Recently, The New York Times released a powerful article that tells the stories of four different families navigating the challenges of having a family member with a rare disease. One of these stories focused on Matt Wilsey, a tech entrepreneur and investor in California’s Silicon Valley, and his daughter Grace, who was born with an extremely rare genetic disorder named NGLY1 deficiency. This genetic disorder causes developmental delay, intellectual disability, seizures, and other movement issues.
Matt decided to put his entrepreneurial and networking skills to good use in order to form Grace Science Foundation, an organization whose focus is to pioneer approaches to scientific discovery in order to develop a cure for NGLY1 deficiency. One researcher that Matt brought on board was Carolyn Bertozzi, Ph.D., a chemist from Stanford University. A graduate student in her laboratory, Ian Blong, Ph.D., decided to study NGLY1 and was able to complete his dissertation while working on this topic at Stanford University.
In exploring the various options afforded to him by the CIRM, Ian found Dr. Bertozzi’s lab at UC Berkeley, where he focused on early stage discovery research. His master’s thesis project focused on how to generate rare neuronal and and neural crest cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Both of these stem cell types can generate virtually any kind of cell, but iPSCs are unique in that they can be generated from the adult cells (such as skin) of a patient.
Ian decided to continue his studies in Dr. Bertozzi’s lab by continuing his research in a Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley. He credits the SFSU CIRM Bridges Program with giving him the opportunity to work under a prestigious PI and in her lab at UC Berkeley, which allowed him to continue his studies there.
“The CIRM Bridges Program gave me the confidence and resources to pursue my dreams. Being able to have the capability of going to Berkeley and do research with top tier scientists along with the support from CIRM. Without CIRM, I wouldn’t have had the courage to go to those universities to get my foot in the door.”
Eventually, Dr. Bertozzi move her operations to Stanford University and Ian continued his Ph.D. studies there. Stanford provided him the opportunity to focus more on the translational stage, which is an area of research aimed at developing a therapeutic candidate. Going into his Ph.D. work, Ian was able to build upon his previous “discovery stage” knowledge of generating neuronal and neural crest cells from iPSCS and hESCs.
An area of his work at Stanford focused on generating neural crest cells from iPSCs of those with NGLY1 deficiency. The goal was to identify a phenotype, which is an observable characteristic such as physical form. Identifying this would help better understand potential differentiation pathways that underlie NGLY1 deficiency, which could lead to the development a potential treatment for the condition.
Flash forward to present day and Ian is still using the knowledge he learned from his time in the SFSU CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program. He is currently a scientist at the healthcare company Roche, where his focus is on manufacturing future diagnostics and therapeutics on a much larger scale, a complex and extremely critical process necessary in widely distributing potential stem cell-based treatments.
Ian’s experience and opportunities provided to him is just one of the many examples of how the various CIRM Bridges Programs across California have given students the resources needed to become the next generation of scientists.
Students present their research finding at the 2016 CIRM Bridges conference
One of the programs people here at CIRM love is our Bridges to Stem Cell Research Awards. These are given to undergraduate and master’s level college students, to train the next generation of stem cell scientists. How good a program is it? It’s terrific. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just read this piece by a great stem cell champion, Don Reed. Don is the author of two books about CIRM, Stem Cell Battles and California Cures! so he clearly knows what he’s talking about.
ADVENTURES ON “BRIDGES”: Humboldt State Stem Cell Research
By Don C. Reed
Imagine yourself as a California college student, hoping to become a stem cell researcher. Like almost all students you are in need of financial help, and so (let’s say) you asked your college counselor if there were any scholarships available.
To your delight, she said, well, there is this wonderful internship program called Bridges, funded by the California Institution for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) which funds training in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine — and so, naturally, you applied…
After doing some basic training at the college, you would receive a grant (roughly $40,000) for a one-year internship at a world-renowned stem cell research facility. What an incredible leap forward in your career, hands-on experience (essentially a first job, great “experience” for the resume) as well an expert education.
Where are the 14 California colleges participating in this program? Click below:
Let’s take a look at one of these college programs in action: find out what happened to a few of the students who received a Bridges award, crossing the gap between studying stem cell research and actually applying it.
HSU information is courtesy of Dr. Amy Sprowles, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Co-Director of the Bridges program at Humboldt State University (HSU), 279 miles north of San Francisco.
