Stem cell summer: high school students document internships via social media, Part 3

Today we share our third and final pair of social media awards from CIRM’s 2018 SPARK (Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative medicine Knowledge) program, a 6-12 week summer internship program that provides hands-on stem cell research training to high school students throughout California.

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CIRM SPARK 2018 Best Instagram Post winner by Caltech SPARK intern Anthony Tan

As part of their curriculum, the students were asked to write a blog and to post Instagram photos (follow #cirmsparklab) to document their internship experiences. Several CIRM team members selected their favorite entries and presented awards to the winning interns at the SPARK Student Conference earlier this month at UC Davis.

The two winners featured today are Caltech SPARK student, Anthony Tan – a senior at John A. Rowland High School – one of the Instagram Award winners (see his Instagram post above) and UCSF SPARK student Gennifer Hom – a senior at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts – one of the Blog Award winners. Read her blog below. (To learn about the other 2018 social media winners, see our previous blog posts here and here.)

Best Blog Award:
My SPARK 2018 summer stem cell research internship experience
By Gennifer Hom

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Gennifer Hom

When I was seven, I remember looking up at the stars, I stared hard at the moon through my car window, thinking that it only revolves around me as it followed me home. I later learned in class that we rotate around the sun, as gravity holds the spinning planets in place, simultaneously, the moon revolves around the earth. Out of nowhere, I abruptly felt an actual light bulb switched on above my head once I learned how day and night came. Overcome with curiosity,“ Where did the Big Bang take place? When will my Big Bang happen?”

My interest dissipated as I entered into my high school career. I was struck with incoherence, an inconsistency to my thoughts, as I leaned my shoulder against the wall—for I had already decided to let my fatigue to take over. I felt lacking, unconfident in my abilities even to solve a simple balance chemical equation in chemistry class. Science was not my forte. I could never see myself working in a lab setting.

Still, a spark within me still held onto that childhood curiosity of mine. I remember sitting on the bus on my way to school reading about stem cells, which were fascinating to me. We can use these little cells for so many scientific research.

My Big Bang unfolded when I was accepted into the UCSF SEP internship program. I
studied the human-specific population of cortical neural stem cells and evaluated the signaling mechanisms that govern the formation of their identity. Through my performance, I am also contributing to this phenomenal study, helping my community by potentially providing information to help cure mental illnesses. At times, the results of our data did not come out as we wanted it to be. The staining went wrong, and the images were lacking. I would have to repeat the experiment or troubleshoot on the spot continually. However, it’s all a learning process. Even if I do get beautiful image stainings, I still need to repeat the experiments to confirm my results.

Learning was not the only side that is needed under this program. CIRM encouraged us to share our internship experiences on social media. I posted once a week on my studies, what I’ve learned, and how I could teach my viewers about this new research I am performing. I remember in one of the first few meetings we had, where we had to share our research with our peers, “ I can actually understand your studies,” a friend of mine claimed.

I felt powerful, in a sense, that I was able to communicate my knowledge to others to help them understand and teach my study. When I talk to my family and friends about my summer, I feel confident in my ability to comprehend these complex ideas. I could see myself researching, engineering, and fighting for a solution. I want to find the best form of gene therapy, and map each neuron of the brain. Through this two month program, science has become a new passion for me, a cornerstone of my new academic pursuits. It strengthened my theoretical knowledge and gave me an experience where I witnessed the real world laboratory setting. Not only did I learn the fundamental techniques of immunohistochemistry and microscopy, but I was able to receive encouraging advice from the scientists in the Kriegsteins lab and especially my mentor, Madeline Andrews. The experience in a lab comforted me by the idea of the never-ending changes that lured me to a world of thought and endless potential.

Stem cell summer: high school students document internships via social media, Part 2

Well, just like that, summer vacation is over. Most kids in California are back in school now and probably one of the first questions they’ll ask their friends is, “what did you do this summer?”. For 58 talented high school students, their answer will be, “I became a stem cell scientist.”

Best Instagram Post Award: Mia Grossman

Those students participated in a CIRM-funded internship called the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative medicine Knowledge, or SPARK for short, with seven programs throughout Northern and Southern California which include Caltech, Cedars-Sinai, City of Hope, Stanford, UC Davis, UCSF and the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. Over the course of about 8 eight weeks, the interns gained hands-on training in stem cell research at some of the leading research institutes in California. Last week, they all met for the annual SPARK conference, this year at the UC Davis Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, to present their research results and to hear from expert scientists and patient advocates.

As part of their curriculum, the students were asked to write a blog and to post Instagram photos (follow #cirmsparklab) to document their internship experiences. Several CIRM team member selected their favorite entries and presented awards to the winning interns at the end of the conference. We featured two of the winners in a blog from last week.

