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.

How this scientist uses Legos to explain the power of stem cells 

Explaining science is hard. Explaining stem cells, which have their very own unique complexities, can be even more of a challenge, especially when communicating with a non-scientific audience.  

That’s why when we received this blog submission from a CIRM SPARK Program intern through UCSF’s High School Intern Program (HIP) explaining stem cells in a simple, straightforward way using Legos, we knew we had to share it with our readers.

Before we share the intern’s brilliant explanation of stem cells, here’s how the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) defines stem cells. These and other key terms can be found on our website

The first thing to know about stem cells is that there is not just one kind. In fact, there are many different types of stem cells, each with very different potential to treat disease. There are various types of stem cells, including pluripotent, embryonic, adult, and iPSC (induced pluripotent stem cell).  

Stem cells also have the potential to become other kinds of cells in the body. For example, embryonic stem cells can become many other kinds of cells, whereas adult stem cells, such as in fat, can only become bone or cartilage. 

Now, the fun part! Here’s what the student shared in their prize-winning SPARK Program blog submission.


If someone were to ask me what stem cells are in a simple and perhaps figurative way now, I would say that stem cells are just like Legos. Legos are special building-blocks that are in a blank or default-like state, but can be something greater and unique on its own later on.  

Similarly, stem cells are called “unspecialized cells” because they are yet to be “specialized” or become a certain type of cell. They can be a blood, brain, heart, and basically all types of cells respectively, with little to no exceptions. Moreover, not all Legos are built the same. Some can be regular block-shaped, while some can be circular or even triangular. Therefore, this limits Legos’ abilities to a certain degree. Similarly, not all stem cells are necessarily the same. 

With just the right amount and type of Legos, you can easily assemble and build a house, a car, or whatever you could possibly think about. Similarly, the possibilities are endless with stem cells as well, which is why it’s truly a promising and key aspect in regenerative medicine today. 


Bravo! In addition to creating a unique way of explaining stem cells during their internship, the student also learned how to differentiate the different types and sources of stem cells from one another through hands-on experience at a world-renowned institution.  

The student added, “My newly-found interest in regenerative medicine and stem cells is definitely something that I’m looking forward to with great passion and knowledge moving forward.” 

To learn more about CIRM’s internship programs, visit our website. To read another prize-winning blog submission from a SPARK intern, click here.

How one student overcame uncertainty in CIRM’s high school internship program

This summer—as well as year round—the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) will highlight blog submissions, photos, and other fun content from our SPARK Program.

SPARK—also known as the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge—gives high school students a chance to spend their summer working in a world class stem cell research facility here in California. At the end of their internship, they write about their experiences and what they learned. 

As always, we received many wonderful submissions from the students, so choosing a winner was particularly tough. In the end we chose two winners. The first blog—which you can read below—was submitted by Saranya Anandakumar, who interned at Sanford Burnham Prebys in La Jolla.  

The second winning submission was authored by John Casilao, who interned at UCSF. The blog will also be shared on The Stem Cellar this week.  

Check out Saranya’s winning blog submission below and be sure to follow the blog for more updates from CIRM’s SPARK Program.


Saranya in the lab at Sanford Burnham Prebys

Certainty?

Submitted by Saranya Anandakumar 
2022 SPARK Program Intern at Sanford Burnham Prebys 

My whole life I’ve been indecisive, which I think is fair. I mean, think about it. If the multiverse theory is coupled with the butterfly effect then the difference between a vanilla and strawberry ice cream could mean the difference between my continued life or my sudden death.  

So if I can’t even choose which cereal to eat in the morning, what in the world makes my counselor think I can decide what career I want to pursue in the future? What’s worse is while an ice cream cone only lasts about ten or fifteen minutes in the beaming hot summer Sun before wasting away, my occupational choice, my major, and my degree, they’ll stay with me forever if not for at least ten or so years. So why not give a six-week free trial a shot? That way of thinking, dear reader, is precisely how I ended up in CIRM’s SPARK Program.  

