Learning life lessons in the lab

Rohan Upadhyay, CIRM SPARK student 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPARKing the genius of the next generation of scientists

Dr. Kelly Shepard, SPARK program director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resilience is key.

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

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

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

We look forward to it too Hassan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


Related Links:

High school students SPARK an interest in stem cell research

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

High school is a transformative time for any student. It marks the transition from childhood to adulthood and requires discipline, dedication and determination to excel and get into their desired college or university.

The barrier to entry for college now seems much higher than when I was eighteen, but I am not worried for the current generation of high school students. That’s because I’ve met some of the brightest young minds this past week at the 2017 CIRM SPARK meeting.

SPARK is CIRM’s high school education program, which gives underprivileged students in California the opportunity to train as stem cell scientists for the summer. Students participate in a summer research internship at one of seven programs at leading research institutes in the state. They attend scientific lectures, receive training in basic lab techniques, and do an eight-week stem cell research project under the guidance of a mentor.

At the end of the summer, SPARK students congregate at the annual SPARK poster meeting where they present the fruits of their labor. Meeting these students in person is my favorite time of the year. Their enthusiasm for science and stem cell research is contagious. And when you engage them or listen to them talk about their project, it’s hard to remember that they are still teenagers and not graduate level scientists.

What impresses me most about these students is their communication skills. Each summer, I challenge SPARK students to share their summer research experience through social media and blogging, and each time they go above and beyond with their efforts. Training these students as effective science communicators is important to me. They are the next generation of talented scientists who can help humanize research for the public. They have the power to change the perception of science as a field to be embraced and one that should receive proper funding.

It’s also inspiring to me that this young generation can effectively educate their friends, family and the public about the importance of stem cell research and how it will help save the lives of patients who currently don’t have effective treatments. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out the #CIRMSPARKlab hashtag on Instagram to get a taste of what this year’s group of students accomplished during their internships.

Asking students, many of whom are learning to do research for the first time, to post on Instagram once a week and write a blog about their internship is a tall task. And I believe with any good challenge, there should be a reward. Therefore, at this year’s SPARK meeting held at the City of Hope in Duarte, California, I handed out prizes.

It was very difficult to pick winners for our presentation, social media and blogging awards because honestly, all our students were excellent this year. Even Kevin McCormack, Director of CIRM’s Communications, who helped me read the students’ blogs said,

“This was really tough. The standard of the blogs this year was higher than ever; and previous years had already set the bar really high. It was really difficult deciding which were really good and which were really, really good.”

Ok, enough with the hype, I know you want to read these award-winning blogs so I’ve shared them below. I hope that they inspire you as much as they have inspired me.


Amira Hirara

Amira Hirara (Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute)

It was a day like any other. I walked into the room, just two minutes past 10:30am, ready for another adventurous day in the lab. Just as I settle down, I am greeted by my mentor with the most terrifying task I have ever been asked to perform, “Will you passage the cells for me…alone?” Sweat begins to pour down my cemented face as I consider what is at stake.

The procedure was possibly thirty steps long and I have only executed it twice, with the supervision of my mentor of course. To be asked to do the task without the accompaniment of an experienced individual was unthought-of. I feel my breath begin to shorten as I mutter the word “Ok”. Yet it wasn’t just the procedure that left me shaking like a featherless bird, it was the location of my expedition as well. The dreaded tissue culture room. If even a speck of dirt enters the circulating air of the biosafety cabinet, your cells are at risk of death…death! I’ll be a cell murderer. “Alright”, she said, “I’ll just take a look at the cells then you’ll be on your way.” As we walk down the hallway, my eyes began to twitch as I try to recall the first steps of the procedure. I remember freezing our plates with Poly-ornithine and laminin, which essentially simulates the extracellular environment and allows adhesion between the cell and the plate itself. I must first add antibiotics to rid the frozen plate of potential bacteria. Then I should remove my cells from the incubator, and replace the old solution with accutase and new media, to nourish the cells, as well as unbind them from the plate before. Passaging is necessary when the cell density gets too high, as the cells must be relocated to a roomier environment to better promote survival. As we approach the tissue culture room, my jaw unclenches, as I realize the whirlwind of ideas meant I know more than I thought. My mentor retrieves our cells, views them under the microscope, and deems them ‘ready for passaging’.