Our two winners featured today are Cedars-Sinai SPARK student, Mia Grossman – a senior at Beverly Hills High School – one of the Instagram Award winners (see her looping video above) and UC Davis SPARK student Anna Guzman – a junior at Sheldon High School – one of the Blog Award winners. Here’s her blog:

The Lab: A Place I Never Thought I’d Be
By Anna Guzman

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Anna Guzman

My CIRM SPARK journey started long before I ever stepped foot in the Institute for Regenerative Cures at UC Davis. Instead, my journey started two years earlier, when my older sister came home from the same internship with stories of passaged cells, images of completed western blots, and a spark in her eye when she described the place she had come to love. Barely 14 years old, I listened wide-eyed as my sister told us about the place she disappeared to each morning, stories of quirky professors, lovable mentors, and above all, the brilliant flame that everyone in her lab shared for learning. But even as she told her stories around the dinner table, I imagined this cold place where my charismatic, intelligent, and inquisitive sister was welcomed. I imagined the chilling concentration of dozens of geniuses bent over their work, of tissue culture rooms where every tiny movement was a potential disaster, and above all, of a labyrinth of brilliant discoveries and official sounding words with the door securely locked to 16 year old girls – girls who had no idea what they wanted to do with their life, who couldn’t confidently rattle words like “CRISPR,” “mesenchymal” and “hematopoietic” off their tongues. In short, this wasn’t a place for me.

But somehow I found myself applying for the CIRM SPARK internship. Seconds after I arrived for my first day at the place I was sure I would not belong, I realized how incorrect my initial assumption of the lab was. Instead of the intimidating and sophisticated environment filled with eye-rolling PhDs who scoffed at the naïve questions of a teenager, I found a room filled with some of the kindest, funniest, warmest people I had ever met. I soon found that the lab was a place of laughter and jokes across bays, a place of smiles in the hallways and mentors who tirelessly explained theory after theory until the intoxicating satisfaction of a lightbulb sparked on inside my head. The lab was a place where my wonderful mentor Julie Beegle patiently guided me through tissue culture, gently reminding me again and again how to avoid contamination and never sighing when I bubbled up the hemocytometer, miscalculated transduction rates, or asked question after question after question. Despite being full of incredibly brilliant scholars with prestigious degrees and publications, the lab was a place where I was never made to feel small or uneducated, never made to feel like there was something I couldn’t understand. So for me, the lab became a place where I could unashamedly fuel my need to understand everything, to ask hundreds of questions until the light bulbs sputtered on and a spark, the same spark that had glowed in the eyes of my sister years ago, burned brightly. The lab became a place where it was always okay to ask why.

At moments towards the middle of the internship, when my nerves had dissolved into a foundation of tentative confidence, and I had started to understand the words that tumbled out of my mouth, I’d be working in the biosafety cabinet or reading a protocol to my mentor and think, Wow. That’s Me. That’s me counting colonies and loading gels without the tell-tale nervous quiver of a beginner’s hand. That’s me explaining my project to another intern without an ambiguous question mark marring the end of the sentence. That’s me, pipetting and centrifuging and talking and understanding – doing all the things that I was certain that I would never be able to do. That’s the best thing that the CIRM SPARK internship has taught me. Being an intern in this wonderful place with these amazing people has taught me to be assured in my knowledge, unashamed in my pursuit of the answer, and confident in my belief that maybe I belong here. These feelings will stay with me as I navigate the next two years of high school and the beginning of the rest of my life. I have no doubt that I will feel unsure again, that I will question whether I belong and wonder if I am enough. But then I will remember how I felt here, confident, and unashamed, and assured in the place where I never thought I’d be.

It was not until the end of my internship, as I stood up to present a journal article to a collection of the very people who had once terrified me, that I realized the biggest thing I was wrong about two years ago. I was wrong when I assumed that this was a place where I would never belong. Instead, as I stood in front of this community of amazingly brilliant and kind people, my mouth forming words that I couldn’t have dreamed of understanding a month ago, I realized that this was precisely where I belonged. This was the place for me.

Stem cell summer: high school students document internships via social media, Part 1

My fellow CIRM team members and I just got back from two days in Sacramento where we attended one of our favorite annual events: the CIRM SPARK Student Conference. SPARK, which is short for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative medicine Knowledge, is a CIRM-funded education program that offers California High School students an invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on training in stem cell research at some of the leading research institutes in California.

This meeting represents the culmination of the students’ internships in the lab this summer and gives each student the chance to present their project results and to hear from stem cell research experts and patient advocates. Every summer, without fail, I’m blown away by how much the students accomplish in such a short period of time and by the poise and clarity with which they describe their work. This year was no exception.

Best Instagram Post Award: Skyler Wong

To document the students’ internship experiences, we include a social media curriculum to the program. Each student posts Instagram photos and writes a blog essay describing their time in the lab. Members of the CIRM team reviewed and judged the Instagram posts and blogs. It was a very difficult job selecting only three Instagrams out of over 400 (follow them at #cirmsparklab) that were posted over the past eight weeks. Equally hard was choosing three blogs from the 58 student essays which seem to get better in quality each year.

Over the next week or so, we’re going to feature the three Instagram posts and three blogs that were ultimately awarded. Our two winners featured today are UC Davis SPARK student, Skyler Wong, a rising senior at Sheldon High School was one of the Instagram Award winners (see his photo above) and Stanford SPARK student Angelina Quint, a rising senior at Redondo Union High School, was one of the Blog Award winners. Here’s her blog:

Best Blog Award:
My SPARK 2018 summer stem cell research internship experience
By Angelina Quint

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Angelina Quint

Being from Los Angeles, I began the SIMR program as a foreigner to the Bay Area. As my first research experience, I was even more so a foreigner to a laboratory setting and the high-tech equipment that seemingly occupied every edge and surface of Stanford’s Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell building. Upon first stepping foot into my lab at the beginning of the summer, an endless loop of questions ran through my brain as I ventured deeper into this new, unfamiliar realm of science. Although excited, I felt miniscule in the face of my surroundings—small compared to the complexity of work that laid before me. Nonetheless, I was ready to delve deep into the unknown, to explore this new world of discovery that I had unlocked.