Hi, my name is Saranya Anandakumar. I love oceanography and glaciology as much as I love law and psychiatry, but the medical field has always had a special place in my heart. That’s how I took the first step of applying for this internship.  

Saranya poses with her research poster at the SPARK conference in Oakland

To give a brief summary, my grandma had a stroke and pneumonia and has been bedridden since because a doctor gave her the incorrect dose of medication (according to medical staff she should have been dead). My mom has struggled with chronic pain, migraines, memory issues, and high blood pressure for years, and my entire family struggles with severe anxiety and depression (plus the occasional eating disorder).  

Of course, I have a breathing disorder and struggle with migraines. I also have an extremely weak immune system to the point where I’m ill eight months of the year. Needless to say, emergency room and ICU visits have become the norm, so much that the nurses and I are on a first-name basis. 

But, enough about my glamorous history, and more about my experience with the internship. As I established earlier, I am certain about nothing in my life, which is why it should speak volumes to you when I say I now know that I want to major in immunology and minor in neuroscience.  

Saranya (right) at the campus Intern Celebration. Photo courtesy of Sanford Burnham Prebys.

Still, a little voice inside my head cries, “Oh, what if this is the best lab you’ll ever be in?! What if you think the field is better than it really will be?!” A valid concern. I’m sure Dr. Blaho is the only former Trombone player and drum major I will ever work under, and she’s certainly the funniest. I doubt anyone will have the dad jokes Josh does or the endearing laugh and interesting input Yosiris does.  

It felt like falling in love and the best part was it didn’t matter what it was as long as I was learning something new.  

Saranya Anandakumar

However, my time at Sanford Burnham Prebys still left me with more than that. I loved walking in every day. Every lecture on oligodendrocytes and microglia had me entranced. Every western blot or stem cell experiment left me all giddy inside. Don’t even get me started on looking at human blood under a microscope! It felt like falling in love and the best part was it didn’t matter what it was as long as I was learning something new.  

I was always scared of life after college, but I thought it was because I was scared of committing to one career for the rest of my life. And though that was certainly part of it, I think I was afraid of living my life without learning anymore. So bio research is perfect for me because it’s impossible to not learn even if you try. 


To see photos of this year’s SPARK conference in Oakland, click here. To learn more about CIRM’s education programs, visit our website.  

[PHOTOS] California high school students celebrate regenerative medicine science at CIRM’s annual SPARK conference

We had a wonderful time meeting so many energetic and enthusiastic high school students at the 2022 SPARK Program annual conference hosted by UCSF at the MLK Research Building. 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. 

Held in-person for the first time since 2019, the event hosted students and program directors from all over California, allowing them the opportunity to share their research through oral and poster presentations. This year, students also attended talks about new approaches to sickle cell disease curative therapies, anti-racism in STEM, and patient advocacy.    

The SPARK Program—also known as the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge—provides California high school students with summer research internships at leading stem cell institutes in California. To date, there have been 530 SPARK alumni, and another 110 high school interns are completing their training this summer.  

The SPARK program specifically selects students who represent the diversity of California’s population, particularly those who might not otherwise have opportunities to take part in research internships due to socioeconomic constraints.  

“I really enjoyed being a part of this program, and I feel like I understand so much better what it’s like to be a researcher,” said Brighton C., a student in the SPARK program at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (pictured below). “I also feel more confident in the subject of stem cells and I might want to dedicate my future to it.” 

We’ll be sharing more stories from CIRM’s SPARK Program throughout the year, including blog submissions from students that summarize their summer experiences. Stay tuned for more and be sure to follow CIRM on Instagram, where we will share more photos and fun content created by the students. 

There are currently 11 active SPARK programs throughout California, each with its own eligibility criteria and application process. If you are interested in learning more, please visit this web page for more details about each program. If you have questions about CIRM’s education programs, please email Dr. Kelly Shepard at education@cirm.ca.gov. 