“Good luck Amira” she says to me with a reassuring smile. I enter the room ready for battle. Placing first my gloves and coat, I then spray my hands and all things placed in the cabinet with 70% ethanol, to insure a sterile work environment. Back to the procedure, I’ll place the cellular solution of accutase and media into a covalent tube. After, I’ll centrifuge it for two minutes until a cellular pellet forms at the bottom, then dissolve the cells in fresh media, check its density using a cell counter, and calculate the volume of cellular solution needed to add to my once frozen plates. Wait, once I do that, I’ll be all done. I eagerly execute all the steps, ensuring both accuracy and sterility in my work. Pride swells within me as I pipette my last milliliter of solution into my plate. The next day, my mentor and I stop by to check on how our sensitive neural stem cells are doing. “Wow Amira, I am impressed, your cells seem very confluent in their new home, great job!” I smile slyly and begin to nod my head. I now walk these hallways, with a puffed chest, brightened smile, and eagerness to learn. My stem cells did not die, and having the amazing opportunity to master their treatment and procedures, is something I can never forget.

 

Gaby Escobar

Gaby Escobar (Stanford University)

Walking into the lab that would become my home for the next 8 weeks, my mind was an empty canvas.  Up to that point, my perception of the realm of scientific research was one-sided. Limited to the monotonous textbook descriptions of experiments that were commonplace in a laboratory, I wanted more. I wanted to experience the alluring call of curiosity. I wanted to experience the flash of discovery and the unnerving drive that fueled our pursuit of the unknown. I was an empty canvas looking for its first artistic stroke.

Being part of the CIRM Research program, I was lucky enough to have been granted such opportunity. Through the patient guidance of my mentor, I was immersed into the limitless world of stem cell biology. From disease modeling to 3D bioprinting, I was in awe of the capabilities of the minds around me. The energy, the atmosphere, the drive all buzzed with an inimitable quest for understanding. It was all I had imagined and so, so much more.

However, what many people don’t realize is research is an arduous, painstaking process. Sample after sample day after day, frustration and doubt loomed above our heads as we tried to piece together a seemingly pieceless puzzle.  Inevitably, I faced the truth that science is not the picture-perfect realm I had imagined it to be. Rather, it is tiring, it is relentless, and it is unforgiving. But at the same time, it is incomparably gratifying. You see, the innumerable samples, the countless gels and PCRS, all those futile attempts to fruitlessly make sense of the insensible, have meaning. As we traversed through the rollercoaster ride of our project, my mentor shared a personal outlook that struck very deeply with me: her motivation to work against obstacle after obstacle comes not from the recognition or prestige of discovering the next big cure but rather from the notion that one day, her perseverance may transform someone’s life for the good.  And in that, I see the beauty of research and science: the coming together of minds and ideas and bewildering intuitions all for the greater good.

As I look back, words cannot express the gratitude I feel for the lessons I have learned. Undoubtedly, I have made countless mistakes (please don’t ask how many gels I’ve contaminated or pipettes I have dropped) but I’ve also created the most unforgettable of memories. Memories that I know I will cherish for the journey ahead of me. Having experienced the atmosphere of a vibrant scientific community, I have found a second home, a place that I can explore and question and thrive. And although not every day will hold the cure to end all diseases or hand an answer on a silver platter, every day is another opportunity.  And with that, I walk away perhaps not with the masterpiece of art that I had envisioned in my mind but rather with a burning spark of passion, ready to ignite.

 

Anh Vo

Ahn Vo (UC Davis)

With college selectivity increasing and acceptance rates plummeting, the competitive nature within every student is pushed to the limit. In high school, students are expected to pad up their resumes and most importantly, choose an academic path sooner rather than later. However, at 15, I felt too young to experience true passion for a field. As I tried to envision myself in the future, I wondered, would I be someone with the adrenaline and spirit of someone who wants to change the world or one with hollow ambitions, merely clinging onto a paycheck with each day passing? At the very least, I knew that I didn’t want to be the latter.