Participating in the CIRM research program, I was given the extraordinary opportunity to pursue my quest for knowledge and understanding. With every individual I met and every research project that I learned about, I became more invigorated to investigate and discover answers to the questions that filled my mind. I was in awe of the energy in the atmosphere around me—one that buzzed with the drive and dedication to discover new avenues of thought and complexity. And as I learned more about stem cell biology, I only grew more and more fascinated by the phenomenon. Through various classes taught by experts in their fields on topics spanning from lab techniques to bone marrow transplants, I learned the seemingly limitless potential of stem cell research. With that, I couldn’t help but correlate this potential to my own research; anything seemed possible.

However, the journey proved to be painstakingly arduous. I soon discovered that a groundbreaking cure or scientific discovery would not come quickly nor easily. I faced roadblocks daily, whether it be in the form of failed gel experiments or the time pressures that came with counting colonies. But to each I learned, and to each I adapted and persevered. I spent countless hours reading papers and searching for online articles. My curiosity only grew deeper with every paper I read—as did my understanding. And after bombarding my incredibly patient mentors with an infinite number of questions and thoughts and ideas, I finally began to understand the scope and purpose of my research. I learned that the reward of research is not the prestige of discovering the next groundbreaking cure, but rather the knowledge that perseverance in the face of obstacles could one day transform peoples’ lives for the better.

As I look back on my journey, I am filled with gratitude for the lessons that I have learned and for the unforgettable memories that I have created. I am eternally grateful to my mentors, Yohei and Esmond, for their guidance and support along the way. Inevitably, the future of science is uncertain. But one thing is always guaranteed: the constant, unhindered exchange of knowledge, ideas, and discovery between colleagues passionate about making a positive difference in the lives of others. Like a stem cell, I now feel limitless in my ability to expand my horizons and contribute to something greater and beyond myself. Armed with the knowledge and experiences that I have gained through my research, I aspire to share with others in my hometown the beauty of scientific discovery, just as my mentors have shared with me. But most of all, I hope that through my continued research, I can persist in fighting for new ways to help people overcome the health-related challenges at the forefront of our society.

 

Stem cell roundup: summer scientists, fat-blocking cells & recent human evolution

Stem cell photo of the week: high schooler becoming a stem cell pro this summer

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High school student Anna Guzman learning important lab skills at UC Davis

This summer’s CIRM SPARK Programs, stem cell research internships for high school students, are in full swing. Along with research assignments in top-notch stem cell labs, we’ve asked the students to chronicle their internship experiences through Instagram. And today’s stem cell photo of the week is one of those student-submitted posts. The smiling intern in this photo set is Anna Guzman, a rising junior from Sheldon High School who is in the UC Davis SPARK Program. In her post, she describes the lab procedure she is doing:

“The last step in our process to harvest stem cells from a sample of umbilical cord blood! We used a magnet to isolate the CD34 marked stem cells [blood stem cells] from the rest of the solution.”

Only a few days in and Anna already looks like a pro! It’s important lab skills like this one that could land Anna a future job in the stem cell field. Check out #cirmsparklab on Instagram to view the ever-growing number of posts.

Swiss team identifies a cell type that block formation of fat cells

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(Left) Mature human fat cells grown in a Petri dish (green, lipid droplets). (Right) A section of mouse fat tissue showing, in the middle, a blood vessel (red circle) surrounded by fat cell blocking cells called Aregs (arrows). [Bart Deplancke/EPFL]

Liposuction surgery helps slim and reshape areas of a person’s body through the removal of excess fat tissue. While the patient is certainly happy to get rid of those extra pounds, that waste product is sought after by researchers because it’s a rich source of regenerative cells including fat stem cells.

The exact populations of cells in this liposuction tissue has been unclear, so a collaboration of Swiss researchers – at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ) – used a cutting-edge technique allowing them to examine the gene activity within single cells.

The analysis was successful in identifying several newly defined subpopulations of cells in the fat tissue. To their surprise, one of those cell types did not specialize into fat cells but instead did the opposite: they inhibited other fat stem cells from giving rise to fat cells. The initial experiments were carried out in mice, but the team went on to show similar fat-blocking cells in human tissue. Further experiments will explore the tantalizing prospect of applying these cells to control obesity and the many diseases, like diabetes, that result from it.

The study was published June 20st in Nature.

Connection identified between recent human evolution & risk for premature birth
Evidence of recent evolution in a human gene that’s critical for maintaining pregnancy may help explain why some populations have a higher risk for giving birth prematurely than others. That’s according to a recent report by researchers at the University of Stanford School of Medicine.

The study, funded in part by CIRM’s Genomics Initiative, compared DNA from people with East Asian, European and African ancestry. They specifically examined the gene encoding the progesterone hormone receptor which helps keep a pregnant woman from going into labor too soon. The gene is also associated with preterm births, the leading cause of infant death in the U.S.

The team was very surprise to find that people with East Asian ancestry had an evolutionarily new version of the gene while the European and African populations had mixtures of new and ancient versions. These differences may explain why the risk for premature birth among East Asian populations is lower than among pregnant women of European and African descent, though environment clearly plays a role as well.

