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.
CIRM SPARK BLOG SITE (STANFORD)
The blog entries below were written by previous CIRM SPARK Program students describing their summer experiences:
CIRM SPARK 2019 STUDENT BLOGS
Awe. Fascination. Passion. All of these things struck me as I walked into my first wet lab, ready to explore the foreign field of research. This summer was my summer of exploration. Even if I felt that research was probably not the route I would take on, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and decided to try it out. As I looked at all the lab equipment and work stations, I was quite frankly a little intimidated because I didn’t know what to expect.
Currently, I am interning in Dr. Rabinovitch’s lab in the CCSR building in the Stanford School of Medicine, where I study the impact of a gene called Chromodomain helicase DNA-binding 7 (CHD7) and it’s impact on induced pluripotent stem cells derived endothelial cell (iPSC-ECs) function. My project this summer revolves around a disease called Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), which is a congenital heart malformation characterized by the underdevelopment of the left ventricle, mitral valve, aortic valve, and the ascending aorta. This results in difficulty of carrying oxygen rich blood to the body, as the left side of the heart is largely underdeveloped. Congenital is defined at present at birth, meaning HLHS largely affects newborns. HLHS, if left unattended, is fatal to the affected newborn and surgical procedures cannot cure HLHS; rather, the fatality rate of an HLHS affected newborn can only be lowered. Still, HLHS individuals suffer lifelong complications after surgery and attend frequent visits to the cardiologist. In the worst case scenario, a heart transplant is the only solution to remove HLHS, but of course that procedure comes with both the difficulty of finding a compatible heart and possible rejection by the host body.
I am looking into the CHD7 gene for a multitude of reasons. First, in a previous study done by this lab, CHD7 is highly expressed in the gene expression of endothelial and endocardial cells. Endothelial cells are the cells that line the inner surface of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels; endocardial cells are a subtype of endothelial cells, and line the inner surface of the valves in the heart. Both cells are significant in the process of valular development. This large gene expression could be a possible indication of CHD7’s significance in endothelial and endocardial cells, and thus should be investigated. The second reason I am looking at CHD7 is because it functions as a chromatin remodeler, which functions to modify chromatin architecture to allow access to the DNA for DNA transcription machinery proteins. Without chromatin remodelers, the DNA would be unable to be accessed by the transcriptional proteins.
As I pipetted, cultured, and centrifuged my way through this summer, it has also brought upon a lot of reflection. Personally, research may be too monotonous for my taste. It is not to be overlooked though the impact that these researchers serve for the world. Without them, there would be no medicine for doctors to use or treatments to cure diseases. But as I went through these many techniques, I Realized that I wanted to make a difference in a more hands-on way. Being in a lab is just not for me, and I acknowledge that fact. This internship has taught me countless valuable research skills from how to quickly analyze scientific readings to constructing graphs from raw data, but has also opened my eyes to what I want to pursue. Research may not be an avenue for me, but overall this experience has been rewarding. Thank you to both my mentors and CIRM for creating this opportunity for students like us to explore.
The researcher showed us the mice with Type I diabetes, and I was instantly riveted. Having been diagnosed with the disease at 8 years old, I desperately dreamed of a cure. The next charts the researcher presented were of stem cells, and through the magic that was science, the cells developed into a treatment to heal the mice. In that moment, I learned of a way to make my dreams a reality for the many sufferers of Type I diabetes.
This summer, the CIRM SPARK internship enabled me to advance another step on my quest for scientific research and discovery. In the lab, I saw how stem cells were instrumental to innovative research into diseases. There were so many possibilities involving stem cells. They could provide models that were unprecedented. Just a few months ago, if I had heard about iPSCs, I would’ve guessed they were some hip new boy band. But after a summer at Stanford, I can teach you that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are stem cells you can generate directly from human blood or skin cells. This allows for the possibility of patient-specific treatment, which would be revolutionary. Using iPSCs, I created models to research congenital heart defects, and became more impassioned to use science and medicine to help disease sufferers.
My resolve was supported by the brilliant colleagues I met, each who also aspired to be scientists, or inspired me to learn more and do better. They helped me learn from my mistakes, such as mixing two samples together and messing up an experiment. With every lesson, I became more careful and knowledgeable—I realized how much I still have to learn, and I am so excited to work beyond this summer to keep discovering. The results I seek can be elusive, and another valuable lesson from this summer has been the difficulty of achieving results, even when samples aren’t mixed. The negative results were also a learning experience, from which I developed my patience and perseverance. Through this process of growth and reflection, I can now proudly pipette an entire 384 well qPCR plate in my sleep (not that I would ever experiment while sleepy).
Coming into this program, I felt like a stem cell. I didn’t know what I was going to do or be. But this summer working in the lab through CIRM has helped me differentiate into a new type of cell. I am inspired and encouraged to continue learning about science and how we can use it to help others. I am so thankful to CIRM and SIMR for giving me this opportunity and for putting me on a path where, maybe someday, I’ll be demonstrating how stem cells can cure Type I diabetes in humans.