The unrelenting anxiety induced by the uncertainty of my own ambitions was intoxicating. As my high school career reached its halfway mark, I felt the caving pressure of having to choose an academic path.

“What do you want to be?” was one of the first questions that my mentor, Whitney Cary, asked me. When I didn’t have an answer, she assured me that I needed to keep my doors open, and the SPARK program was the necessary first step that I needed to take to discovering my passion.

As I reflected on my experience, the SPARK program was undoubtedly the “first step”. It was the first step into a lab and above all, into a community of scientists, who share a passion for research and a vehement resolve to contribute to scientific merit. It was the integration into a cohort of other high school students, whose brilliance and kindness allowed us to forge deeper bonds with each other that we will hold onto, even as we part ways. It was the first nervous step into the bay where I met the Stem Cell Core, a team, whose warm laughter and vibrancy felt contagious. Finally, it was the first uncertain stumble into the tissue culture room, where I conceived a curiosity for cell culture that made me never stop asking, “Why?”

With boundless patience, my mentor and the Stem Cell Core strove to teach me techniques, such as immunocytochemistry and continually took the time out of their busy day to reiterate concepts. Despite my initial blunders in the hood, I found myself in a place without judgement, and even after discouraging incidents, I felt a sense of consolation in the witty and good-humored banter among the Stem Cell Core. At the end of every day, the unerring encouragement from my mentor strengthened my resolve to continue improving and incited an earnest excitement in me for the new day ahead. From trembling hands, nearly tipping over culture plates and slippery gloves, overdoused in ethanol, I eventually became acquainted with daily cell culture, and most importantly, I gained confidence and pride in my work.

I am grateful to CIRM for granting me this experience that has ultimately cultivated my enthusiasm for science and for the opportunity to work alongside remarkable people, who have given me new perspectives and insights. I am especially thankful to my mentor, whose stories of her career journey have inspired me to face the future with newfound optimism in spite of adversity.

As my internship comes to a close, I know that I have taken my “first step”, and with a revived mental acquisitiveness, I eagerly begin to take my second.

Other 2017 SPARK Awards

Student Speakers: Candler Cusato (Cedars-Sinai), Joshua Ren (Stanford)

Instagram/Social Media: Jazmin Aizpuru (UCSF), Emily Beckman (CHORI), Emma Friedenberg (Cedars-Sinai)

Poster Presentations: Alexander Escudero (Stanford), Jamie Kim (CalTech), Hector Medrano (CalTech), Zina Patel (City of Hope)


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School is out which means SPARK is in for the summer!

It’s mid-June, which means that school’s out for the summer! While most students are cheering about their newfound freedom from the classroom, a special group of high school students are cheering about the start of the CIRM SPARK internship program.

SPARK is CIRM’s high school educational program that gives students from underrepresented communities the opportunity to conduct stem cell research at top-notch universities in California. Students will spend the summer working in stem cell labs under the guidance and mentorship of scientists, PhDs, master’s students and postdocs. They will learn basic lab techniques like how to do PCR and how to grow stem cells.

Each student will have their own research project that answers an important question in the stem cell field. Students will also attend scientific lectures at their host university, participate in patient-centered activities and write blogs and social media posts about their experiences in the lab. At the end of the summer, they will show off their hard work through posters and talks at the annual SPARK conference.

SPARK gives students early exposure to research and proves to them that science is not only fun but is also a promising career option within their reach. We’ve offered a high school internship summer program for the past few years, and many students who’ve previously participated have told us that they are excited to pursue an education in science or medicine in college.

Ranya taking care of her stem cells!

I’ve featured some of these exciting success stories previously on our blog. One of these stellar students is Ranya Odeh. She was a student in the UC Davis SPARK program and recently told us that she will attend Stanford University to pursue bioengineering after receiving the prestigious QuestBridge scholarship. Another student we featured recently is Shannon Larsuel who participated in the Stanford SPARK program. Shannon was inspired after she worked at the Stanford bone marrow registry as part of her SPARK experience and now plans to be a pediatric oncologist.