Pediatrics professor Gary Shaw, PhD, one of the team leaders, put the results in perspective:

“Preterm birth has probably been with us since the origin of the human species,” said Shaw in a press release, “and being able to track its evolutionary history in a way that sheds new light on current discoveries about prematurity is really exciting.”

The study was published June 21st in The American Journal of Human Genetics.

School’s Out! Stem cells are in! High school students start CIRM-funded summer research internships.

Robotic engineering, coding, video game design, filmmaking, soccer and swimming: these are just a few of the many activities that are vying for the attention of high school students once school lets out for the summer.

But a group of about 50 high schoolers in California have chosen a different path: they will be diving into the world of stem cell biology. Each student earned a spot in one of seven CIRM-funded SPARK Programs across California. That’s short for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge (yes, technically it should be SPARMK but we like SPARK better).

The SPARK students will gain hands-on training in stem cell research at some of the leading research institutes in California by conducting a six-week research internship in a stem cell lab. Maybe I’m bias, as the Program Director at CIRM who oversees the SPARK programs, but I think they’ve made a great decision. Stem cell research is one of, if not the most exciting and cutting-edge fields of research science out there today.

The pace of progress is so rapid in the field that a large workforce over the next century is critical to sustain CIRM’s mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. That’s why the Agency has invested over $4 million to support over 400 SPARK interns since 2012.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure to be in Sacramento to welcome the UC Davis SPARK interns on their first day of their program which is led by Gerhard Bauer, director of the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) laboratory at the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures. The other programs, like the one at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles (see photo below), are also starting this week or next.

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Because everything we do at CIRM is focused on the patient, the SPARK programs are required to include patient engagement as part of the students’ internships. Here are some Instagram posts from last year that highlight those patient-centered activities.

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And speaking of Instagram, we have also included a social media component to the program. We believe it’s critical for scientists to connect with the public about the important work they do. During the UC Davis orientation, Jan Nolta, PhD, the director of the Stem Cell Program at UC Davis School of Medicine, pointed out to the students that making the science accessible and understandable to the public, makes stem cell research less scary and, as a result, it’s more likely to gain public support.

So, as part of their curriculum, the interns will share a few Instagrams per week that capture their summer in the lab. You can follow their posts at #CIRMSPARKLab. In addition to communicating through photos, the students will describe their internship experiences by writing a blog. We’ll post the most outstanding blogs later this summer. In the meantime, you can read last summer’s winning blogs.

At the end of their program, the students get to show off their hard work by presenting their research at the SPARK annual conference which will be held this year at UC Davis. It’s going to be an exciting summer!

UC Davis Stem Cell Director Jan Nolta Shares Her Thoughts on the Importance of Mentoring Young Scientists

Dr. Jan Nolta (UC Davis Health)

Jan Nolta is a scientific rockstar. She is a Professor at UC Davis and the Director of the Stem Cell Program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Her lab’s research is dedicated to developing stem cell-based treatments for Huntington’s disease (HD). Jan is a tireless advocate for both stem cell and HD research and you’ll often see her tweeting away about the latest discoveries in the field to her followers.

What I admire most about Dr. Nolta is her dedication to educating and mentoring young students. Dr. Nolta helped write the grant that funded the CIRM Bridges master’s program at Sacramento State in 2009. Over the years, she has mentored many Bridges students (we blogged about one student earlier this year) and also high school students participating in CIRM’s SPARK high school internship program. Many of her young trainees have been accepted to prestigious colleges and universities and gone on to pursue exciting careers in STEM.

I reached out to Dr. Nolta and asked her to share her thoughts on the importance of mentoring young scientists and supporting their career ambitions. Below is a summary of our conversation. I hope her passion and devotion will inspire you to think about how you can get involved with student mentorship in your own career.


Describe your career path from student to professor.

I was an undergraduate student at Sacramento State University. I was a nerdy student and did research on sharks. I was planning to pursue a medical degree, but my mentor, Dr. Laurel Heffernan, encouraged me to consider science. I was flabbergasted at the suggestion and asked, “people pay you to do this stuff??” I didn’t know that you could be paid to do lab research. My life changed that day.

I got my PhD at the University of Southern California. I studied stem cell gene therapy under Don Kohn, who was a fabulous mentor. After that, I worked in LA for 15 years and then went back home to UC Davis in 2007 to direct their Stem Cell Program.

It was shortly after I got to Davis that I reconnected with my first mentor, Dr. Heffernan, and we wrote the CIRM Bridges grant. Davis has a large shared translational lab with seven principle investigators including myself and many of the Bridges students work there. Being a scientist can be stressful with grant deadlines and securing funding. Mentoring students is the best part of the job for me.

Why is it important to fund educational programs like Bridges and SPARK?

There is a serious shortage of well-trained specialists in regenerative medicine in all areas of the workforce. The field of regenerative medicine is still relatively new and there aren’t enough people with the required skills to develop and manufacture stem cell treatments. The CIRM Bridges program is critical because it trains students who will fill those key manufacturing and lab manager jobs. Our Bridges program at Sacramento State is a two-year master’s program in stem cell research and lab management. They are trained at the UC Davis Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) training facility and learn how to make induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and other stem cell products. There aren’t that many programs like ours in the country and all of our students get competitive job offers after they complete our program.

We are equally passionate about our high school SPARK program. It’s important to capture students’ interests early whether they want to be a scientist or not. It’s important they get exposed to science as early as possible and even if they aren’t going to be a scientist or healthcare professional, it’s important that they know what it’s about. It’s inspiring how many of these students stay in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) because of this unique SPARK experience.

