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.
Through our new Strategic Plan, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) will build inclusive participation opportunities for all stakeholders, from the students to the workforce to the patients.
That said, it’s important to recognize the important work CIRM has already done to train the next generation of scientists and grow the field of regenerative medicine. Alessandra’s story illustrates just one of the many ways we have done that in the past, and we intend to do even more in the future.
Gaining Exposure to Innovative Research
CIRM Scholar Alessandra Rodriguez y Baena was a Master’s student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. With the support of CIRM’s Bridges Program, she became a CIRM intern in the Willert Lab at UC San Diego.
As a student researcher, CIRM provided her with supportive mentors (both at Cal Poly and UCSD), hands-on training in the field of regenerative medicine, and exposure to innovative ideas and research. The program also provided Alessandra with a stipend to help cover expenses. This was particularly helpful for students from low-income backgrounds who otherwise might not be able to afford to go to college.
“I always recommend my undergraduate students who are interested in research to apply to the Bridges programs because, to me, it was a defining experience that led me to pursue my passion for stem cell research as well as teaching,” Alessandra says.
Alessandra is now a fourth-year PhD student in the Forsberg Lab in the department of Molecular, Cell & Developmental Biology at UC Santa Cruz where she is studying the epigenetic regulation of aging in bone marrow stem cells.
In addition to Alessandra, CIRM has provided opportunities in science to nearly 3,000 students across California. These include high schoolers in our SPARK Program, as well as undergrads and graduate students in our Bridges Program and pre and post-doctoral students in our Research Training program. Many of these are from diverse backgrounds.
A Game Changer
Sneha Santosh, another CIRM Scholar, first heard about CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Therapy and Research internship when she was graduating from the UC Davis. She was pursuing a degree in microbial biotechnology and thinking about getting a master’s degree in biotechnology. She said the opportunity to be part of a program that is training the next generation of scientists was a game changer for her.
Through the Bridges Program, she learned about stem cells’ power to treat a disease’s root cause rather than just the symptoms. She saw how these transformative therapies changed people’s lives.
Today, she is a cell culture associate with Novo Nordisk, a leading global healthcare company in Fremont, California
CIRM’s New Strategic Plan
Alessandra and Sneha’s stories capture CIRM’s commitment to building education and training programs, and providing opportunities to build a diverse, highly skilled regenerative medicine workforce. We’ll be covering this ambitious yet achievable goal in our upcoming blog posts.
For more than a decade, CIRM has funded a number of educational and research training programs to give students the opportunity to explore stem cell science. One such project, the Bridges to Stem Cell Research program, helps train future generation of scientists by preparing undergraduate and master’s students from several California universities for careers in stem cell research.
Last summer, the Pacific Division of AAAS organized a ‘Moving on from COVID-19’ virtual forum specifically focused on students of science presenting their future career and research plans through 3-5 minute descriptive videos.
Samira Alwahabi, a Bridges scholar and undergraduate student majoring in Biological Sciences at California State University, Fullerton was one of the many participants who submitted a video detailing their current work and future aspirations. Alwahabi is a CIRM intern conducting research in the Kuo lab at the Stanford University School of Medicine where she focuses on the identification and characterization of human distal lung stem cells as well as the effects of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus on the human distal lung through the use of organoids. Her video, which you can watch below, was recognized for “Best Video Submission by an Undergraduate Student.”
We reached out to Samira to congratulate her and she shared a few words with us about her experience with the Bridges program:
I am very grateful to the CSUF Bridges to Stem Cell Research program for giving me the opportunity to pursue research in the Kuo Lab at Stanford University. The past 11 months have been nothing less than exceptional! I have learned more than I could have even imagined and have been able to really solidify my future career goals through hands-on practice and interactions with professionals at all levels in the field of medical research. The CIRM Bridges program has allowed me to better understand how medical advancements are made and helped to further strengthen my interest in medicine. My future career goals include a career in medicine as a physician, where I will be able to use my research experience to better understand medical innovations that translate into improved quality of care for my patients.
If you have read the headlines lately, you’ll know that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the shipping industry. Container vessels are forced to sit out at anchor for a week or more because there just aren’t enough dock workers to unload the boats. It’s a simple rule of economics, you can have all the demand you want but if you don’t have the people to help deliver on the supply side, you are in trouble.