Thank you to UCSF for hosting the event, and to all the SPARK program directors for supporting this year’s bright interns!

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

The present and future of regenerative medicine

One of the great pleasures of my job is getting to meet the high school students who take part in our SPARK or Summer Internship to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge program. It’s a summer internship for high school students where they get to spend a couple of months working in a world class stem cell and gene therapy research facility. The students, many of whom go into the program knowing very little about stem cells, blossom and produce work that is quite extraordinary.

One such student is Tan Ieng Huang, who came to the US from China for high school. During her internship at U.C. San Francisco she got to work in the lab of Dr. Arnold Kriegstein. He is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Not only did she work in his lab, she took the time to do an interview with him about his work and his thoughts on the field.

It’s a fascinating interview and shows the creativity of our SPARK students. You will be seeing many other examples of that creativity in the coming weeks. But for now, enjoy the interview with someone who is a huge presence in the field today, by someone who may well be a huge presence in the not too distant future.

‘a tête-à-tête with Prof. Arnold Kriegstein’

The Kriegstein lab team: Photo courtesy UCSF

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein is the Founding Director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. Prof. Kriegstein is also the Co-Founder and Scientific Advisor of Neurona Therapeutics which seeks to provide effective and safe cell therapies for chronic brain disorder. A Clinician by training, Prof. Kriegstein has been fascinated by the intricate workings of the human brain. His laboratory focuses on understanding the transcriptional and signaling networks active during brain development, the diversity of neuronal cell types, and their fate potential. For a long time, he has been interested in harnessing this potential for translational and therapeutic intervention.

During my SEP internship I had the opportunity to work in the Kriegstein lab. I was in complete awe. I am fascinated by the brain. During the course of two months, I interacted with Prof. Kriegstein regularly, in lab meetings and found his ideas deeply insightful. Here’s presenting some excerpts from some of our discussions, so that it reaches many more people seeking inspiration!

Tan Ieng Huang (TH): Can you share a little bit about your career journey as a scientist?

Prof. Arnold Kriegstein (AK): I wanted to be a doctor when I was very young, but in high school I started having some hands-on research experience. I just loved working in the lab. From then on, I was thinking of combining those interests and an MD/PhD turned out to be an ideal course for me. That was how I started, and then I became interested in the nervous system. Also, when I was in high school, I spent some time one summer at Rockefeller University working on a project that involved operant conditioning in rodents and I was fascinated by behavior and the role of the brain in learning and memory. That happened early on, and turned into an interest in cortical development and with time, that became my career.

TH: What was your inspiration growing up, what made you take up medicine as a career?

AK: That is a little hard to say, I have an identical twin brother. He and I used to always share activities, do things together. And early on we actually became eagle scouts, sort of a boy scout activity in a way. In order to become an eagle scout without having to go through prior steps, we applied to a special program that the scouts had, which allowed us to shadow physicians in a local hospital. I remember doing that at a very young age. It was a bit ironic, because one of the evenings, they showed us films of eye surgery, and my brother actually fainted when they made an incision in the eye. The reason it makes me laugh now is because my brother became an eye surgeon many years later. But I remember our early experience, we both became very fascinated by medicine and medical research.

Tan Ieng and Dr. Arnold Kriegstein at UCSF

TH: What inspired you to start the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research Institute?

AK: My interest in brain development over the years became focused on earlier stages of development and eventually Neurogenesis, you know, how neurons are actually generated during early stages of in utero brain development. In the course of doing that we discovered that the radial glial cells, which have been thought for decades to simply guide neurons as they migrate, turned out to actually be the neural stem cells, they were making the neurons and also guiding them toward the cortex. So, they were really these master cells that had huge importance and are now referred to as neural stem cells. But at that time, it was really before the stem cell field took off. But because we studied neurogenesis, because I made some contributions to understanding how the brain develops from those precursors or progenitor cells, when the field of stem cells developed, it was very simple for me to identify as someone who studied neural stem cells. I became a neural stem cell scientist. I started a neural stem cell program at Columbia University when I was a Professor there and raised 15 million dollars to seed the program and hired new scientists. It was shortly after that I was approached to join UCSF as the founder of a new stem cell program. And it was much broader than the nervous system; it was a program that covered all the different tissues and organ systems.

