application process. If you are interested in applying, please visit this web page for more details about each program. If you have questions about the Bridges program, please email the CIRM Bridges director, Dr. Kelly Shepard at education@cirm.ca.gov. 

Finally, a sincere thank you goes to the Bridges Program from California State University, San Marcos for hosting this year’s CIRM Bridges Trainee Meeting! 

Check out some of the photos from this year’s conference below.

Celebrating academic success and overcoming obstacles

Congratulations to Yasmine Arafa (she/hers), a CIRM Bridges Student Intern at UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures! She recently graduated from California State University-Sacramento, officially concluding her Master’s degree and Fulbright Association journey. She conducted research with the aim of developing new therapeutic approaches for rare diseases.

Yasmine says, “I have finally passed my thesis defense and am now a Master‘s degree holder. People in grad school tend to not celebrate their achievements as much, but I chose to celebrate mine.”

“As a graduate student who started their degree in 2020, it has been a rough journey for me. Coming to a new country on my own, away from my family and loved ones, during a pandemic, has been quite the challenge. I‘m proud of myself and of this achievement, because I know the immense amount of academic and mental effort I had to put in to get to this point. To all graduate students out there, don‘t forget to celebrate your success!”

Congrats, Yasmine! She joins 1,663 CIRM Bridges alumni who are helping build the next generation of scientists and meet CIRM’s mission to #AccelerateWorldClassScience here in California for the world. 

To learn more about CIRM’s internship programs, visit our website.

How CIRM’s Bridges internship program inspired this student to pursue a career in regenerative medicine 

Samira Alwahabi

For more than a decade, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has funded educational and research training programs to give students the opportunity to explore stem cell science right here in California.  

One such project—the Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program—helps train future generations of scientists by preparing undergraduate and master’s students from several California universities for careers in stem cell and regenerative medicine research. To date, there have been 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees are completing their internships in 2022. 

Samira Alwahabi, a Bridges scholar and undergraduate student majoring in Biological Sciences at California State University, Fullerton was one of the many participants in last year’s Bridges program. She completed her internship in the Calvin Kuo Lab at Stanford University, which she says was nothing short of incredible. 

Samira and Alan N. (another CIRM scholar from CSUF) in the lab

“Not only was I able to be a part of cutting-edge stem cell research but I also gained incredible mentors and friends within academic medicine, all of whom push me to be the best version of myself,” Samira says.  

After completing her internship last year, Samira graduated cum laude with a degree in cell and developmental biology. She is currently working in the Kuo Lab at Stanford University as a lab technician. Her next steps include applying to medical school to become a physician, wherein she will use her research experience to better understand medical innovations that translate into improved quality of care for patients.     

“I am eternally grateful to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and California State University, Fullerton for giving me the opportunity to enter the field of biomedical research,” Samira adds. “The ability to discover, experiment, and learn something new every day brought a new excitement to my life, exposing my interest in translational medicine.” 

Educating and training the next generation of regenerative science workforce

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Bridges scholars presenting their research posters to CIRM team members and other scientists

Regenerative medicine is a diverse and rapidly evolving field, employing core expertise from biologists, engineers, and clinicians. As the field continues to advance, a well-trained regenerative science workforce is needed to apply the newest discoveries to clinical care. That’s why one of the goals outlined in our new 5-year Strategic Plan is to build a diverse and highly skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy in California.  

Since its inception, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has been committed to educating the next generation of researchers, leaders, and innovators. Through its existing educational pillar programs such as SPARK and Bridges, the agency has been able to provide unique training and career development opportunities to a wide range of students from high school to college and beyond.

Through our new Strategic Plan, CIRM hopes to enhance training and education of the future California workforce by making it easier for students to start their career, accelerate career advancement, and provide greater access for diverse and underrepresented groups. Training and educating individuals who come from varied backgrounds brings new perspectives and different skillsets which enhance the development of the entire field, from basic and clinical research to manufacturing and commercialization.

The workforce training programs will be combined with CIRM’s other pillar programs to facilitate career entry at multiple levels. Through connecting the existing EDUC pillar programs with the planned California Manufacturing Network infrastructure program, CIRM hopes to address the critical need for a highly trained manufacturing workforce. By leveraging the Alpha Clinics and Community Care Centers, the agency will work to develop education curricula that address the currently unmet need for Clinical Research Coordinators. CIRM’s competency hubs and knowledge networks will also incorporate education and training programs to provide career pathways in emerging technologies, computational biology and data sciences.

You can read more about these goals in our 2022-27 Strategic Plan.

How these scholars are growing the regenerative medicine field in California

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CIRM Scholar Alessandra Rodriguez y Baena

Through our new Strategic Plan, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) will build inclusive participation opportunities for all stakeholders, from the students to the workforce to the patients.  

That said, it’s important to recognize the important work CIRM has already done to train the next generation of scientists and grow the field of regenerative medicine. Alessandra’s story illustrates just one of the many ways we have done that in the past, and we intend to do even more in the future. 

Gaining Exposure to Innovative Research

CIRM Scholar Alessandra Rodriguez y Baena was a Master’s student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. With the support of CIRM’s Bridges Program, she became a CIRM intern in the Willert Lab at UC San Diego.  

As a student researcher, CIRM provided her with supportive mentors (both at Cal Poly and UCSD), hands-on training in the field of regenerative medicine, and exposure to innovative ideas and research. The program also provided Alessandra with a stipend to help cover expenses. This was particularly helpful for students from low-income backgrounds who otherwise might not be able to afford to go to college. 

“I always recommend my undergraduate students who are interested in research to apply to the Bridges programs because, to me, it was a defining experience that led me to pursue my passion for stem cell research as well as teaching,” Alessandra says. 

Alessandra is now a fourth-year PhD student in the Forsberg Lab in the department of Molecular, Cell & Developmental Biology at UC Santa Cruz where she is studying the epigenetic regulation of aging in bone marrow stem cells.  

In addition to Alessandra, CIRM has provided opportunities in science to nearly 3,000 students across California. These include high schoolers in our SPARK Program, as well as undergrads and graduate students in our Bridges Program and pre and post-doctoral students in our Research Training program. Many of these are from diverse backgrounds.  

A Game Changer

Sneha Santosh, another CIRM Scholar, first heard about CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Therapy and Research internship when she was graduating from the UC Davis. She was pursuing a degree in microbial biotechnology and thinking about getting a master’s degree in biotechnology. She said the opportunity to be part of a program that is training the next generation of scientists was a game changer for her.  

Through the Bridges Program, she learned about stem cells’ power to treat a disease’s root cause rather than just the symptoms. She saw how these transformative therapies changed people’s lives. 

Today, she is a cell culture associate with Novo Nordisk, a leading global healthcare company in Fremont, California 

CIRM’s New Strategic Plan

Alessandra and Sneha’s stories capture CIRM’s commitment to building education and training programs, and providing opportunities to build a diverse, highly skilled regenerative medicine workforce. We’ll be covering this ambitious yet achievable goal in our upcoming blog posts.  

To learn more about CIRM’s work and plans build the regenerative medicine field, check out our new 5-year strategic plan on our website.