The same is true in regenerative medicine. The field is expanding rapidly and that’s creating a rising demand for skilled workers to help keep up. That doesn’t just mean scientists, but also technicians and other skilled individuals who can ensure that our ability to manufacture and deliver these new therapies is not slowed down.
That’s one of the reasons why CIRM has been a big supporter of training programs ever since we were created by the voters of California when they approved Proposition 71. And now we are kick-starting those programs again to ensure the field has all the talented workers it needs.
Last week the CIRM Board approved 18 programs, investing more than $86 million, as part of the Agency’s Research Training Grants program. The goal of the program is to create a diverse group of scientists with the knowledge and skill to lead effective stem cell research programs.
The awards provide up to $5 million per institution, for a maximum of 20 institutions, over five years, to support the training of predoctoral graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and/or clinical trainees.
This is a revival of an earlier Research Training program that ran from 2006-2016 and trained 940 “CIRM Scholars” including:
• 321 PhD students • 453 Postdocs • 166 MDs
These grants went to academic institutions from UC Davis in Sacramento to UC San Diego down south and everywhere in-between. A 2013 survey of the students found that most went on to careers in the industry.
56% continued to further training
14% advanced to an academic research faculty position
10.5% advanced to a biotech/industry position
12% advanced to a non-research position such as teaching, medical practice, or foundation/government work
The Research Training Grants go to:
CIRM Training Program in Translational Regenerative Medicine
TRANSCEND – Training Program to Advance Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Research, Education, and Workforce Diversity
UC Los Angeles
UCLA Training Program in Stem Cell Biology
University of Southern California
Training Program Bridging Stem Cell Research with Clinical Applications in Regenerative Medicine
UC Santa Cruz
CIRM Training Program in Systems Biology of Stem Cells
CIRM Regenerative Medicine Research Training Program
City of Hope
Research Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine
CIRM Scholar Training Program
Training the Next Generation of Biologists and Engineers for Regenerative Medicine
CIRM Cell and Gene Therapy Training Program 2.0
Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles
CIRM Training Program for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research
UC San Diego
Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Training Grant at UCSD III
Training Scholars in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research
UC San Francisco
Scholars Research Training Program in Regenerative Medicine, Gene Therapy, and Stem Cell Research
A Multidisciplinary Stem Cell Training Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute, A Critical Component of the La Jolla Mesa Educational Network
UC Santa Barbara
CIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering
CIRM Scholars Comprehensive Research Training Program
Lundquist Institute for Biomedical Innovation
Stem Cell Training Program at the Lundquist Institute
These are not the only awards we make to support training the next generation of scientists. We also have our SPARK and Bridges to Stem Cell Research programs. The SPARK awards are for high school students, and the Bridges program for graduate or Master’s level students.
When the voters of California approved Proposition 14 last November (thanks folks) they gave us $5.5 billion to continue the work we started way back in 2014. It’s a great honor, and a great responsibility.
It’s also a great opportunity to look at what we do and how we do it and try to come up with even better ways of funding groundbreaking research and helping create a new generation of researchers.
In addition to improving on what we already do, Prop 14 introduced some new elements, some new goals for us to add to the mix, and we are in the process of fleshing out how we can best do that.
Because of all these changes we decided it would be a good idea to hold a “Town Hall” meeting and let everyone know what these changes are and how they may impact applications for funding.
The Town Hall, on Tuesday June 29, was a great success with almost 200 participants. But we know that not everyone who wanted to attend could, so here’s the video of the event, and below that are the questions that were posed by people during the meeting, and the answers to those questions.
Having seen the video we would be eternally grateful if you could respond to a short online survey, to help us get a better idea of your research and education needs and to be better able to serve you and identify potential areas of opportunity for CIRM. Here’s a link to that survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VQMYPDL
We know that there may be issues or questions that are not answered here, so feel free to send those to us at email@example.com and we will make sure you get an answer.
Are there any DISC funding opportunities specific to early-stage investigators?
DISC funding opportunities are open to all investigators. There aren’t any that are specific to junior investigators.
Are DISC funding opportunities available for early-mid career researchers based out of USA such as Australia?
Sorry, you have to be in California for us to fund your work.
Does tumor immunology/ cancer immunotherapy fall within the scope of the CIRM discovery grants?
CIRM funding supports non-profit academic grantees as well as companies of all sizes.
I am studying stem cells using mouse. Is my research eligible for the CIRM grants?
Yes it is.
Your programs more specifically into stem cell research would be willing to take patients that are not from California?