TH: Can you tell us a little bit about how stem cell research is contributing to the treatment of diseases? How far along are we in terms of treatments?

AK: It’s taken decades, but things are really starting to reach the clinic now. The original work was basic discovery done in research laboratories, now things are moving towards the clinic. It’s a really very exciting time. Initially the promise of stem cell science was called Regenerative medicine, the idea of replacing injured or worn-out tissues or structures with new cells and new tissues, new organs, the form of regeneration was made possible by understanding that there are stem cells that can be tweaked to actually help make new cells and tissues. Very exciting process, but in fact the main progress so far hasn’t been replacing worn out tissues and injured cells, but rather understanding diseases using human based model of disease. That’s largely because of the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells, a way of using stem cells to make neurons or heart cells or liver cells in the laboratory, and study them both in normal conditions during development and in disease states. Those platforms which are relatively easy to make now and are pretty common all over the world allow us to study human cells rather than animal cells, and the hope is that by doing that we will be able to produce conventional drugs and treatments that work much better than ones we had in the past, because they will be tested in actual human cells rather than animal cells.

TH: That is a great progress and we have started using human models because even though there are similarities with animal models, there are still many species-specific differences, right?

AK: Absolutely, in fact, one of the big problems now in Big Pharma, you know the drug companies, is that they invest millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in research programs that are based on successes in treating mice, but patients don’t respond the same way. So the hope is that by starting with a treatment that works on human cells it might be more likely that the treatment will work on human patients.

TH: What are your thoughts on the current challenges and future of stem cell research?

AK: I think this is an absolute revolution in modern medicine, the advent of two things that are happening right now, first the use of induced pluripotent stem cells, the ability to make pluripotent cells from adult tissue or cells from an individual allows us to use models of diseases that I mentioned earlier from actual patients. That’s one major advance. And the other is gene editing, and the combination of gene editing and cell-based discovery science allows us to think of engineering cells in ways that can make them much more effective as a form of cell therapy and those cell therapies have enormous promise. Right now, they are being used to treat cancer, but in the future, they might be able to treat heart attack, dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, a huge list of disorders that are untreatable right now or incurable. They might be approached by the combination of cell-based models, cell therapies, and gene editing.

TH: I know there are still some challenges right now, like gene editing has some ethical issues because people don’t know if there can be side effects after the gene editing, what are your thoughts?

AK: You know, like many other technologies there are uncertainties, and there are some issues. Some of the problems are off-target effects, that is you try to make a change in one particular gene, and while doing that you might change other genes in unexpected ways and cause complications. But we are understanding that more and more now and can make much more precise gene editing changes in just individual genes without affecting unanticipated areas of the genome. And then there are also the problems of how to gene-edit cells in a safe way. There are certain viral factors that can be used to introduce the gene editing apparatus into a cell, and sometimes if you are doing that in a patient, you can also have unwanted side effects from the vectors that you are using, often they are modified viral vectors. So, things get complicated very quickly when you start trying to treat patients, but I think these are all tractable problems and I think in time they will all be solved. It will be a terrific, very promising future when it comes to treating patients who are currently untreatable.

TH: Do you have any advice for students who want to get into this field?

AK: Yes, I think it’s actually never been a better time and I am amazed by the technologies that are available now. Gene editing that I mentioned before but also single cell approaches, the use of single cell multiomics revealing gene expression in individual cells, the molecular understanding of how individual cells are formed, how they are shaped, how they change from one stage to another, how they can be forced into different fates. It allows you to envision true Regenerative medicine, improving health by healing or replacing injured or diseased tissues. I think this is becoming possible now, so it’s a very exciting time. Anyone who has an interest in stem cell biology or new ways of treating diseases, should think about getting into a laboratory or a clinical setting. I think this time is more exciting than it’s ever been.