“The HSU Bridges program”, says Dr. Sprowles, “was largely developed by four people: Rollin Richmond, then HSU President, who worked closely with Susan Baxter, Executive Director of the CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology, to secure the CIRM Bridges initiative; HSU Professor of Biological Sciences Jacob Varkey, who pioneered HSU’s undergraduate biomedical education program”, and Sprowles herself, at the time a lecturer with a PhD in Biochemistry.
The program has two parts: a beginning course in stem cell research, and a twelve-month internship in a premiere stem cell research laboratory. For HSU, these are at Stanford University, UC Davis, UCSF, or the Scripps Research Institute.
Like all CIRM Bridges programs, the HSU stem cell program is individually designed to suit the needs of its community.
Each of the 15 CIRM Bridges Programs fund up to ten paid internships, but the curriculum and specific activities of each are designed by their campus directors. The HSU program prepares Bridges candidates by requiring participation in a semester-long lecture and stem cell biology laboratory course before selection for the program: a course designed and taught by Sprowles since its inception.
She states, “The HSU pre-internship course ensures our students are trained in fundamental scientific concepts, laboratory skills and professional behaviors before entering their host laboratory. We find this necessary since, unlike the other Bridges campuses, we are 300+ miles away from the internship sites and are unable to fully support this kind of training during the experience. It also provides additional insights about the work ethic and mentoring needs of the individuals we select that are helpful in placing and supporting our program participants”.
How is it working?
Ten years after it began, 76 HSU students have completed the CIRM Bridges program at HSU. Of those, the overwhelming majority (over 85%) are committed to careers in regenerative medicine: either working in the field already, or continuing their education toward that goal.
But what happened to their lives? Take a brief look at the ongoing careers of a “Magnificent Seven” HSU Bridges scientists:
CARSTEN CHARLESWORTH: “Spurred by the opportunity to complete a paid internship at a world class research institution in Stem Cell Biology, I applied to the Humboldt CIRM Bridges program, and was lucky enough to be accepted. With a keen interest in the developing field of genome editing and the recent advent of the CRISPR-Cas9 system I chose to intern in the lab of a pioneer in the genome editing field, Dr. Matthew Porteus at Stanford, who focuses in genome editing hematopoietic stem cells to treat diseases such as sickle cell disease. In August of 2018 I began a PhD in Stanford’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine program, where I am currently a second-year graduate student in the lab of Dr. Hiro Nakauchi, working on the development of human organs in interspecies human animal chimeras. The success that I’ve had and my acceptance into Stanford’s world class PhD program are a direct result of the opportunity that the CIRM Bridges internship provided me and the excellent training and instruction that I received from the Humboldt State Biology Program.”
ELISEBETH TORRETTI: “While looking for opportunities at HSU, I stumbled upon the CIRM Bridges program. It was perfect- a paid internship at high profile labs where I could expand my research skills for an entire year… the best fit (was) Jeanne Loring’s Lab at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA. Dr. Loring is one of the premiere stem cell researchers in the world… (The lab’s) main focus is to develop a cure for Parkinson’s disease. (They) take skin cells known as fibroblasts and revert them into stem cells. These cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can then be differentiated into dopaminergic neurons and transplanted into the patient…. My project focused on a different disease: adenylate-cyclase 5 (ADCY5) — related dyskinesia. During my time at Dr. Loring’s lab I learned incredibly valuable research skills. I am now working in a mid-sized biotch company focusing on cancer research. I don’t think that would be possible in a competitive area like San Diego without my experience gained through the CIRM Bridges program.”
BRENDAN KELLY: “After completing my CIRM internship in Dr. Marius Wernig’s lab (in Stanford), I began working at a startup company called I Peace. I helped launch this company with Dr. Koji Tanabe, whom I met while working in my host lab. I am now at Cardiff University in Wales working on my PhD. My research involves using patient iPSC derived neurons to model Huntington’s disease. All this derived from my opportunity to partake in the CIRM-Bridges program, which opened doors for me.”
SAMANTHA SHELTON: “CIRM Bridges provided invaluable hands-on training in cell culture and stem cell techniques that have shaped my future in science. My CIRM internship in John Rubenstein’s Lab of Neural Development taught me amazing laboratory techniques such as stem cell transplantation as well as what goes into creating a harmonious and productive laboratory environment. My internship projects led to my first co-first author publication.