Jan Nolta with the 2016 UC Davis SPARK students.

Can you share a student success story?

I’m so proud of Ranya Odeh. She was a student in our 2016 SPARK program who worked in my lab. Ranya received a prestigious scholarship to Stanford largely due to her participation in the CIRM SPARK program. I got to watch her open the letter on Instagram, and it was a really incredible experience to share that part of her life.

I’m also very proud of our former Bridges student Jasmine Carter. She was a mentor to one of our SPARK students Yasmine this past summer. She was an excellent role model and her passion for teaching and research was an inspiration to all of us. Jasmine was hoping to get into graduate school at UC Davis this fall. She not only was accepted into the Neuroscience Graduate Program, but she also received a prestigious first year program fellowship!

UC Davis Professors Jan Nolta and Kyle Fink with CIRM Bridges student Jasmine Carter

[Side note: We’ve featured Ranya and Jasmine previously on the Stem Cellar and you can read about their experiences here and here.]

Why is mentoring important for young students?

I can definitely relate to the importance of having a mentor. I was raised by a single mom, and without scholarships and great mentors, there’s no way I would be where I am today. I’m always happy to help other students who think maybe they can’t do science because of money, or because they think that other people know more than they do or are better trained. Everybody who wants to work hard and has a passion for science deserves a chance to shine. I think these CIRM educational programs really help the students see that they can be what they dream they can be.

What are your favorite things about being a mentor?

Everyday our lab is full of students, science, laughter and fun. I love coming in to the lab. Our young people bring new ideas, energy and great spirit to our team. I think every team should have young trainees and high school kids working with them because they see things in a different way.

Do you have advice for mentoring young scientists?

You can sum it up in one word: Listen. Ask them right away what their dreams are, where do they imagine themselves in the future, and how can you help them get there. Encourage them to always ask questions and let them know that they aren’t bothering you when they do. I also let my students know that I’m happy to be helping them and that the experience is rewarding for me as well.

So many students are shy when they first start in the lab and don’t get all that they can out of the experience. I always tell my students of any age: what you really want to do is try in life. Follow your tennis ball. Like when a golden retriever sees a tennis ball going by, everything else becomes secondary and they follow that ball. You need to find what that tennis ball is for you and then just try to follow it.

What advice can you give to students who want to be scientific professors or researchers?

Find somebody who is a good mentor and cares about you. Don’t go into a lab where the Principle Investigator (PI) is not there most of the time. You will get a lot more out of the experience if you can get input from the PI.

A good mentor is more present in the lab and will take you to meetings and introduce you to people. I find that often students read papers from well-established scientists, and they think that their positions are unattainable. But if they can meet them in person at a conference or a lecture, they will realize that all of the established scientists are people too. I want young students to know that they can do it too and these careers are attainable for anybody.

Meet the high school student who moonlights as a neuroscientist

As part of our CIRM scholar blog series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students. Today, you’ll read about one of our former SPARK high school students.


Emma Friedenberg and former CIRM SPARK Director Karen Ring at the 2017 SPARK Conference.

Emma Friedenberg is a high school senior at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood, California. She’s also an up-and-coming neuroscientist who has her sights set on unraveling the complexities of the brain and discovering cures for degenerative brain diseases. Emma spent the summer of 2017 studying Huntington’s disease in the lab of Dr. Virginia Mattis at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Her internship was possible because of the CIRM SPARK high school educational program which gives California students the opportunity to do stem cell research for a summer.

Below is an interview with Emma about her SPARK experience and how the program is helping her pursue her passions for research and medicine.

Q: How did you learn about the CIRM SPARK program and why did you want to apply?

I’ve been a clinical volunteer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for two years in the Intensive Care Unit and the Neurology and Spine Unit. I was submitting my application to return as a volunteer when I explored Cedars-Sinai’s Outreach website page and found the CIRM SPARK program. I knew immediately it was a perfect fit. I plan on studying neuroscience in college with an intention of obtaining my medical degree and becoming a surgeon. The CIRM SPARK program at Cedars within the Board of Governor’s Regenerative Medicine Institute had an option to be involved specifically in the Brain Program. In Dr. Virginia Mattis’ lab, I studied translational stem cell therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, in particular Huntington’s Disease. As Cedars-Sinai calls it, a “bench to bedside” approach is an unparalleled and invaluable experience and huge advantage in science.

Q: What was your SPARK research project?

At Cedars-Sinai, I was mentored by Dr. Virginia Mattis in her stem cell lab. The Mattis Lab researches stem cell therapies for Huntington’s disease (HD), a neurodegenerative brain disease. HD is caused by a loss of neurons, specifically medium spiny neurons in the striatum of Huntington’s patients. We used induced pluripotent stem cells to model HD in a petri dish to study the development of the disease and to create medium spiny neurons that could one day be transplanted into Huntington’s patients to replace lost and damaged cells.

Medium spiny neurons made from Huntington’s disease patient induced pluripotent stem cells. (Image credit: Mattis Lab, Cedars Sinai)

My primary research in the Mattis Lab was experimenting on our cell line to find the most time and cost-effective procedure to produce large populations of medium spiny neurons, because current methods are expensive and largely inefficient. However, my internship was not limited to the laboratory. I spent a significant amount of time shadowing doctors in the ALS Clinic.