TH: So excited to hear that, because in school we have limited access to the current knowledge, the state-of-art. I want to know what motivates you every day to do Research and contribute to this field?

AK: Well, you know that I have been an MD/PhD, as I mentioned before, in a way, there are two different reward systems at play. In terms of the PhD and the science, it’s the discovery part that is so exciting. Going in every day and thinking that you might learn something that no one has ever known before and have a new insight into a mechanism of how something happens, why it happens. Those kinds of new insights are terrifically satisfying, very exciting. On the MD side, the ability to help patients and improve peoples’ lives is a terrific motivator. I always wanted to do that, was very driven to become a Neurologist and treat both adult and pediatric patients with neurological problems. In the last decade or so, I’ve not been treating patients so much, and have focused on the lab, but we have been moving some of our discoveries from the laboratory into the clinic. We have just started a clinical trial, of a new cell-based therapy for epilepsy in Neurona Therapeutics, which is really exciting. I am hoping it will help the patients but it’s also a chance to actually see something that started out as a project in the laboratory become translated into a therapy for patients, so that’s an achievement that has really combined my two interests, basic science, and clinical medicine. It’s a little late in life but not too late, so I’m very excited about that.

Tan Ieng Huang, Kriegstein Lab, SEP Intern, CIRM Spark Program 2022

CIRM’s SPARK internship program provides California high school students with hands-on training in stem cell research

SPARK student intern Simran O.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is dedicated to building a diverse and highly-skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy right here in California. 

One of the ways we do this is through our SPARK educational internship program.  The SPARK awards—also known as the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative medicine Knowledge— support summer research internships for high school students at leading stem cell institutes in California. 

While the Bridges internships for undergraduate and master’s graduate students take place year-round, the SPARK internships are currently underway across California and are already providing high school students an invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on training in stem cell research at some of the leading research facilities in the state.  

The SPARK program specifically selects students who represent the diversity of California’s population, particularly those who might not otherwise have opportunities to take part in research internships due to socioeconomic constraints. 

SPARK students spend the summer learning about stem cells and regenerative medicine and will conduct a six-week research internship in a stem cell lab. At the end of their program, students get to show off their hard work by presenting their research at the SPARK annual conference. Stay tuned for more updates as the program concludes! 

In addition to showcasing their research, the bright young scientists are sharing their experience through social media, and we’ve compiled some of their submissions so far. To see more of their social media submissions—plus more updates and news from CIRM—be sure to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.  

Currently, there are 11 active SPARK programs located in Northern and Southern California. Each program has its own application process and way of selecting students for their SPARK program. If you are a student, teacher or family member interested in learning more information about how to apply or when application deadlines are, please visit the CIRM website.

Educating and training the next generation of regenerative science workforce

THIS BLOG IS ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN AUDIO CAST

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.

Learning life lessons in the lab

Rohan Upadhyay, CIRM SPARK student 2021

One of the most amazing parts of an amazing job is getting to know the students who take part in CIRM’s SPARK (Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge) program. It’s an internship giving high school students, that reflect the diversity of California, a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

This year because of the pandemic I didn’t get a chance to meet them in person but reading the blogs they wrote about their experiences I feel as if I know them anyway.

The blogs were fun, creative, engaging and dealt with many issues, as well as stem cell and gene therapy research.

A common theme was how hard the students, many of whom knew little about stem cells before they started, had to work just to understand all the scientific jargon.

Areana Ramirez, who did her internship at UC Davis summed it up nicely when she wrote:

“Despite the struggles of taking over an hour to read a scientific article and researching what every other word meant, it was rewarding to know that all of the strain I had put on my brain was going toward a larger understanding of what it means to help others. I may not know everything about osteogenic differentiation or the polyamine pathway, but I do know the adversities that patients with Snyder-Robinson are facing and the work that is being done to help them. I do know how hard each one of our mentors are working to find new cures and are coming up with innovating ideas that will only help humankind.”