Yes, we have treated patients who are not in California. Some have come to California for treatment and others have been treated in other states in the US by companies that are based here in California.
Can you elaborate how the preview of the proposals works? Who reviews them and what are the criteria for full review?
The same GWG panel both previews and conducts the full review. The panel first looks through all the applications to identify what each reviewer believes represents the most likely to be impactful and meet the goals of the CIRM Discovery program. Those that are selected by any reviewer moves forward to the next full review step.
If you meet your milestones-How likely is it that a DISC recipient gets a TRAN award?
The milestones are geared toward preparation of the TRAN stage. However, this is a different application and review that is not guaranteed to result in funding.
Regarding Manufacturing Public Private partnerships – What specific activities is CIRM thinking about enabling these partnerships? For example, are out of state for profit commercial entities able to conduct manufacturing at CA based manufacturing centers even though the clinical program may be primarily based out of CA? If so, what percent of the total program budget must be expended in CA? How will CIRM enable GMP manufacturing centers interact with commercial entities?
We are in the early stages of developing this concept with continued input from various stakeholders. The preliminary vision is to build a network of academic GMP manufacturing centers and industry partners to support the manufacturing needs of CIRM-funded projects in California.
We are in the process of widely distributing a summary of the manufacturing workshop. Here’s a link to it:
If a center is interested in being a sharing lab or competency hub with CIRM, how would they go about it?
CIRM will be soliciting applications for Shared Labs/Competency hubs in potential future RFAs. The survey asks several questions asking for feedback on these concepts so it would really help us if you could complete the survey.
Would preclinical development of stem cell secretome-derived protein therapies for rare neuromuscular diseases and ultimately, age-related muscle wasting be eligible for CIRM TRAN1 funding? The goal is to complete IND-enabling studies for a protein-based therapy that enhances tissue regeneration to treat a rare degenerative disease. the screening to identify the stem-cell secreted proteins to develop as therapeutics is done by in vitro screening with aged/diseased primary human progenitor cells to identify candidates that enhance their differentiation . In vivo the protein therapeutic signals to several cell types , including precursor cells to improve tissue homeostasis.
I would suggest reaching out to our Translation team to discuss the details as it will depend on several factors. You can email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org
At CIRM we are modest enough to know that we can’t do everything by ourselves. To succeed we need partners. And in UC Davis we have a terrific partner. The work they do in advancing stem cell research is exciting and really promising. But it’s not just the science that makes them so special. It’s also their compassion and commitment to caring for patients.
What follows is an excerpt from an article by Lisa Howard on the work they do at UC Davis. When you read it you’ll see why we are honored to be a part of this research.
Gene therapy research at UC Davis
UC Davis’ commitment to stem cell and gene therapy research dates back more than a decade.
In 2010, with major support from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), UC Davis launched the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, which includes research facilities as well as a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility.
Led by Jan Nolta, a professor of cell biology and human anatomy and the director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, the new center leverages UC Davis’ network of expert researchers, facilities and equipment to establish a center of excellence aimed at developing lifelong cures for diseases.
Nolta began her career at the University of Southern California working with Donald B. Kohn on a cure for bubble baby disease, a condition in which babies are born without an immune system. The blood stem cell gene therapy has cured more than 50 babies to date.
Work at the UC Davis Gene Therapy Center targets disorders that potentially can be treated through gene replacement, editing or augmentation.
“The sectors that make up the core of our center stretch out across campus,” said Nolta. “We work with the MIND Institute a lot. We work with the bioengineering and genetics departments, and with the Cancer Center and the Center for Precision Medicine and Data Sciences.”
A recent UC Davis stem cell study shows a potential breakthrough for healing diabetic foot ulcers with a bioengineered scaffold made up of human mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). Another recent study revealed that blocking an enzyme linked with inflammation enables stem cells to repair damaged heart tissue. A cell gene therapy study demonstrated restored enzyme activity in Tay-Sachs disease affected cells in humanized mouse models.
“Some promising and exciting research right now at the Gene Therapy Center comes from work with hematopoietic stem cells and with viral vector delivery,” said Nolta.
Hematopoietic stem cells give rise to other blood cells. A multi-institutional Phase I clinical trial using hematopoietic stem cells to treat HIV-lymphoma patients is currently underway at UC Davis.
“We are genetically engineering a patient’s own blood stem cells with genes that block HIV infection,” said Joseph Anderson, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Internal Medicine. The clinical trial is a collaboration with Mehrdad Abedi, the lead principal investigator.