Now that the 2017 SPARK program is in session, we can look forward to another exciting summer of talented and motivated students. Our SPARK students are encouraged to document their summer experiences on social media, so you’ll be able to follow their journeys on Instagram. Make sure to check out @CIRM_stemcells Instagram account and the #CIRMSPARKlab hashtag on both Instagram and Twitter.

If you’re a student or teacher who wants to learn more about the CIRM SPARK program, visit our website for more details. And with that, I’ll leave you with a few of the most recent Instagram posts from our new cohort of SPARK students!

https://www.instagram.com/p/BVTKN8kFwaC/?tagged=cirmsparklab

https://www.instagram.com/p/BVVm1b1lyki/?tagged=cirmsparklab

Life after SPARK: CIRM high school intern gets prestigious scholarship to Stanford

As part of our CIRM scholar blog series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students.

Ranya Odeh

Ranya Odeh

Meet Ranya Odeh. She is a senior at Sheldon high school in Elk Grove, California, and a 2016 CIRM SPARK intern. The SPARK program provides stem cell research internships to underprivileged high school students at leading research institutes in California.

This past summer, Ranya worked in Dr. Jan Nolta’s lab at UC Davis improving methods that turn mesenchymal stem cells into bone and fat cells. During her internship, Ranya did an excellent job of documenting her journey in the lab on Instagram and received a social media prize for her efforts.

Ranya is now a senior in high school and was recently accepted into Stanford University through the prestigious QuestBridge scholarship program. She credits the CIRM SPARK internship as one of the main reasons why she was awarded this scholarship, which will pay for all four years of her college.

I reached out to Ranya after I heard about her exciting news and asked her to share her story so that other high school students could learn from her experience and be inspired by her efforts.


How did you learn about the CIRM SPARK program?

At my high school, one of our assignments is to build a website for the Teen Biotech Challenge (TBC) program at UC Davis. I was a sophomore my first year in the program, and I didn’t feel passionate about my project and website. The year after, I saw that some of my friends had done the CIRM SPARK internship after they participated in the TBC program. They posted pictures about their internship on Instagram, and it looked like a really fun and interesting thing to do. So I decided to build another website (one that I was more excited about) in my junior year on synthetic biology. Then I entered my website in the TBC and got first prize in the Nanobiotechnology field. Because I was one of the winners, I got the SPARK internship.

What did you enjoy most about your SPARK experience?

For me, it was seeing that researchers aren’t just scientists in white lab coats. The Nolta lab (where I did my SPARK internship) had a lot of personality that I wasn’t really expecting. Working with stem cells was so cool but it was also nice to see at the same time that people in the lab would joke around and pull pranks on each other. It made me feel that if I wanted to have a future in research, which I do, it wouldn’t be doing all work all the time.

What was it like to do research for the first time?

Ranya taking care of her stem cells!

Ranya taking care of her stem cells!

The SPARK internship was my first introduction to research. During my first experiment, I remember I was changing media and I thought that I was throwing my cells away by mistake. So I freaked out, but then my mentor told me that I hadn’t and everything was ok. That was still a big deal and I learned a lesson to ask more questions and pay more attention to what I was doing.

Did the SPARK program help you when you applied to college?

Yes, I definitely feel like it did. I came into the internship wanting to be a pharmacist. But my research experience working with stem cells made me want to change my career path. Now I’m looking into a bioengineering degree, which has a research aspect to it and I’m excited for that. Having the SPARK internship on my college application definitely helped me out. I also got to have a letter of recommendation from Dr. Nolta, which I think played a big part as well.

Tell us about the scholarship you received!

I got the QuestBridge scholarship, which is a college match scholarship for low income, high achieving students. I found out about this program because my career counselor gave me a brochure. It’s actually a two-part scholarship. The first part was during my junior year of high school and that one didn’t involve a college acceptance. It was an award that included essay coaching and a conference that told you about the next step of the scholarship.