Lauren Ginn at City of Hope had the same experience, but said it taught her a valuable lesson:

“Make no mistake, searching for answers through research can sometimes feel like shooting arrows at a bulls-eye out of sight. Nonetheless, what CIRM SPARK has taught me is the potential for exploration that lies in the unknown. This internship showed me that there is so much more to science than the facts printed in textbooks.”

Rohan Upadhyay at UC Davis discovered that even when something doesn’t work out, you can still learn a lot:

“I asked my mentor (Gerhard Bauer) about what he thought had occurred. But unlike the textbooks there was no obvious answer. My mentor and I could only speculate what had occurred. It was at this point that I realized the true nature of research: every research project leads to more questions that need to be answered. As a result there is no endpoint to research. Instead there are only new beginnings.”

Melanie Nguyen, also at UC Davis, wrote her blog as a poem. But she saved the best part for the prose at the end:

“Like a hematopoietic stem cell, I have learned that I am able to pursue my different interests, to be multi-potential. One can indulge in the joys of biology while simultaneously live out their dreams of being an amateur poet. I choose it all. Similarly, a bone marrow stem cell can become whatever it may please—red, white, platelet. It’s ability to divide and differentiate is the source of its ingenuity. I view myself in the same light. Whether I can influence others with research, words, or stories, I know that with each route I will be able to make change in personalized ways.”

For Lizbeth Bonilla, at Stanford, her experiences transcended the personal and took on an even bigger significance:

“As a first-generation Mexican American, my family was thrilled about this internship and opportunity especially knowing it came from a prestigious institution. Unfortunately there is very little to no representation in our community in regards to the S.T.E.M. field. Our dreams of education and prosperity for the future have to be compromised because of the lack of support and resources. To maintain pride in our culture, we focus on work ethics and family, hoping it will be the next generations’ time to bring successful opportunities home. However, while this is a hope widely shared the effort to have it realized is often limited to men. A Latina woman’s success and interest in education are still celebrated, but not expected. As a first-generation Latina, I want to prove that I can have a career and hopefully contribute to raising the next leading generation, not with the hope that dreams are possible but to be living proof that they are.”

Reading the blogs it was sometimes easy to forget these are 16 and 17 year old students. They write with creativity, humor, thoughtfulness and maturity. They learned a lot about stem cell research over the summer. But I think they also learned a lot more about who they are as individuals and what they can achieve.

SPARKing the genius of the next generation of scientists

Dr. Kelly Shepard, SPARK program director

After almost 18 months – and counting – that have put us all to the test, made us wear masks, work from home, limit contact with all but the closest of family and friends it’s a wonderful thing to be able to get a glimpse of the future and feel that we are in good hands.

That’s how it felt this week when we held our SPARK conference. SPARK stands for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge. The program helps high school students, that reflect the diversity of California, to take part in summer research at various institutions with a stem cell, gene therapy, or regenerative medicine focus. 

We hope the experience will inspire these students to become the next generation of scientists. Many of the students are first generation Americans, many also come from families with limited resources and without our help might not be able to afford an internship like this.

As part of the program we ask the students to not only do stem cell research and prepare a poster of their work, we also ask them to blog about it. And the blogs they write are things of beauty.

It’s hard to pick winners from so many fine writers, but in the end a team of CIRMites managed to identify a few we thought really stood out. First was Hassan Samiullah who spent his internship at Cedars-Sinai. Hassan wrote three blogs charting his journey at the research facility, working with mice and a deadly brain cancer. This is part of one of his entries.

“When many of us think of scientists, we think of crazy people performing crazy procedures in a lab. While I won’t try refuting the first part, the crazy procedures can actually be very consequential to society at large. What is now common knowledge was once found in the discussion section of a research paper. The therapies we will use to treat cancer tomorrow are being tested in labs today, even if they’re being injected into mice brains.” 