Q: What was your experience in the CIRM SPARK program like?

In one word, the CIRM SPARK program was incredible –a one of a kind opportunity. The sciences are my personal passion and the cornerstone of my academic pursuits. The CIRM SPARK program has bolstered my scientific knowledge and provided practical experience in a real-world laboratory environment. A career in medicine is a significant commitment, and I’m confident the CIRM SPARK program was a beneficial start to obtaining my goals.

Cedars-Sinai SPARK students celebrating the completion of their 2017 internships.

Q: What do you value most about your SPARK experience?

It was wonderful to be part of a program which understood collaboration and offered a plethora of learning opportunities outside of the wet lab. What I will keep with me is not only techniques of immunocytochemistry and microscopy, but also the advice and encouragement from accomplished scientists like Clive Svendsen and my mentor Virginia Mattis.

Q: What are your future goals?

I plan on studying neuroscience in college with an intention of obtaining my medical degree and becoming a surgeon.

Q: Who is your scientific idol and why?

I recently read Dr. Eric Kandel’s book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. Dr. Kandel is a neuroscientist and a Professor at Columbia University. He received the Nobel Prize for his work in memory storage using Aplysia, a type of sea slug. His book examines how the human brain responds to art. What I find so inspiring about his book is his interdisciplinary approach to science, a combination of neuroscience, psychoanalysis, biology, and art. The human brain is so complicated that it can be studied from numerous perspectives, from biology to chemistry to electrophysiology. It is not until we can begin to merge these understandings that we will begin to unlock the secrets of the brain. Dr. Kandel is not only a scientist, but an intellectual.

Q: What is your favorite thing about being a scientist?

For centuries, the human brain was an anomaly, unexplainable by science. With 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, the brain is the most complex network in the universe. How the brain functions as an information-processing organ and regulates emotion, behavior, and cognition as well as basic body functions like breathing remains a mystery. In recent years, there has been significant progress in brain research. Scientists are on the brink of major breakthroughs, but there is significant work to do particularly on neurological brain disorders. Being a scientist means living on the cutting-edge of human innovation. I enjoy being able to both ask and answer questions that will benefit humankind.


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Inspiring the next generation of stem cell scientists

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SPARK students at the 2017 Annual Meeting at the City of Hope.

“The technological breakthroughs that will be happening over the next few years – it’s your generation of scientists that will make this happen.”

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John Zaia

Dr. John Zaia, the Director of City of Hope’s Center for Gene Therapy, directed these words to a group of 55 talented high school students attending the 2017 CIRM SPARK meeting.

SPARK stands for Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge. Students in the program spend their summer tackling difficult stem cell research projects in the lab, attending scientific workshops and lectures, and participated in patient engagement activities.

At the end of the summer, SPARK students from seven different programs at institutions and universities across California attend the annual SPARK meeting. At this gathering, students present their research to researchers and their families. They also hear about the progress in developing stem cell therapies from scientists and doctors and about exciting career paths in science and STEM fields from SPARK alumni.

The program is an excellent way for high school students to get their “research feet” wet. They are trained in basic lab and stem cell techniques and are assigned to a mentor who guides them through their research project.

Many of the students who participate in our SPARK programs go on to prestigious colleges to pursue degrees in science, medicine, and engineering. You can read some of these stories on our blog here and here.

At CIRM, we are invested in educating the next generation of stem cell scientists. Our Vice-Chair of the CIRM Board, Sen. Art Torres, said it perfectly at this year’s SPARK meeting:

“I just want to thank you for being part of this program. We are very proud of each and every one of you and we expect great things in the future.”

Check out this short video, produced by City of Hope, which features highlights from our 2017 SPARK meeting at the City of Hope. As you will see, this program is not only fun, but is a one-in-a-lifetime experience.

If you’re interested in learning more about our SPARK program or applying to be a SPARK intern, visit our website for more information. SPARK programs typically accept applications in December or early in the year. Each program has its own eligibility requirements and application process and you can find out that information on the individual SPARK program websites listed on our CIRM SPARK webpage.

CIRM Bridges Student Researcher Discovers Mentoring is a Two-Way Street

Jasmine Carter is a CIRM Bridges Scholar a Sacramento State University. She currently is interning in the lab of Dr. Kyle Fink at UC Davis and her research focuses on developing induced neurons from skin cells to model neurological disorders and develop novel therapeutics. Jasmine was a mentor to one of our UC Davis CIRM SPARK high school students this summer, and we asked her to share her thoughts on the importance of mentorship in science.

I began my scientific journey as an undergraduate student in the biomedical sciences, determined to get into medical school to become a surgeon. But I was perpetually stressed, always pushing towards the next goal and never stopping to smell the roses. Until one day, I did stop because a mentor encouraged me to figure out how I wanted to contribute to the medical field. In the midst of contemplating this important question, I was offered an undergraduate research position studying stem cells. It wasn’t long before I realized I had found my calling. Those little stem cells were incredibly fascinating to me, and I really enjoyed my time in a research lab. Being able to apply my scientific knowledge at the lab bench and challenge myself to solve biological problems was truly enjoyable to me so I applied to and was accepted into Sacramento State’s CIRM Bridges Program.

Jasmine working with stem cells in the cell culture hood.

