The CIRM SPARK program offers California high school students an invaluable opportunity to gain hands on training experience in regenerative medicine and stem cell research at some of the finest research institutes in the state. Mentored by expert scientists, SPARK students are trained in the latest cutting edge techniques to conduct innovative research that answers key questions in the regenerative medicine field. The SPARK program also focuses on teaching students about the patient side of research and therapeutic development.

10 students from the SIMR Program are funded by a special grant from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) SPARK Program.  These students are part of the SIMR Stem Cell Institute and intern at various stem cell and regenerative medicine labs within Stanford University.  In addition to the SIMR Core Lectures, students in the CIRM SPARK Program also attend lectures specific to the stem cell field and also participate in community outreach events.

To apply for the CIRM SPARK program, you can apply through the regular SIMR program online application system (click on the application link on the left panel).   Please choose Stem Cell Institute as your top choice if you are interested in the SPARK Program.  


Here are the blog entries written by previous CIRM SPARK Program students describing their summer experiences: 


So much has passed by my eyes, digested by my brain, and obtained throughout this summer. These past couple of weeks, I have been fortunate enough to attend the Stanford Institutes of Medical Research where I was placed in the stem cell institute. I have never been much interested in stem cells; the subject never obtained my attention. That is until I accurately began to understand them, study them and manipulate them in order to create methods to cure genetic mutations in the genome. This summer I jumped onto a project where we attempt to use the CRISPR/CAS9 system to cleave the JAG1 mutation causing diseases like Alagille syndrome. Throughout my research I learned the best pipetting techniques to have the best possible results, and the reasons for creating polymerase chain reactions, bacteria transformations, and running electrophoresis gels. 


The beginning of my life-changing adventure, known as the Stanford Institute of Medicine Research Summer Program or SIMR as we loving call it. I had been waiting for this day since mid-March when I had received my acceptance email. I was filled with excitement, wonder, nervousness, and a little bit of confusion. Would I fit in with the other students? Would my mentor and lab members like me? Would everyone be nice? Would I be able to handle university level research? I had so many questions, but from the moment I stepped foot onto campus I knew everything would be great. I was greeted by a circle of other SIMR students outside our building. They were going around introducing themselves and telling others which institute they were in. Even from that very first moment, there was a bond between institute members, a little hoot here and there or a “Me too!” I knew things could only get better, and they did. I remember standing in line to check-in and receiving my very own lab coat and safety goggles, among other awesome SIMR gear (yay T-shirts!).



Throughout my 8 weeks of research, my lab focused on finding a way to restore motor function after a cervical spinal cord injury, the most common type of spinal cord injury. I focus mainly on behavior testing, where I’m analyzing four types of behavior tests. Cylinder test, grip strength, ratwalk, and ladder rung test are the four behavior tests I analyzed. Even though I was not able to work with live animals, I was able to also analyze the spinal cord and tissue. I was passionate about mounting tissue on a slide. It requires attentiveness because I needed to remove a gel protecting the tissue without tearing the tissue with a thin paintbrush. My mentor was amazed I performed well taking in consideration that I have never mounted before. I find regenerative medicine for spinal cord injury essential since a single breakthrough could lead to restoring function within a singular cervical segment and that could translate to recovering motor function. In other words, recovery of motor neurons means the patient could possibly be able to move some of his/her limbs again. I will always remember from the nobel prize winners talk that a scientist should not go chasing a nobel prize but instead work hard and do it with passion. The reward should be icing on a cake and will come later on. To me, my reward is being able to help people.


First day in the lab: researchers are hunched over their laptops, eyes glued to their respective screens, navigating through complex scientific papers, a shaker is gently rocking back and forth a plate of cells in pink media, a stirrer is furiously clacking against the walls of its flask, which is labelled PEPSIN, and people with gloved hands are milling around performing various laboratory procedures. My eyes roam across the new, foreign surroundings, taking in everything all at once. There are beakers and vortexes and pipettes and flasks and tubes and syringes and I am so excited to start working.