This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to do research in a lab for the first time! Dr. Strober’s lab at Stanford, the lab I was working in, has developed a treatment for leukemia and lymphoma that uses low dose total lymphoid irradiation (TLI) of lymphatic organs (thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes) in conjunction with anti-T cell depletion antibodies (ATG) and bone marrow transplants, which includes hematopoietic stem cells. This treatment has shown to reduce the risk of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a major, sometimes fatal, complication of bone marrow transplants, initiated by donor T-cells that can cause damage to the recipient’s tissues, such as the skin, liver, or gastrointestinal tract. So, the overall goal of our study was to understand the cellular basis of this phenomenon. As an intern in this lab, I specifically worked on investigating whether or not TLI changes the function of dendritic cells, such that it could suppress the immune system during the bone marrow transplants and reduce the risk of GVHD.
When I first stepped into my lab, my mentors told me that immunology is a language of itself. I spent the first week reading literature, taking notes, trying to grasp the information I needed to understand everything that was going on. I was especially appreciative of everyone in my lab who took the time to patiently explain and draw pictures to explain their answer to my questions. As my first time in the lab, it was such a phenomenal experience to learn how to pipette, centrifuge, isolate, stain, culture, and perform flow cytometry for both human and mice cells. Precision and accuracy were key, yet it was amazing to see the ease and grace of my mentors performing experiments without hesitation or mistakes. And I soon realized that towards the end of the summer, I was beginning to feel that ease and confidence as my knowledge and experience grew in the lab.
The biggest takeaway I had from this experience is that research can be frustrating-- the people in my lab have been working to answer their questions for years and years, yet nevertheless, each experiment they do is progress, even if the result was not what they were expecting. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to work alongside scientists, post-docs, grad students, and other SIMR students, and this lab has definitely nurtured both my curiosity and interest in medical research. When I look at my poster, it is incredible to reflect on how much I have learned this summer, but it is even more incredible to think about how much I can still learn. Although this summer is coming to an end, I am excited to follow up on the progress of my lab. The memories, skills, and knowledge I have gained here with the wonderful scientists in my lab has made a lasting impact on my interest in science and future career options.
In the past, when I heard the words “doctor” or “scientist”, I imagined a person unlike myself: confident, put-together, and pretty much knowledgeable on just about anything. Despite my interest in science, I was a bit intimidated by a career in the medical field. It felt like every day there were new discoveries, as if the secrets of the world were effortlessly uncovered by them. It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Of course, these extraordinary people, weathered down by experience and polished into talented, extraordinary human beings could do that easily. So how could I, an ordinary kid, ever hope to reach that level when all I can claim is that I like science? Their position surely is unreachable and far-off for me— only for a select group of individuals to pursue.
I’ve fully realized through this internship, as silly as it sounds, that doctors and scientists are ordinary people — people with personalities, worries, likes and dislikes, and so much more. I hadn’t realized that my preconceived ideas erased the most important and extraordinary aspect of those jobs: the human side of it all. And it’s because of this realization that the medical field is even more appealing to me than before — especially the research side of it. Before, I imagined long, boring hours with strict protocols and little social life when research was proposed as a possible career path; the exciting physician life full of patient interaction and constant new cases called out to me more. That’s why when I was put into the stem cell-focused Plant Lab, I was excited because the project was something that really interested me, but I was also worried that I wouldn’t have fun in a lab setting.
The ongoing project in the lab was to find a way to treat damaged spinal cord tissue to restore communication between the paralyzed area of the body and the brain in hopes of regaining movement and feeling. With such a grand objective, I imagined working with intense research and serious people. However, my first few days proved me wrong, and I found that lab work was surprisingly fun! From transferring delicate tissues with paintbrushes to putting spinal cords into gelatin blocks, I found that everyday there was something new to do, even if we were repeating certain protocols multiple times. It always felt new and fresh, and I think a big part of that was because I got to work with great people. Those “cold” scientists I had imagined were actually warm, funny, and engaging. Plant Lab has not only given me hands-on lab experience but has also allowed me to see the reality of research and the people behind it. I never thought, before joining the lab, that I would have fun conversations and try new things outside of research. I didn’t think that I would make friends, learn boxing techniques, see my mentors get excited over cupcake flavors, geek out with my lab manager over web comics, or play basketball and laugh while trying out funny exercise machines. But I guess that’s been the theme of this summer. Things aren’t always the way you imagine them to be.
After working in Plant Lab, I have found that these faceless geniuses I had conjured in my head, are actually just normal people working hard to live their lives and produce results that will hopefully benefit the world in the future. It is with years of trial and error, research, and even overtime hours that they can publish those “effortless discoveries.”
Throughout this summer, I had the privilege of researching at the Plant Lab and gaining wet lab experience. My journey started at the Lorry Lokey Stem Cell Research Building, where I worked on injured spinal cord tissue of rats. Starting the internship was nerve-wracking, but my mentors, other lab members, and the stem-cell institute TA’s provided invaluable guidance to shaping the summer into an unforgettable experience.