“When the patients receive the modified stem cells, any new immune system cell, like T-cell or macrophage, that is derived from one of these stem cells, will contain the HIV-resistant genes and block further infection,” said Anderson.
He explained that an added benefit with the unique therapy is that it contains an additional gene that “tags” the stem cells. “We are able to purify the HIV-resistant cells prior to transplantation, thus enriching for a more protective cell population.
Kyle David Fink
Kyle David Fink, an assistant professor of neurology at UC Davis, is affiliated with the Stem Cell Program and Institute for Regenerative Cures. His lab is focused on leveraging institutional expertise to bring curative therapies to rare, genetically linked neurological disorders.
“We are developing novel therapeutics targeted to the underlying genetic condition for diseases such as CDKL5 deficiency disorder, Angelman, Jordan and Rett syndromes, and Juvenile Huntington’s disease,” said Fink.
The lab is developing therapies to target the underlying genetic condition using DNA-binding domains to modify gene expression in therapeutically relevant ways. They are also creating novel delivery platforms to allow these therapeutics to reach their intended target: the brain.
“The hope is that these highly innovative methods will speed up the progress of bringing therapies to these rare neurodegenerative disease communities,” said Fink.
Jasmine Carter, a graduate research assistant at the UC Davis Stem Cell Program, October 18, 2019. (AJ Cheline/UC Davis)
Developing potential lifetime cures
Among Nolta’s concerns is how expensive gene therapy treatments can be.
“Some of the therapies cost half a million dollars and that’s simply not available to everyone. If you are someone with no insurance or someone on Medicare, which reimburses about 65 percent, it’s harder for you to get these life-saving therapies,” said Nolta.
To help address that for cancer patients at UC Davis, Nolta has set up a team known as the “CAR T Team.”
Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy in which a patient’s own immune cells are reprogrammed to attack a specific protein found in cancer cells.
“We can develop our own homegrown CAR T-cells,” said Nolta. “We can use our own good manufacturing facility to genetically engineer treatments specifically for our UC Davis patients.”
Although safely developing stem cell treatments can be painfully slow for patients and their families hoping for cures, Nolta sees progress every day. She envisions a time when gene therapy treatments are no longer considered experimental and doctors will simply be able to prescribe them to their patients.
“And the beauty of the therapy is that it can work for the lifetime of a patient,” said Nolta.
At CIRM we don’t just invest in stem cell research, we invest in people. One prime example of that is our Bridges to Stem Cell Research program. This is helping train the next generation of scientists by preparing Californian undergraduate and master’s students for careers in stem cell research.
The students who go through the Bridges program get up to a year-long internship, hands-on training and education in stem cell research. Just as importantly, they also get to work directly with patients to help them understand why we do this work; to help people in need.
One of our recent
Bridges graduates is Zach Wagoner. Zach was a biology student and wondering what
to do next to help him get some experience for a job when someone told him
about the Bridges program. That set him on a course that is changing his life.
So how did the random conversation impact Zach? The team at the UC Irvine Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center shot this video to answer that question.
It’s not just Zach who benefited from the program. Of the 1257 alumni who graduated from the program by March of this year:
50% are working full time in academic or
biotech research related positions
There’s no denying the fact that many people believe we’re on the cusp of a radical shift in the world of medicine and biotechnology. Over the past few years alone there’s been growing awareness about stem cells and their potential to provide cures for rare diseases. The results of early-stage research and preliminary clinical studies suggest that treatments for health problems like ALS, Sickle Cell Anemia, or blindness are on the horizon and that the potential for stem cells and their application could be limitless. With such promise for stem cell research, it’s no surprise that scientists and students alike are eager to jump in and pioneer what could be the next frontier in medicine.
Enter 120 college students, a handful of advisors, clinical trial participants and some of the nations’ brightest and highly-regarded researchers. On July 11th, they descended upon the Newport Beach Marriott for the opportunity to learn the latest and greatest about stem cells and successful clinical trials at the Bridges to Stem Cell Research conference.
This annual conference, which is supported and funded by CIRM, is one of two of our educational programs (the other is SPARK, that’s coming up August 7th at UC Davis). Bridges offer students an internship and the opportunity to get hands-on training and education in stem cell research at California state schools and community colleges, to prepare them for a career in stem cell research. This year’s conference was hosted and organized by the California State University, San Marcos Bridges Program.
