How this scientist changed paths to become a stem cell researcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Bridges to a Brighter Future – Celebrating 11 Years of Workforce Development

By: Dr. Kelly Shepard, Associate Director, Discovery and Translation, CIRM

CIRM 2020 Bridges Conference via Zoom

Every July, CIRM is thrilled to announce the arrival a new generation of stem cell scientists who are ready to hit the ground running as laboratory technicians, educators, communicators, or future leaders of their chosen profession. These diverse and remarkable individuals are the latest graduates of the CIRM Bridges Program, which provides students the opportunity to take coursework at California state schools and community colleges and conduct stem cell research at top universities and industry labs. The culmination of this experience is an annual conference where students are able to network with their peers and share their research outcomes with one another.

While the Bridges program has been operating in full force for 11 years now, 2020 brought some new challenges to everyone in the form of a global pandemic. Shelter in place orders- cancellation of in person classes- travel restrictions…. these are only a few of the factors that have touched our lives in recent months. But sometimes challenges bring opportunities and a new way of doing things. Through the collective efforts of program directors, institutional officials, mentors and students, the 2020 Bridges alumni were able to complete their training requirements at their institutions and present their research at the Annual Bridges Conference, which was conducted virtually this year. While visiting students posters via Zoom, we at CIRM were thrilled to learn that many of them already had jobs waiting for them or had been accepted into PhD or MD programs, similar to alumni from previous years, which now number over 1400.

While we cannot predict all of the twists and turns that life may bring us, we can be confident that scientific research and discovery will remain essential to creating a brighter future, and that Bridges alumni will be there to help us navigate it.