To say I was excited to learn more about stem cell biology would be an understatement. I started volunteering in the Translational Research Lab at the Institute for Regenerative Cures at UC Davis as soon as I could. And I started to feel way outside my comfort zone as I walked into the lab because the seemingly endless rows of research benches and all the lab equipment can be a lot to take in when you first begin your research journey. When I started to actually run experiments, I worried that I may have messed the experiment up. I worried that I might SAY or DO something that would make me appear less intelligent because everyone was so knowledgeable. I struggled with figuring out whether or not I was cut out for the research environment.

I have now started my formal research internship and am constantly amazed at the mentorship I receive and collaboration I witness every day; everyone is always willing to lend a helping hand or simply be a sounding board for ideas. I have learned an immense amount of knowledge about stem cell research and its potential to improve knowledge for the scientific community and treatment options for patients. But I would not have had the opportunity to grow as an intern and learn from experts in various disciplines if it were not for the CIRM Bridges Program. The Bridges Program has allowed me to apply basic biological principles as I learn about stem cell biology and the applications of stems cells while completing a Master’s research project. Diving into the research environment has been challenging at times, but guidance from knowledgeable and encouraging mentors in the Translational Research Laboratory has helped to shape me into a more confident researcher.

Jasmine and Yasmine.

As fate would have it, just as I was becoming more and more confident in myself as a researcher, I found myself becoming a mentor to our CIRM SPARK high school intern, Yasmine. During Yasmine’s first week, I saw the exact same feelings of doubt on her face that I had experienced when I first volunteered in the laboratory. I saw how she challenged herself to absorb and understand every word and concept we said to her. I saw that familiar worried expression she’d displayed when unsure if she just messed up on an experiment or the hesitation when trying to figure out if the question she was about to ask was the “right” one. Because I had faced the same struggles, I could assure her that the internship was a learning experience and that each success and setback she encountered while working on her project would make her a better scientist.

During Yasmine’s eight-week summer internship, she observed and helped members of our team on various experiments while conducting her own research project. At the end of the first week, Yasmine commented on how diligent all the researchers in the lab were; how she hadn’t known the amount of effort and work that’s required to develop and complete a research project. Yasmine’s project focused on optimizing the protocols, or recipes, for editing genes in different types of cells for use as potential treatments for neurological disorders. Many days, you’d find Yasmine peering into the microscope and imaging cells – for her project or one of ours. Being able to visually assess the success of our experiments was exciting for her. The time we spent trying to track down just one fluorescent cell was a great opportunity for us to review the experiment and brainstorm the next set of experiments we wanted to run. I enjoyed explaining the science behind the experiments we set up, and Yasmine’s thought provoking questions sometimes led to a learning session where we figured out the answer together. Yasmine even used the knowledge she was acquiring in a graduate level Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) course to explain her flow cytometry results to our team during a lab meeting.

Yasmine at the microscope.

It was actually during one of these lab meetings when I was practicing my poster presentation for the 2017 Annual CIRM Bridges Trainee Meeting when Yasmine said, “I finally understand your project”. She and I had frequently discussed my project, but towards the end of the internship she was integrating what she learned in lectures, whiteboard review sessions and scientific papers to the research we were doing at the lab bench. It was incredibly gratifying to see how much she had learned and how her confidence as a young scientist grew while she interned with us. The internship was an invaluable experience for Yasmine because it helped to reinforce her commitment to improving the lives of patients who suffer from brain cancer. She hopes to use the research skills that the SPARK program provided to seek out research opportunities in college.

But the learning wasn’t one-sided this summer because I was also learning from Yasmine. The CIRM SPARK students are encouraged to document their internship on social media. And with Yasmine’s encouragement, I have started to document my experiences in the Bridges program by showing what the day to day life of a graduate student looks like, what experiments are going well and how I am trouble-shooting the failed experiments. Sometimes those failed experiments can be discouraging, but taking the time to discuss it with a mentor, mentee or an individual on social media can help me to figure out how I should change the experiment. So, when self-doubt sprouted back up as I began to document my experiences in the program, I reminded myself that being pushed outside my comfort zone is a great way to learn. But one of the greatest lessons I learned from Yasmine’s summer internship is the importance of sharing in a mentor-mentee relationship. After sharing my knowledge with Yasmine, I got to watch her confidence shine when she took the reins with experiments and then shared the fruits of her labor with me.

There can be a lot of ups and downs in research. However, opportunities for mentorship and learning with such bright, enthusiastic and dedicated students has certainly validated the importance of the CIRM Bridges and SPARK programs. The mentorship and collaboration that occurs between high school interns, undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and principal investigators to develop therapies for patients with unmet medical needs is truly amazing.

Mentorship leads to productive careers and friendships.

Jasmine Carter is also an avid science communicator. You can follow her science journey on Instagram and Twitter.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught our Eye: Duchenne muscular dystrophy and short telomeres, motor neurons from skin, and students today, stem cell scientists tomorrow

Short telomeres associated with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) is a severe muscle wasting disease that typically affects young men. There is no cure for DMD and the average life expectancy is 26. These are troubling facts that scientists at the University of Pennsylvania are hoping to change with their recent findings in Stem Cell Reports.

Muscle stem cells with telomeres shown in red. (Credit: Penn Medicine)

The team discovered that the muscle stem cells in DMD patients have shortened telomeres, which are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that prevent the loss of precious genetic information during cell division. Each time a cell divides, a small section of telomere is lost. This typically isn’t a problem because telomeres are long enough to protect cells through many divisions.