After my Bridges internship, I joined the Graduate Program for Neuroscience at Boston University. My PhD work aims to discover types of stem cells in the brain and how the structure of the brain develops early in life. During this time, I have focused on changes in brain development after Zika virus infection to better understand how microcephaly (small skulls and brains, often a symptom of Zika-DR) is caused. There is no doubt that CIRM not only made me a more competitive candidate for a doctoral degree but also provided me with tools to progress towards my ultimate goal of understanding and treating neurological diseases with stem cell technologies.”
DU CHENG: “Both my academic and business tracks started in the CIRM-funded…fellowship (at Stanford) where I invented the technology (the LabCam Microscope adapter) that I formed my company on (iDU Optics LLC). The instructor of the class, Dr. Amy Sprowles, encouraged me to carry on the idea. Later, I was able to get in the MD-PhD program at Weill Cornell Medical College because of the invaluable research experiences CIRM’s research program provided me. CIRM initiated the momentum to get me where I am today. Looking back, the CIRM Bridges Program is an instrumental jump-starter on my early career… I would not remotely be where I am without it.…”
CODY KIME: “Securing a CIRM grant helped me to take a position in the Nobel Prize winning Shinya Yamanaka Lab at the Gladstone Institutes, one of the most competitive labs in the new field of cell reprogramming. I then explored my own reprogramming interests, moving to the Kyoto University of Medicine, Doctor of Medical Sciences Program in Japan, and building a reprogramming team in the Masayo Takahashi Lab at RIKEN. My studies explore inducing cells to their highest total potential using less intrusive means and hacking the cell program. My systems are designed to inform my hypotheses toward a true お好みの細胞 (okonomi no cybo) technology, meaning ‘cells as you wish’ in Japanese, that could rapidly change any cell into another desired cell type or tissue.”
SARA MILLS: “The CIRM Bridges program was the key early influencer which aided in my hiring of my first industry position at ViaCyte, Inc. Also a strongly CIRM funded institution, I was ultimately responsible for the process development of the VC-01™ fill, finish processes and cGMP documentation development. Most recently, with over two years at the boutique consulting firm of Dark Horse Consulting, Inc., I have been focusing on aseptic and cGMP manufacturing process development, risk analysis, CMC and regulatory filings, facility design and project management to advise growing cell and gene therapy companies, worldwide.”
Like warriors fighting to save lives, these young scientists are engaged in an effort to study and defeat chronic disease. It is to be hoped the California stem cell program will have its funding renewed, so the “Bridges” program can continue.
For more information on the Bridges program, which might help a young scientist (perhaps yourself) cut and paste the following URL:
One closing paragraph perhaps best sums up the Bridges experience:
“During my CIRM Bridges training in Stanford University, I was fortunate to work with Dr. Jill Helms, who so patiently mentored me on research design and execution. I ended up publishing 7 papers with her during the two-year CIRM internship and helped making significant progress of turning a Stem Cell factor into applicable therapeutic form, that is currently in preparation for clinical trial by a biotech company in Silicon Valley. I also learned from her how to write grants and publications, but more importantly, (to) never limit your potential by what you already know.” — Du Cheng
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.
Since 2010, the CIRM Bridges Program has provided paid stem cell research internships to students at California colleges and universities that don’t have major stem cell research programs. In order to keep in touch with these interns, The Stem Cellar has an ongoing CIRM Scholars blog series, inviting alumni from our training programs to reflect on the importance of their internships, to update readers on their career path and to give career advice to the current interns.
The blog below, written by Mimi Krutein from the 2011 Bridges program at Cal State University San Marcos, is based on a presentation she gave in late July at the 2017 Annual CIRM Bridges Trainee Meeting in San Diego.
The science graduate school experience is not at all what I was expecting. I imagined it as a mentally stimulating flurry of discoveries and training; before I started I pictured a cross between Harry Potter and The Magic School Bus. What I got, and what most graduate students get, is a vaguely escorted slog into a land of uncertainty and imposter syndrome, sprinkled with fleeting moments of clarity and excitement. But don’t get me wrong; it is worth it.
My personal road to graduate school was quite unorthodox. I entered California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) as a nursing major, because I had a genuine interest in medicine and was fascinated by the complexity of the human body.