Our goal is to provide a platform for meaningful learning to the next generation of stem cell scientists by making training accessible and giving them the skills necessary to succeed in this industry.
The Bridges conference is an opportunity for the students to showcase their research projects, learn valuable pitching and speaking skills and network with CIRM-supported scientists and their patients. The conference, spread over three days, is the highlight of the program for many of the students, and a treat for CIRM staff who get to see the next generation of scientists in action.
CIRM kicked off the conference with a “Wow me” workshop in which students learned the basics of delivering an “elevator pitch” – a 30-second explanation, in plain English, of what they do, why they do it and why people should care. The evening concluded with a reception dinner on the back lawn of the hotel.
The second day focused on talks by leading industry scientists as well as clinical trial participants in CIRM-funded trials and patient advocates. Later in the day, students participated in a “Pitch-Off” in which they were asked to put their new skills to use by creating a short video showcasing their best “elevator pitch”. Americans for Cures hosted dinner for the evening and spoke about the importance of advocacy and education in stem cell research.
The last day the Bridges conference featured student poster presentations and concluded with career workshops.
The Bridges conference is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the students. Most of them leverage the opportunity to get first-hand feedback on their most pressing questions. For those interested in careers in science and regenerative medicine, it also presents a great opportunity to talk and network with the scientists who are the true innovators of stem cell research.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Bridges conference, follow us on twitter (@CIRMnews, #CIRMBridges2018) and on Instagram (@CIRM_Stemcells).
Luane Beck holds Jordan in the emergency room while he suffers a prolonged seizure. Jordan’s seizures sometimes occur one after another with no break, and they can be deadly without emergency care. Photo courtesy San Francisco Chronicle’s Kim Clark
One of the toughest parts of my job is getting daily calls and emails from people desperate for a stem cell treatment or cure for themselves or a loved one and having to tell them that I don’t know of any. You can hear in their voice, read it in their emails, how hard it is for them to see someone they love in pain or distress and not be able to help them.
I know that many of those people may think about turning to one of the many stem cell clinics, here in the US and in Mexico and other countries, that are offering unproven and unapproved therapies. These clinics are offering desperate people a sense of hope, even if there is no evidence that the therapies they provide are either safe or effective.
And these “therapies” come with a big cost, both emotional and financial.
The San Francisco Chronicle this week launched the first in a series of stories they are doing about stem cells and stem cell research, the progress being made and the problems the field still faces.
One of the biggest problems, are clinics that offer hope, at a steep price, but no evidence to show that hope is justified. The first piece in the Chronicle series is a powerful, heart breaking story of one mother’s love for her son and her determination to do all she can to help him, and the difficult, almost impossible choices she has to make along the way.
A little turbulence, and a French press-like device, can help boost blood platelet production
Every year more than 21 million units of blood are transfused into people in the US. It’s a simple, life-saving procedure. One of the most important elements in transfusions are platelets, the cells that stop bleeding and have other healing properties. Platelets, however, have a very short shelf life and so there is a constant need to get more from donors. Now a new study from Japan may help fix that problem.
Platelets are small cells that break off much larger cells called megakaryocytes. Scientists at the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) created billions of megakaryocytes using iPS technology (which turns ordinary cells into any other kind of cell in the body) and then placed them in a bioreactor. The bioreactor then pushed the cells up and down – much like you push down on a French press coffee maker – which helped promote the generation of platelets.
In their study, published in the journal Cell, they report they were able to generate 100 billion platelets, enough to be able to treat patients.
In a news release, CiRA Professor Koji Eto said they have shown this works in mice and now they want to see if it also works in people:
“Our goal is to produce platelets in the lab to replace human donors.”
Stem Cell Photo of the Week
Students at the CIRM Bridges program practice their “elevator pitch”. Photo Kyle Chesser
This week we held our annual CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research conference in Newport Beach. The Bridges program provides paid internships for undergraduate and masters-level students, a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility and get the experience needed to pursue a career in science. The program is training the next generation of stem cell scientists to fill jobs in California’s growing stem cell research sector.
This year we got the students to practice an “elevator Pitch”, a 30 second explanation, in plain English, of what they do, why they do it and why people should care. It’s a fun exercise but also an important one. We want scientists to be able to explain to the public what they are doing and why it’s important. After all, the people of California are supporting this work so they have a right to know, in language they can understand, how their money is changing the face of medicine.
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.