But it turns out this is not the case for the telomeres in the muscle stem cells of DMD patients. Because DMD patients have weak muscles, they experience constant muscle damage and their muscle stem cells have to divide more frequently (basically non-stop) to repair and replace muscle tissue. This is bad news for the telomeres in their muscle stem cells. Foteini Mourkioti, senior author on the study, explained in a news release,

“We found that in boys with DMD, the telomeres are so short that the muscle stem cells are probably exhausted. Due to the DMD, their muscle stem cells are constantly repairing themselves, which means the telomeres are getting shorter at an accelerated rate, much earlier in life. Future therapies that prevent telomere loss and keep muscle stem cells viable might be able to slow the progress of disease and boost muscle regeneration in the patients.”

With these new insights, Mourkioti and his team believe that targeting muscle stem cells before their telomeres become too short is a good path to pursue for developing new treatments for DMD.

“We are now looking for signaling pathways that affect telomere length in muscle stem cells, so that in principle we can develop drugs to block those pathways and maintain telomere length.”

Making Motor Neurons from Skin.

Skin cells and brain cells are like apples and oranges, they look completely different and have different functions. However, in the past decade, researchers have developed methods to transform skin cells into neurons to study neurodegenerative disorders and develop new strategies to treat brain diseases.

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis published new findings on this topic yesterday in the journal Cell Stem Cell. In a nut shell, the team discovered that a specific combination of microRNAs (molecules involved in regulating what genes are turned on and off) and transcription factors (proteins that also regulate gene expression) can turn human skin cells into motor neurons, which are the brain cells that degenerate in neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Human motor neurons made from skin. (Credit: Daniel Abernathy)

This magical cocktail of factors told the skin cells to turn off genes that make them skin and turn on genes that transformed them into motor neurons. The scientists used skin cells from healthy individuals but will soon use their method to make motor neurons from patients with ALS and other motor neuron diseases. They are also interested in generating neurons from older patients who are more advanced in their disease. Andrew Yoo, senior author on the study, explained in a news release,

“In this study, we only used skin cells from healthy adults ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. Our research revealed how small RNA molecules can work with other cell signals called transcription factors to generate specific types of neurons, in this case motor neurons. In the future, we would like to study skin cells from patients with disorders of motor neurons. Our conversion process should model late-onset aspects of the disease using neurons derived from patients with the condition.”

This research will make it easier for other scientists to grow human motor neurons in the lab to model brain diseases and potentially develop new treatments. However, this is still early stage research and more work should be done to determine whether these transformed motor neurons are the “real deal”. A similar conclusion was shared by Julia Evangelou Strait, the author of the Washington University School of Medicine news release,

“The converted motor neurons compared favorably to normal mouse motor neurons, in terms of the genes that are turned on and off and how they function. But the scientists can’t be certain these cells are perfect matches for native human motor neurons since it’s difficult to obtain samples of cultured motor neurons from adult individuals. Future work studying neuron samples donated from patients after death is required to determine how precisely these cells mimic native human motor neurons.”

Students Today, Scientists Tomorrow.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? For Benjamin Nittayo, a senior at Cal State University Los Angeles, it was being a scientist researching a cure for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a form of blood cancer that took his father’s life. Nittayo is making his dream into a reality by participating in a summer research internship through the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy at the City of Hope in Duarte California.

Nittayo has spent the past two summers doing cancer research with scientists at the Beckman Research Institute at City of Hope and hopes to get a PhD in immunology to pursue his dream of curing AML. He explained in a City of Hope news release,

“I want to carry his memory on through my work. Being in this summer student program helped me do that. It influenced the kind of research I want to get into as a scientist and it connected me to my dad. I want to continue the research I was able to start here so other people won’t have to go through what I went through. I don’t wish that on anybody.”

The Roberts Academy also hosts high school students who are interested in getting their first experience working in a lab. Some of these students are part of CIRM’s high school educational program Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge or SPARK. The goal of SPARK is to train the next generation of stem cell scientists in California by giving them hands-on training in stem cell research at leading institutes in the state.

This year, the City of Hope hosted the Annual SPARK meeting where students from the seven different SPARK programs presented their summer research and learned about advances in stem cell therapies from City of Hope scientists.

Ashley Anderson, a student at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, had the honor of giving the City of Hope SPARK student talk. She shared her work on Canavan’s disease, a progressive genetic disorder that damages the brain’s nerve cells during infancy and can cause problems with movement and muscle weakness.

Under the guidance of her mentor Yanhong Shi, Ph.D., who is a Professor of Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at City of Hope, Ashley used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from patients with Canavan’s to generate different types of brain cells affected by the disease. Ashley helped develop a protocol to make large quantities of neural progenitor cells from these iPSCs which the lab hopes to eventually use in clinical trials to treat Canavan patients.

Ashley has always been intrigued by science, but thanks to SPARK and the Roberts Academy, she was finally able to gain actual experience doing science.

“I was looking for an internship in biosciences where I could apply my interest in science more hands-on. Science is more than reading a textbook, you need to practice it. That’s what SPARK has done for me. Being at City of Hope and being a part of SPARK was amazing. I learned so much from Dr. Shi. It’s great to physically be in a lab and make things happen.”

You can read more about Ashley’s research and those of other City of Hope SPARK students here. You can also find out more about the educational programs we fund on our website and on our blog (here and here).