It also didn’t require calculus level math, so I was sold. I generally enjoyed my courses but everything changed for me when I took microbiology. It was my first introduction to basic science. Disease mechanisms of microorganisms blew my mind, sparked my curiosity, and catalyzed a shift in focus that never readjusted.
It was then I decided to add a biology minor to feed the beast, but didn’t have the confidence to switch majors completely. The pre-nursing program actually advised me not to add the minor; my grades at that point were good but not stellar, and they thought that the new load would be too difficult. That summer I formally applied to the CSUSM nursing program and was rejected, missing the cutoff by one point. Chalking it up to fate, I turned gracefully on my heels and belly flopped into a molecular biology major with open arms, calculus and all.
A few semesters passed and I desperately craved more lab time so I applied to 12 summer undergraduate research programs and was swiftly rejected due to lack of experience. The only position I was offered was a 100-hour, unpaid internship at a tiny biotech composed of 5 people, where we utilized bioluminescent phytoplankton to monitor water toxicity. Then I joined the only research lab at CSUSM with an opening, and under Dr. Betsy Read I studied the metabolic pathways of the model organism Emiliania huxleyi, also a phytoplankton.
As much as I loved the lab and industry training I was receiving, I wanted to integrate my fascination of human medicine with my passion for laboratory science. Betsy pulled me into her office one day and asked the very obtuse question “what do you want to do in science?” To her surprise –and slight disappointment I’m sure- I told her that I didn’t want to stay in phytoplankton, but rather explore medically relevant research, and study human disease. Happily she lit up and frantically told me about the CIRM Bridges internship that would be perfect, the caveat being that applications were due that very day. I received a 24-hour extension, and was later accepted for the 2011 program.
I was equal parts inspired and terrified For my CIRM internship I joined Tobin Dickerson’s lab in the department of chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute. I received excellent one-on-one training in a small lab studying highly infectious agents, primarily botulinum toxin. Now, botulinum toxin has an extremely simple mechanism of action, however, it is also the most potent neurotoxin known to man. Approximately 1 gram of aerosolized toxin can kill 1 million people; and the bacteria that produces it, Clostridium botulinum, is relatively easy to propagate, making it a potential bioterrorist agent.
iPSC-derived motor neurons. Image courtesey of Mimi Kreitin/The Scripps Research Institute
For this reason, The Department of Defense gave us a grant to pursue high-throughput screening of small molecule inhibitors that could block the effects of this toxin. I assisted in the screening and follow up tests on individual inhibitors. At the same time, I established a robust method for generating motor neurons from human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells. This work provided us with a virtually endless pool of boltulinum-sensitive cells for the use of cellular studies with prospective inhibitors found in our initial screens. Deriving the neurons from stem cells also eliminated the need for expensive and tiresome motor neuron harvests from animals. The cells I produced in the lab presented as bonafide motor neurons because they produced an appropriate dose response to live toxin.
I finally felt like a real scientist After my internship, I was formally hired by the lab as a part time technician while I finished my last year of classes as CSUSM. My two years of work in the lab resulted in three publications, one of which was accepted for the cover of ACS Combinatorial Science. More importantly though, the years I spent in the Dickerson lab provided room for me to grow into myself as a scientist, receive unparalleled training, and gain perspective on what it meant to be in the thick of academic research.
After many discussions with my peers and mentors, I decided graduate school, ideally a PhD track, was the next step for my scientific career. I knew I loved research, but I wanted to learn how to think, how to approach unanswered questions in a productive manner. I wanted to be trained by everyone who could provide me with knowledge.
I was just plain hungry. And like most 20-somethings on the edge of graduation, my passion was mixed in equal parts with indecisiveness. I really didn’t know what I wanted to study, but I knew I wanted to utilize my stem cell training, and I knew what made my mind light up; I was -and still am- fascinated by how diseases work on a cellular and molecular level. So, after months of searching, digging, and crosschecking, I applied to a dozen translational research programs across the US.
And then the news arrived While running late to a class, I got the acceptance email from my dream school; the University of Washington. After reading the subject line I was frozen with disbelief, I called my mom, forgot where I was going and took a stroll the other direction until I realized I had a test waiting for me. It never occurred to me that I could actually do this for real.