The second part during my senior year was called the national college match scholarship. It’s an application on its own that is basically like a college application. I submitted it and got selected as a finalist. After I was selected, they have partner colleges that offer full scholarships. You rank your choice of colleges and apply to them separately with a common application. If any of those colleges want to match you and agree to pay for all four years of your college, then you will get matched to your top choice. There’s a possibility that more than one college would want to match you, but you will only get matched with the one that you rank the highest. That was Stanford for me, and I am very happy about that.

Why did you pick Stanford as your top choice?

It’s the closest university to where I grew up that is very prestigious. It was also one of the only colleges I’ve visited. When I was walking around on campus, I felt I could see myself there as a student and with the Stanford community. Also, it will be really nice to be close to my family.

What do you do in your free time?

I don’t have a lot of free time because I’m in Academic Decathalon and I spend most of my time doing that. When I do have free time, I like to watch Netflix, blogs on YouTube, and I try to go to the gym [laughs].

Did you enjoy posting about your SPARK internship on Instagram?

I had a lot of fun posting pictures of me in the lab on Instagram. It was also nice during the summer to see other SPARK students in different programs talk about the same things. We shared jokes about micropipettes and culturing stem cells. It was really cool to see that you’re not the only one posting nerdy science pictures. I also felt a part of a larger community outside of the SPARK program. Even people at my school were seeing and commenting on what I was doing.

UC Davis CIRM SPARK program 2016

UC Davis CIRM SPARK program 2016

I also liked that I got feedback about what I was doing in the lab from other SPARK students. When I posted pictures during my internship, I talked about working with mesenchymal stem cells. Because we all post to the same #CIRMSPARKlab hashtag, I saw students from CalTech commenting that they worked with those stem cells too. That motivated me to work harder and accomplish more in my project. Instagram also helped me with my college application process. I saw that there were other students in the same position as me that were feeling stressed out. We also gave each other feedback on college essays and having advice about what I was doing really helped me out.

Do you think it’s important for students to be on social media?

Yes, I think it’s important with boundaries of course. There are probably some people who are on social media too often, and you should have a balance. But it’s nice to see what other students are doing to prepare for college and to let loose and catch up with your friends.

What advice would you give to younger high school students about pursuing science?

I feel like students can’t expect things to be brought to them. If they are interested in science, they need to take the initiative to find something that they are going to want to do. The CIRM internship was brought to my attention. But I have friends that were interested in medicine and they found their own internships and ways to learn more about what they wanted to do. So my advice is to take initiative and not be scared of rejection, because if you’re scared of rejection you’re not going to do anything.

To hear more about Ranya’s SPARK internship experience, read her blog “Here’s what you missed this summer on the show coats.” You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter. For more information about the CIRM SPARK internship program, please visit the CIRM website.


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Young Minds Shine Bright at the CIRM SPARK Conference

SPARK students take a group photo with CIRM SPARK director Karen Ring.

SPARK students take a group photo with CIRM SPARK director Karen Ring.

Yesterday was one of the most exciting and inspiring days I’ve had at CIRM since I joined the agency one year ago. We hosted the CIRM SPARK conference which brought together fifty-five high school students from across California to present their stem cell research from their summer internships.

The day was a celebration of their accomplishments. But it was also a chance for the students to hear from scientists, patient advocates, and clinicians about the big picture of stem cell research: to develop stem cell treatments and cures for patients with unmet medical needs.

Since taking on the role of the CIRM SPARK director, I’ve been blown away by the passion, dedication, and intelligence that our SPARK interns have shown during their short time in the lab. They’ve mastered techniques and concepts that I only became familiar with during my PhD and postdoctoral research. And even more impressive, they eloquently communicated their research through poster presentations and talks at the level of professional scientists.

During their internships, SPARK students were tasked with documenting their research experiences through blogs and social media. They embraced this challenge with gusto, and we held an awards ceremony to recognize the students who went above and beyond with these challenges.

I’d like to share the winning blogs with our readers. I hope you find them as inspiring and motivating as I do. These students are our future, and I look forward to the day when one of them develops a stem cell treatment that changes the lives of patients. 

