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:

CIRM is looking for talented interns to join our stem cell team!

Are you a person who is excited about the promise of stem cell research and regenerative medicine? Are you also looking to gain valuable work experience in science communications or learn what it’s like to work in human resources (HR)?

Well look no further! CIRM just launched an internship program and is looking for talented students or individuals to join us in our mission of accelerating stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

We currently have two volunteer (unpaid) internship positions open on our communications and HR teams. Interns will work part-time in the CIRM office located in Oakland, California. You can read more about these exciting opportunities below.

Communicate the Awesomeness of Stem Cells

The CIRM communications team is the voice of our Agency. Every day we report our progress towards achieving our mission to patients, scientists, and the public through the CIRM website, social media and our Stem Cellar Blog.

We’re looking for an undergraduate or graduate level student or individual with strong writing skills and an interest in stem cell science and communications. The internship will be part-time (10-15 hours/week in office) for one year with the option for extension. Our awesome intern will provide general support to the CIRM communications team by writing blogs and social media posts about the latest research and clinical trials funded by our Agency. The intern will also help update the CIRM website and create new content for patients and researchers.

If you’re looking to gain valuable experience in science writing and communications this is the internship for you!

Learn About the “Human” in Human Resources

Denise D’Angel

If you ask Denise D’Angel, our rock star Associate Director of Human Resources at CIRM, what she loves most about her job, she will tell you, “I love the human part of HR.” Denise works tirelessly every day to make sure that the CIRM engine of over 40 employees is well-oiled and running efficiently. Overseeing HR at a state agency is no easy task, which is why there is no coincidence that her last name has the word “angel” in it!

As an intern in our HR department, you will gain direct experience in creating job descriptions and questionnaires, learn the standard labor and State of California requirements for jobs, and help design and implement staff training programs.

We’re looking for students or individuals who enjoy working with people in multidisciplinary groups, pay good attention to detail, and have the ability to maintain confidentiality.

Find Out More!

For more detailed descriptions of our internships and application instructions, please visit the CIRM employment website.