My first day of grad school was one I will never forget. After a lukewarm five minutes of awkwardly chatting with my new postdoc lab members, we go out to get coffee and I proceed to faceplant in the middle of a puddle-filled crosswalk directly in front of a truck. I skinned my knee and sliced my hand open, but magically managed to keep my coffee upright. Understandably, my newly acquired lab members didn’t let me touch anything of real importance for 2 weeks. Even after being considered a ‘seasoned’ graduate student I still knock over racks of pipette tips or spill liters of E. coli cultures on my new jeans. Such is the grad school life. Part of me hopes once I earn those fancy three letters after my name, I’ll evolve to the perfect scientist, but I won’t bet on it.
To those of you considering graduate school I’ll end with these parting thoughts. Obviously, I’m still not on the other end of this whole grad school thing, but I can tell you from the four years I’ve spent doing this so far, there has been no experience more rewarding and humbling than pursuing a PhD. If you find yourself interested in taking the leap in a similar direction, know that if you choose this path, it’s a marathon, not a sprint so take care of yourself through the process. Maintain a strong support system, both for your personal and professional well-being. Foster relationships with your peers to gain strength in numbers and build mentorships with individuals you admire to perpetuate curiosity. Choose your home lab thoughtfully; the Principal Investigator to Student dynamic is the cornerstone of the graduate school experience; you can’t be on different pages with the lab’s leader and expect to write the same story.
Imposter syndrome is the greatest barrier to your success I spent 22 years wholeheartedly believing I couldn’t do the thing I’m currently doing, and I’ll tell you guys a secret, some days I still feel that way. But it’s vital to recognize that you are worthy of success and not defined by your failures. Lastly, find humor where you can and stay hungry for opportunities that you believe are just outside of your reach. And stay hungry for knowledge, it’s one of few things that doesn’t expire.
CIRM’s Bridges students and Rare Science’s families with rare diseases
Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest impact. For example, introducing a scientist to a patient can help them drive stem cell research forward faster than either one could do on their own.
Want proof? This year, students in CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy program at California State University (CSU) San Marcos teamed up with parents of children with rare diseases, and the partnerships had a profound impact on all of them, one we hope might produce some long-term benefits.
Christina Waters, who helped create the partnerships, calls it “science with love.”
“We wanted to change the conversation and have researchers and families communicate, making families equal stakeholders in the research. The students bonded with the families and I truly feel that we made a difference in the lives of future researchers, in knowing how much their work can make a life changing impact on the lives of patients’ families who now have hope.”
The CIRM Bridges program helps prepare California’s undergraduate and master’s graduate students for highly productive careers in stem cell research. Students get a paid internship where they get hands-on training and education in stem cell research. They also work with patients and take part in outreach activities so they get an understanding of research that extends beyond the lab.
That’s where Christina Waters comes in. Christina is the founder of Rare Science, a non-profit group focused on rare diseases in children – we blogged about her work here – and she teamed up with CSU San Marcos to partner their Bridges students with five patient families with different rare diseases.
Cutting edge science
One of those families was Aaron Harding’s. Aaron’s son Jaxon has SYNGAP, a genetic disorder that can cause seizures, mental retardation, speech problems and autistic-like behavior. Two of the Bridges students who were doing their internship at ThermoFisher Scientific, Uju Nwizu and Emily Asbury, were given the task of using the gene-editing tool CRISPR Cas9 to help develop a deeper understanding of SYNGAP.
The students say it was an amazing experience:
Uju: “It had a huge impact on me. Every time I thought about SYNGAP I saw Jaxon’s face. This motivated me a lot.”
Emily: “People who work in labs everyday are most often working out the minutiae of research. They don’t often get a chance to see how their research can change or save the lives of real people. Meeting patients is so motivating because afterwards you aren’t just studying a mechanism, you now have a friend with the disease, so you can’t help but be personally invested in the search for a treatment.”
Emily and Uju are working to create iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells) that have the SYNGAP mutation. They hope these can be used to study the disease in greater depth and, maybe one day, lead to treatments for some of the symptoms.
Aaron says for families like his, knowing there are scientists working on his child’s disorder is a source of comfort, and hope:
“Personalizing diseases by connecting scientists with those they seek to impact is so important. Emily and Uju took this opportunity and ran with it, and that says a lot about them, and the team at ThermoFisher, taking on an exploring the unknown. That attitude is the heart of a scientist.”
Hearing stories like this is very gratifying, not just for the students and families involved, but for everyone here at CIRM. When we created the Bridges program our goal was to help students get the skills and experience needed to pursue a career in science. Thanks to the people at CSU San Marcos and Rare Science these students got a whole lot more.