Andrew Choi

Andrew Choi

Andrew Choi, Cedars-Sinai SPARK student

Am I crying or is my face uncontrollably sweating right now? I think I am doing both as I write about my unforgettable experiences over the course of the past 6 weeks and finalize my poster.

As I think back, I am very grateful for the takeaways of the research field, acquiring them through scientific journals, lab experiments with my mentor, and both formal and informal discourses. It seems impossible to describe all the episodes and occurrences during the program in this one blog post, but all I can say is that they were all unique and phenomenal in their own respective ways.

Gaining new perspectives and insights and being acquainted with many of the techniques, such as stereology, immunocytochemistry and immunohistochemistry my peers have utilized throughout their careers, proved to me the great impact this program can make on many individuals of the younger generation.

CIRM SPARK not only taught me the goings on behind the bench-to-bedside translational research process, but also morals, work ethics, and effective collaboration with my peers and mentors. My mentor, Gen, reiterated the importance of general ethics. In the process of making my own poster for the program, her words resonate even greater in me. Research, education, and other career paths are driven by proper ethics and will never continue to progress if not made the basic standard.

I am thankful for such amazing institutions: California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for enabling me to venture out into the research career field and network. Working alongside with my fellow seven very brilliant friends, motivated me and made this journey very enjoyable. I am especially thankful my mentor, Gen, for taking the time to provide me with the best possible resources, even with her busy ongoing projects. She encouraged me to be the best that I am.

I believe, actually, I should say, I KNOW Cedars-Sinai’s CIRM SPARK program does a SUPERB and astounding job of cultivating life-long learners and setting exceptional models for the younger generation. I am hoping that many others will partake in this remarkable educational program.

I am overall very blessed to be part of a successful summer program. The end of this program does not mark the end of my passions, but sparks them to even greater heights.

Jamey Guzman

Jamey Guzman

Jamey Guzman, UC Davis SPARK student

When I found out about this opportunity, all I knew was that I had a fiery passion for learning, for that simple rush that comes when the lightbulb sputters on after an unending moment of confusion. I did not know if this passion would translate into the work setting; I sometimes wondered if passion alone would be enough to allow me to understand the advanced concepts at play here. I started at the lab nervous, tentative – was this the place for someone so unsure exactly what she wanted to be ‘when she grew up,’ a date now all too close on the horizon? Was I going to fit in at this lab, with these people who were so smart, so busy, people fighting for their careers and who had no reason to let a 16-year-old anywhere near experiments worth thousands of dollars in cost and time spent?

I could talk for hours about the experiments that I worked to master; about the rush of success upon realizing that the tasks now completed with confidence were ones that I had once thought only to belong to the lofty position of Scientist. I could fill pages and pages with the knowledge I gained, a deep and personal connection to stem cells and cell biology that I will always remember, even if the roads of Fate pull me elsewhere on my journey to a career.

The interns called the experience #CIRMSparkLab in our social media posts, and I find this hashtag so fitting to describe these last few months. While there was, of course, the lab, where we donned our coats and sleeves and gloves and went to work with pipets and flasks…There was also the Lab. #CIRMSparkLab is so much more than an internship; #CIRMSparkLab is an invitation into the worldwide community of learned people, a community that I found to be caring and vibrant, creative and funny – one which for the first time I can fully imagine myself joining “when I grow up.”

#CIRMSparkLab is having mentors who taught me cell culture with unerring patience and kindness. It is our team’s lighthearted banter across the biosafety cabinet; it is the stories shared of career paths, of goals for the present and the future. It is having mentors in the best sense of the word, trusting me, striving to teach and not just explain, giving up hours and hours of time to draw up diagrams that ensured that the concepts made so much sense to me.