This summer has been full of learning and experiences that I would have never been a part of if I had not participated in this internship. People my age do not commonly come across opportunities like this where we are given the opportunity to do hands on medical research with very intelligent and hardworking people. I am very grateful that I was able to intern in a lab and really get the feel for what a career in research would look like for my own eyes.

After this internship I have gained insight on many things. I realize how time-dependent research is and that things do not always turn out how expected but that just opens the door for more improvement and for more questions to be asked. Conducting research really takes a certain type of person: someone who is very tenacious and determined to never give up and keep going no matter how long it takes to get an answer.



Coming into SIMR, I had a lot of technical lab experience from my high school. I had run numerous gels and had micropipetted a countless number of times. However, no classroom can ever fully prepare you for conducting your own research. The first time I ever walked into a living, breathing laboratory, buzzing with postdocs and fellows, was at the CSSR building in the Stanford School of Medicine. In my head, I was able to name many familiar tools, but there was also a good amount of equipment I had never seen before. There were also so many procedures I had never heard of before, like spraying your gloves with ethanol before entering them into a fume hood. After a quick tour, I was quickly put to work to design my own research project and decide what I wanted to spend my summer studying. I spent hours reading research papers on Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension, its underlying causes, and the molecular aspect of it all, amongst other things. “How would I be able to produce something productive from a couple days of reading published papers?” I thought. 


Over the course of the summer, my main goal was to track the monoallelic expression of differentiating cells as they specificated from embryonic stem cells to neural progenitor cells.

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs), cells every human has during the fetal stage of their development, have the ability to specificate into any type of cell that is carried within and on the body. The environmental influences of any given ESC determines the type of adult cell it will turn into. In the same talking, every adult cell we have has come from a set of ESCs that have specificated, or differentiated, to become whatever the adult cell is currently. The many possibilities ESCs can eventually become is a major factor in why they are being used across many areas of biological research now. We have found major similarities in the biological evolution and function between humans and mice, so we have resorted to using embryonic stem cells within mice for our research.



This summer I had the opportunity to intern at the Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program specifically in the Stem Cell institute at the Yang Lab. Before the program even started, I had no idea there was such a thing as using stem cells for regenerative medicine or what cardiomyocytes were. I had taken a Biology class and knew the basic functions of a cell however, I did not know beyond this.

I remember the first day clearly, everyone in my institute was so nice as well as the people in my lab. I remember being handed a packet on a topic of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs). I sat there. Reading. I had no idea what the first sentence meant and I felt overwhelmed with the terminology as I kept reading. Fortunately, my mentor, Michelle, was able to explain everything in a way that would make sense to me.



Wash. Rock. Aspirate. Repeat.

Six weeks of diligent work had culminated with six delicately miniscule mouse embryos, so transparent that my eyes often lost track of them as they sloshed around in solution. My mentor and I had spent the past month running PCRs, conjuring up gels, and transforming plasmids into bacteria, all in preparation for this final step: the in situ hybridization. The purpose of this complicated sounding process was to insert RNA probes into the embryos, which would allow us to observe the expression pattern of the gene Fgf12 in embryonic heart development (specifically in the atrium). The next four days would be filled with myriads of strange solutions comprised of mysterious, unpronounceable substances. These deceptively clear liquids were capable of performing painstaking chemical processes at the molecular level, something that my mind could hardly fathom. Each step involved washing the embryos with different solutions (which could contain anything from methanol to antibodies), then rocking them for a certain amount of time, and lastly aspirating out the no longer needed liquid.



In high school biology, we learn the fundamental principles of science through one of the most straightforward methods: vocabulary definitions. We open our textbooks to this week’s chapter, flip through the pages, and BAM! Right there, laid out in bold print are the chapter’s key terms. In early May, shortly before learning I had been given the opportunity to do stem cell research over the summer, I flipped open my textbook to this week’s chapter: The Essentials of Stem Cell Biology. Like any other chapter, I looked for the key terms and came across a word that seemed like any other word at the time. Little did I know, this word would change my entire outlook on science, medicine, and opportunity in a few short weeks.