Christina Waters: “We learned, we shared hope, we celebrated the courage of our families and the commitment of the students. It takes a village, and it is all of us working together that will make great changes for kids with rare diseases.”
For Uju and Emily, their experience in the Bridges program has made them doubly certain they want to pursue a career in science.
Uju: “I love stem cells and the promise they hold. After this program I hope to be part of a team that is committed to accelerating new stem cell therapies for rare and chronic diseases.”
Emily: “I’ve learned that I love research. After I finish my bachelor’s degree at CSU San Marcos I plan to pursue a graduate degree in molecular or cellular biology.”
As part of our CIRM scholar series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students.
What do science and improv have in common? The answer is not a whole lot. However, I recently met a talented student from our CIRM Bridges master’s program who one day is going to change this.
Jill Tsai, CIRM Bridges scholar
Meet Jill Tsai. She recently graduated from the CIRM Bridges program at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego and is now starting a PhD program in cancer biology at the City of Hope in Duarte California.
Jill received her Bachelors from UC Merced general biology and went to Cal Poly Pomona for a Master’s program in cancer research. While at Cal Poly Pomona, she successfully applied for a CIRM Bridges internship that allowed her to finish her Master’s degree at Scripps in the lab of Dr. Lazzerini Denchi.
I met Jill at the 2016 Bridges Conference in July and was immediately impressed by her passion for science and communications. I was also intrigued by her interest in improv and how she balances her time between two very different passions. I’m thrilled that Jill agreed to an interview for the Stem Cellar as I think it’s valuable to read about scientists who are pursuing multiple passions not necessarily related to science.
Q: What did you study during your Bridges internship?
JT: I was a research intern in the lab of Dr. Lazzerini Denchi. In his lab, we study telomeres, which are the pieces of DNA at the end of chromosomes that help protect them from being degraded. We’re specifically looking at proteins that help maintain telomere function in mouse stem cells. We do big protein pull downs to try to figure out what new and novel proteins are surrounding the mechanisms that maintain telomere function, and then we do functional assays to figure out what these proteins do.
Lazzerini Denchi’s lab focuses on basic research and how certain proteins affect telomere length and also the telomere deprotection response. One function of telomeres is that they suppress the double and single stranded DNA repair mechanism. If you don’t suppress those mechanisms, then the ends of those linear chromosomes look exactly like double stranded DNA breaks and repair proteins try to fix them by fusing those chromosomes together.
There are great pictures from Lazzerini Denchi’s first author publication showing chromosomes hooked end to end to end like long strings of spaghetti as a result of telomere deprotection. We are studying novel proteins that assist telomeres with the deprotection response and determining whether these proteins have some other kind of function as well.
Telomere deprotection results in chromosomes that are linked together (right) instead of separate (left). (Source Nature: Denchi et al., 2007)
Our larger focus in the lab is being able to understand cancer and specific telomere related genetic disorders that are associated with cancer.
Q: What was your CIRM Bridges experience like?
JT: CIRM was really amazing, and I credit it a lot for being able to start a PhD this fall. I’d been working in my lab at Cal Poly Pomona for five years, and my research unfortunately wasn’t working out. I was probably going to have to quit the program or take an out with an easier project. When I applied to CIRM, I was hoping to get the internship because if I didn’t get it, I was going to go down a completely different career path.
The CIRM internship was very valuable to me. It provided training through stem cell classes and lectures and allowed me to immerse myself in a real lab that had real equipment and personnel. The experience took my research knowledge to the next level and then some. And I knew for sure it had when I was at the poster session during the Bridges conference. I was walking around and asking students about their research, and I understood clearly the path of their research. I knew what questions were good to ask and what the graphs meant without having to take them home and dissect them. It was extremely satisfying to be able to understand other’s scientific research by just listening to them.
I am so excited to start my PhD in the fall. For the first time, I feel confident about my foundational biology and research skills. I also have a better understanding of myself and where I need to improve in comprehension and technique. I am ready to jump into grad school and improve as a scientist.
Q: What are your future career steps?
JT: I want to do something that involves teaching or being able to educate people. I’ve worked as a TA in my master’s program for a few years, and I really enjoy that experience of clarifying complex subjects for people. But to be honest, I also don’t know what I want to do right now so I’m keeping my options open.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about being scientist?
