How this scientist changed paths to become a stem cell researcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CIRM and QuintilesIMS Kick Off Accelerating Center to Help Stem Cell Therapies Soar

You wouldn’t ask a goldfish to take flying lessons, right? The chances of success would be slim.

But in essence, that’s the predicament in which CIRM has found itself when asking top notch stem cell scientists to use the agency’s funding to carry their great cell therapy ideas into and through clinical trials. While these researchers are experts at developing therapies, knowing how to successfully navigate the complex regulatory requirements of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is another beast entirely. Many simply don’t have the experience to get those therapies off the ground by themselves.

This challenging scenario was the genesis of the $15 million CIRM Accelerating Center grant which was awarded to QuintilesIMS by the CIRM governing Board back in June. Last Tuesday, the QuintilesIMS and CIRM teams gathered to celebrate the grand opening of the Accelerating Center at QuintilesIMS’s San Diego office.


CIRM President and CEO C. Randal Mills spoke at the grand opening of the CIRM Accelerating Center at the QuintilesIMS office in San Diego.

CIRM President and CEO, Randy Mills, spoke to the group and described the concept behind the center and how it will help accelerate stem cell therapies to patients with unmet medical needs:


C. Randal Mills

“We were asking stem cell scientists to do something they don’t have experience doing. We thought about the answer to that and it was simply: why don’t we create a center for the world’s most brilliant researchers and innovators in cell therapy that gives them the tools they need to successfully navigate this regulatory system? That way, their transformative ideas can get into the clinic so that they can be tested and go on to help patients. We have stopped asking fish to take flying lessons. We’re telling fish to swim as fast as they can and we’ll help with the areas they don’t have as much experience in. That’s the concept behind the Accelerating Center and I’m so thrilled CIRM is a part of it.”

This first-of-its-kind center will provide researchers with the support and management services they need to increase the likelihood their clinical trials will succeed. As a leading integrated information and technology-enabled healthcare service provider, QuintilesIMS is just the company to carry out this task. CIRM’s clinical-related projects that are run through the Accelerating Center will not only benefit from QuintilesIMS’s deep experience and therapeutic expertise, but they will also be given a discount on their services.

Alan Metz, QuintilesIMS’s senior vice president of Global Therapeutic and Specialty Centers of Excellence also spoke at the grand opening about how this new endeavor hits close to home given his wife’s battle with multiple sclerosis:


Alan Metz

“My family has a particular stake in the success of stem cell therapy, and I’m pleased and indeed privileged to be part of the collaboration with CIRM. I’m thrilled that Quintiles has the opportunity to participate in this ground breaking, really exciting field of research.”

Also in attendance was Scott Peters, the United States Representative of District 52 – an area that covers portions of San Diego including the QuintilesIMS office. As Peters cut the ribbon to officially kick off the Center, Mills gave a toast to the people all of this effort is directed toward:

“I just want to make a toast that we never forget why there is a life science industry, that we never forget why we’re here and never forget why CIRM exists: this is all about accelerating therapies to patient with unmet medical needs.”


(Left to Right) C. Randal Mills, Representative Scott Peters,  Avi Kulkarni (SVP and Managing Director, QuintilesIMS) and Alan Metz cut the ribbon for the grand opening of the Stem Cell Accelerating Center in San Diego.

Super stem cell exhibit opens in San Diego

Stem cell exhibit

The best science museums are like playgrounds. They allow you to wander around, reading, watching and learning and being amazed as you go. It’s not just a feast for the mind; it’s also fun for the hands.  You get to interact with and experience science, pushing buttons, pulling levers, watching balls drop and electricity spark.

The best science museums bring out the kid in all of us.

This Saturday a really great science museum is going to be host to a really great exhibition. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego is the first stop on a California tour for “Super Cells: The Power of Stem Cells”. The exhibit is coming here fresh from a successful tour of Canada and the UK.

The exhibit is a “hands-on” educational display that demonstrates the importance and the power of stem cells, calling them “our body’s master cells.” It uses animations, touch-screen displays, videos and stunning images to engage the eyes and delight the brain.

stem cell exhibit 2Each of the four sections focuses on a different aspect of stem cell research, from basic explanations about what a stem cell is, to how they change and become all the different cells in our body. It has a mini laboratory so visitors can see how research is done; it even has a “treatment” game where you get to implant and grow cells in the eye, to see if you can restore sight to someone who is blind.


In a news release the Fleet Science Center celebrated the role that stem cells play in our lives:

“Stem cells are important because each of us is the result of only a handful of tiny stem cells that multiply to produce the 200 different types of specialized cells that exist in our body. Our stem cells continue to be active our whole lives to keep us healthy. Without them we couldn’t survive for more than three hours!”

It is, in short, really fun and really cool.

Of course we might be a tad biased here as we helped produce and develop the exhibit in collaboration with the Sherbrooke Museum of Science and Nature in Canada, the Canadian Stem Cell Network, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine in Canada; the Cell Therapy Catapult in the UK, and EuroStemCell.

stem cell exhibit 3

The exhibit is tri-lingual (English, Spanish and French) because our goal was to create a multi-lingual global public education program. San Diego was an obvious choice for the first stop on the California tour (with LA and the Bay Area to follow) because it is one of the leading stem cell research hubs in the U.S., and a region where CIRM has invested almost $380 million over the last ten years.

As our CIRM Board Chair, Jonathan Thomas, said:

“One of our goals at CIRM is to help spread awareness for the importance of stem cell research. San Diego is an epicenter of stem cell science and having this exhibition displayed at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is a wonderful opportunity to engage curious science learners of all ages.”

The Super Cells exhibit runs from January 23 to May 1, 2016, in the Main Gallery of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. The exhibition is included with the cost of Fleet admission.

For more information, visit the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center website.

Regenerative Medicine Takes the Spotlight at this Year’s Largest Biotechnology Convention

BIO logo

It is time to take regenerative medicine seriously. The world’s most inclusive web site for listing clinical trials,, now has more than 4,000 stem cell trials posted. And the world’s largest biotechnology convention, BIO International, when it kicks off its 2014 edition in San Diego later this month, will include the first ever all-day forum on regenerative medicine—something that has not got much more than a passing nod at previous gatherings.

The BIO leadership asked CIRM to organize the day, and as the principal planner (though with a Y chromosome), I am glad the nine-month gestation is almost over. With the excitement and fear of a soon-to-be new parent I am looking forward to the event Wednesday June 25 at the San Diego Convention Center. I wish I could report that it is open to the public, but it is not. For those who will be at BIO for the week, I hope you will plan to spend that day with us.

We will be presenting five panels with leaders in the field who should provide valuable insights to those new to regenerative medicine as well as those in the thick of trying to accelerate the drive to therapies. Those panels are:

• Regenerative Medicine: Propelling a Paradigm Shift in Medicine and Healthcare Delivery;

• Stem Cells Delivering Results Today as Models of Disease;

• Stem Cells and Gene Therapy, a Great but Challenging Marriage;

• Commercializing a New Therapeutic Modality—Case Studies;

• How International Collaboration Is Accelerating the Field.

These sessions will highlight some of the leading work in California, but also showcase work from around the U.S. and around the world. The speakers will detail the state of the art, but also provide insight into ways their experiences suggest we can accelerate the path to therapies for patients. Finding opportunities to share knowledge gained has always been a central part of CIRM’s mission.

Don Gibbons