#CIRMSparkLab is the sweetest ‘good-morning’ from scientists not even on your team, but who care enough about you to say hi, to ask about your projects, to share a smile. It is the spontaneity and freedom with which knowledge is dispensed: learning random tidbits about the living patterns of beta fish from our lab manager, getting an impromptu lecture about Time and the Planck Constant from our beloved professor as he passes us at lunch. It is getting into a passionate, fully evidence-backed argument about the merits of pouring milk before cereal that pitted our Stem Cell team against our Exosome team: #CIRMSparkLab is finding a community of people with whom my “nerdy” passion for learning does not leave me an oddball, but instead causes me to connect instantly and deeply with people at all ages and walks of life. And it is a community that, following the lead of our magnificent lab director, welcomed ten interns into their lab with open arms at the beginning of this summer, fully cognizant of the fact that we will break beakers, overfill pipet guns, drop gels, bubble up protein concentration assays, and all the while never stop asking, “Why? Why? Why? Is this right? Like this? WHY?”

I cannot make some sweeping statement that I now know at age 16 exactly what I want to do when I grow up. Conversely, to say I learned so much – or I am so grateful – or you have changed my life is simply not enough; words cannot do justice to those sentiments which I hope that all of you know already. But I can say this: I will never forget how I felt when I was at the lab, in the community of scientists. I will take everything I learned here with me as I explore the world of knowledge yet to be obtained, and I will hold in my heart everyone who has helped me this summer. I am truly a better person for having known all of you.

Thank you, #CIRMSparkLab. 

Adriana Millan

Adriana Millan

Adriana Millan, CalTech SPARK student

As children, we all grew up with the companionship of our favorite television shows. We enjoyed sitcoms and other animations throughout our childhood and even as adults, there’s no shame. The goofy and spontaneous skits we enjoyed a laugh over, yet we did not pay much attention to the lessons they attempted to teach us. As a child, these shows play crucial roles in our educational endeavors. We are immediately hooked and tune in for every episode. They spark curiosity, as they allow our imaginations to run wild. For me, that is exactly where my curiosity stemmed and grew for science over the years. A delusional young girl, who had no idea what the reality of science was like.

You expect to enter a lab and run a full day of experimentations. Accidentally mix the wrong chemicals and discover the cure for cancer. Okay, maybe not mix the incorrect chemicals together, I learned that in my safety training class. The reality is that working in a lab was far from what I expected — eye opening. Working alongside my mentor Sarah Frail was one of the best ways I have spent a summer. It was not my ideal summer of sleeping in until noon, but it was worthwhile.

My experience is something that is a part of me now. I talk about it every chance I get, “Mom, can you believe I passaged cells today!” It changed the way I viewed the principles of science. Science is one of the most valuable concepts on this planet, it’s responsible for everything and that’s what I have taken and construed from my mentor. She shared her passion for science with me and that completed my experience. Before when I looked at cells, I did not know exactly what I was supposed to observe. What am I looking at? What is that pink stuff you are adding to the plate?

However, now I feel accomplished. It was a bit of a roller coaster ride, with complications along the way, but I can say that I’m leaving this experience with a new passion. I am not just saying this to please the audience, but to express my gratitude. I would have never even looked into Huntington’s Disease. When I first arrived I was discombobulated. Huntington’s Disease? Now I can proudly say I have a grasp on the complexity of the disease and not embarrass my mentor my calling human cells bacteria – quite embarrassing in fact.  I’m a professional pipette handler, I work well in the hood, I can operate a microscope – not so impressive, I have made possibly hundreds of gels, I have run PCRs, and my cells love me, what else can I ask for.

If you are questioning what career path you are to take and even if it is the slightest chance it may be a course in science, I suggest volunteering in a lab. You will leave with your questioned answered. Is science for me? This is what I am leaving my experience with. Science is for me.

Other SPARK 2016 Awards

Student Speakers: Jingyi (Shelly) Deng (CHORI), Thomas Thach (Stanford)

Poster Presentations: Jerusalem Nerayo (Stanford), Jared Pollard (City of Hope), Alina Shahin (City of Hope), Shuling Zhang (UCSF)

Instagram Photos: Roxanne Ohayon (Stanford), Anna Victoria Serbin (CHORI), Diana Ly (UC Davis)

If you want to see more photos from the CIRM SPARK conference, check out our Instagram page @CIRM_Stemcells or follow the hashtag #CIRMSPARKLab on Instagram and Twitter.