We liked his writing because he explained complex science clearly, with humor and obvious delight that he got to work in a research facility with “real” scientists. Crazy or otherwise. Here is his final blog which, I think, reflects the skill and creativity he brought to the task.

I’m almost at the end of my 7.5-week internship at Cedars-Sinai through the CIRM SPARK program. Looking back at the whole experience, I don’t think I’ve ever been through anything that’s required as much critical thinking.

I remember seeing pX330-dual-U6-Pten-Cdkn2a-Ex2-chimeric-BB-CBh-espCas9, and not having the slightest idea of what any of it meant. Sure, I understood the basics of what I was told: it’s a plasmid that can be transfected into mice brains to model glioblastoma tumors. But what do any of those strings of letters and numbers have to do with that? Well, I saw “Pten” and read it aloud: “P-t-e-n.” After I spelled it out like a kindergartener, I finally made a realization. p10 is a gene—specifically a tumor suppressor gene. I figured that the two jumbles of letters and numbers to the right must also be genes. Sure enough, the plasmid contains three mutated genes that get incorporated into a mouse’s genome, eventually leading to cancer. We didn’t actually end up using this model, however. Part of being in science is procedures not working out as expected.

Resilience is key.

When I found out that the image analysis software I was supposed to use didn’t support the type of data collection I needed to perform, I had to burn a little midnight oil to count the cells of interest manually. It proved to be well worth the effort: we found that mice tumors treated with radiation saw increased interactions between immune cells and endogenous (brain-resident) stem cells, even though they had fewer cells from the original tumor (difference wasn’t statistically significant due to an outlier in the control group). This is an important finding because it may explain the common narrative of glioblastoma: many patients see their tumors recede but suffer an aggressive relapse. This relapse may be due to immune cells’ interacting with stem cells to make them resistant to future treatments.

Understanding stem cells are so critical to cancer research, just as they are to many other fields of research. It is critical for everyone involved in science, medicine, healthcare, and policymaking to recognize and act on the potential of the regenerative medicine field to dramatically improve the quality of life for so many people.

This is just the beginning of my journey in science! I really look forward to seeing what’s next.

We look forward to it too Hassan.

Hassan wasn’t the only one we singled out for praise. Sheila Teker spent her summer at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. She says her internship didn’t get off to a very encouraging start.

“When the CHORI security guard implied that “kids aren’t allowed” on my first day–likely assuming I was a 10-year-old smuggling myself into a highly professional laboratory – I’d also personally doubted my presence there. Being 16, I wasn’t sure I’d fit in with others in such an intimidating environment; and never did I think, applying for this program, that I could be working with stem cells. I’d heard about stem cells in the news, science classes, and the like, but even doing any cell culturing at all seemed inaccessible to me. At my age, I’d become accustomed to and discouraged by rejection since I was perceived as “too young” for anything.”

Over the course of the summer Sheila showed that while you might question her age, no one should ever question her talent and determination.  

Finally, we thought Alvin Cheng of Stanford also deserved recognition for his fine writing, starting with a really fun way to introduce his research into lower back pain.

“Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated”, Mary Shelley wrote her in 1831 edition of “Frankenstein”. Decades prior, Luigi Galvani discovered with his wife how a dead frog’s leg could twitch when an electric spark was induced. ‘Galvanism’ became the scientific basis behind the infamous novel and bioelectricity.”

While many of the students had to do their research remotely this year, that did not stop them doing amazing work. And working remotely might actually be good training for the future. CIRM’s Dr. Kelly Shepard, the Associate Director of Discovery and Translation and who runs the SPARK program, pointed out to the students that scientists now do research on the international space station from their labs here on earth, so the skills these SPARK students learned this past summer might prove invaluable in years to come.

Regardless of where they work, we see great things in the futures of these young scientists.