JT: Being a scientist forces you to never be complacent in what you understand. If I had never gotten my master’s, there would be this whole level of critical thinking that I wouldn’t have right now. Learning more is one of the biggest reasons why I want to get my PhD even if I don’t know exactly what I want to do yet.
I want to be able to think at a higher level because I think it’s valuable. And I see my Professor at Scripps: he has all these publications under his belt, but he’s always tinkering with things and he’s always learning new software and he’s always reading new papers. As a scientist, you can’t be stagnant in your learning, and I think because of that you’re always pushing yourself to your best potential. Q: Do you have advice for future Bridges students?
JT: For anyone who is interested in doing a PhD, this is the world’s best preparatory program. After you start a PhD, you hit the ground running. If I were to give advice, I’d say to not be too hard on yourself. There’s going to be expectations put on you that you might not be ready for and you might not do the best job. But you should try your best and know it’s going to help you grow.
Usually people who go into PhD programs are people that have always done well in school. But it’s important to know that learning in grad school is very different than how we are taught to learn elsewhere. Every other time it’s just like show up, listen, take the test you’re done. A PhD relies on a little bit of luck, getting the right project, and doing everything meticulously.
Q: What are your hobbies?
JT: My favorite hobby is improv comedy. What I really like about improv is that it is so different from science and it helps me to relax after work.
Improv is performing comedic scenes on stage with a bunch of people without a script. Skills that it requires are not being stuck in your own head and really paying attention to what’s going on around you. You also need to take big risks and not worry so much about what the end result is going to be, which is very different from research. It’s a nice break to be able to make big giant mistakes and know that after that day it doesn’t matter.
As a researcher, it’s hard to make friends, and even if you have friends, it’s hard to find the time to hang out with them. I love improv because it’s a built in activity. All of my friends outside of work are in improv. We show up and we play make believe together on stage – it’s just a really nice atmosphere. In improv we teach a philosophy that everything you have is enough. Everything you come in with is enough. It’s really nice, because being an adult is hard and life is hard. So it’s a nice thing to hear.
Q: Do you see yourself combining your passions for science and improve in the future?
JT: I do. I don’t know what I want to do yet as a career, but improv is such a big part of my identity that it will always play a role in my life. Improv is so important in communication and interpersonal connections. I believe everyone in science could benefit from it. Ideally, I will find a career that allows me to use both of these passions to help people.
Getting a start in your chosen career is never easy. Without experience it’s hard to get a job. And without a job you can’t get experience. That’s why the CIRM Bridges program was created, to help give undergraduate and Master’s level students a chance to get the experience they need to start a career in stem cell research.
But we are not looking to train just any student; we are looking to recruit and retain students who reflect the diversity of California, students who might not otherwise have a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.
Want to know what that kind of student looks like? What kind of work they do? Well, the Bridges program at City College of San Francisco recently got its latest group of Bridges students to record an “elevator pitch”; that’s a short video where they explain what they do and why it’s important, in language anyone can understand.
They do a great job of talking about their research in a way that’s engaging and informative; no easy matter when you are discussing things as complex as using stem cells to test whether everyday chemicals can have a toxic impact on the developing brain, or finding ways to turn off the chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome.
Regular readers of the CIRM blog know we are huge supporters of anything that encourages scientists to be better communicators. We feel that anyone who gets public funding for their work has an obligation to be able to explain that work in words the public can understand. This is not just about being responsive, there’s also a certain amount of self-interest here. The better the public understands the work that scientists do, and how that might impact their health, the more they’ll support that work.
That’s why one of the new elements we have added to the Bridges program is a requirement for the students to engage in community outreach and education. We want them to be actively involved in educating diverse communities around California about the importance of stem cell research and the potential benefits for everyone.
We have also added a requirement for the students to be directly engaged with patients. Too often in the past students studied solely in the lab, learning the skills they’ll need for a career in science. But we want them to also understand whom these skills will ultimately benefit; people battling deadly diseases and disorders. The best way to do that is for the students to meet these people face-to-face, at a bone marrow drive or at a health fair for example.
When you have seen the face of someone in need, when you know their story, you are more motivated to find a way to help them. The research, even if it is at a basic level, is no longer about an abstract idea, it’s about someone you know, someone you have met.