In the beginning of the internship, I attended various lectures about current stem cell research, ranging from slowing symptoms of aging to growing organs, while gradually immersing into my own research on spinal cord injuries (SCI). After sustaining SCIs, glial scarring develops, blocking growth factors from initiating growth and proliferation. With the transplantation of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a type of stem cell derived from mature cells and reprogrammed into an embryonic state, a relay system will be formed to reconnect motor axons with other neurons. In my project, rats that sustained contusions in their spines at the C5 vertebrae were injected with iPSCs and will hopefully regain some motor and sensory function with the regeneration of neurons and decrease of neuroinflammation.
Throughout the experimentation process, I learned how to immunostain tissue to analyze the distribution of specific cells, mount tissue (meticulously unfolding tissue onto a microscope slide), operate a confocal microscope, image data, and persist through all the spinal cord injured tissue. After dozens of cross-sections of tissue, stains started appearing brightly and mounted tissue smoothed out. I also picked up VBA programming, self-teaching myself macros to analyze all the data efficiently. Most importantly, I gained a first-hand insight into the challenging yet rewarding research process and developed perseverance tackling new skills.
In addition to the research component, I formed life-long friendships with fellow SIMR interns and other Plant Lab members. Undergraduates and medical school students often provided us with glimpses of their journeys and gave us helpful advice for choosing the career pathways that complement with our interests. With the three other SIMR interns in the lab, we worked as a team to transfer tissues with paint brushes, challenge one another to parafilm-stretching contests, and play basketball during lunch. My mentor and I also brushed up on our tennis skills after lab hours.
After research this summer, I’m excited to bring my newfound knowledge of lab research to other projects and strive to make more discoveries in science. Whether I’ll have a career working directly with patients or unearthing new findings in the lab, I hope to help contribute to the advancing medicine field. I really appreciate all the opportunities that CIRM and SIMR have provided me with towards developing into a more knowledgeable and confident scientist!
I remember once during my volunteer experience at UCD Med Center I helped transport a young veteran confined to his mobile because he could not move his legs or arms. I thought his mobile, which responds to his voice and thoughts, was so cool, but the man told me that he was hoping that a stem cell treatment for veterans would help him walk and raise his arms again. I became very perplexed; I had only barely touched upon stem cells in biology and PLTW biomedical classes, and had no comprehension of the significant scope stem cells possessed. As it turned out, I would learn firsthand in less than a few months.
Going into my first day of SIMR, I was filled with much anxiety, as I had high expectations to perform well and I had no idea how receptive my lab mates and my mentor would be to someone so inexperienced: Would they think I’m stupid? Would I set them back? Less than half of the first day had gone by and I already knew that my fears would not be realized; every person that I encountered was astonishingly open to introduce themselves and converse with each other. People shared where they were from, what institute they were in, and told about themselves. When the time came to meet my lab supervisors, I discovered that my mentor was extremely friendly and open (despite having just flown in from a trip the night before). I knew then that I would fit in just fine in this welcoming environment, and I knew that this experience would instantly become a highlight of my life!
I had the honor of working in the Plant lab to contribute to research studying the use human neuron transplant in repairing damaged spinal cords after injury. It was very appealing to me since this was a new way of approaching the problem of treating SCI’s which I had become so familiar with. My encounter with the veteran gave additional reinforcement to my belief that I was contributing towards an effort to discover a result that would eventually serve to benefit millions of patients. My project in particular focused on determining improvements in rat models with chronic spinal cord injury after receiving transplanted human neurons originating from driven induced pluripotent stem cells, and correlating those improvements with changes in anatomy. To do this, I immunostained rat spinal tissue, analyzed their images generated by confocal microscopy, and analyzed multiple behavioral tests. Easier said than done. Inevitably there were obstacles to overcome: transferring tissue that could tear with the slightest contact, having to get through days’ worth of analyzing behavioral assays in a short time, and overcoming the initial confusion of looking at every aspect of the spinal cord tissue during image analysis. But I persevered.
My knowledge of science has been tremendously expanded following this experience. I credit my mentor for being patient enough to answer my barrage of questions (sometimes more than once) just about everything. I spent numerous hours reading papers, so often being drawn into other aspects that weren’t even a part of my project! Attending various lectures, I learned of research studying different uses of stem cells, from curing leukemia, restoring cartilage, to treating heart disease, and I finally understood why doctors and scientists talked about it like the next big thing.
Looking back now, I sincerely hope that I will be able to return to working in a research lab in the future. Even if the road to a breakthrough treatment is long and I will not see it to the end, I will enjoy the process of contributing to such a goal. This experience has led me to become enthusiastic about science to a degree I find hard to believe, and I am so excited to see what the future has in store for this field. Thank you so much to the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine and SIMR for letting me have this invaluable experience!
It was Springtime and Summer was around the corner. I had begun to think about how I wanted to spend my last high school summer. For the past five years, I spent my summertime learning about computer science (CS) but this time around I knew I wanted to try something new like tapping into my curiosity for scientific research. My eagerness to learn about research stemmed from my interest in scientific advancements such as the “immortal” HeLa cell line.
Before my Stanford Institute of Medicine Summer Research (SIMR) experience, the closest I got to scientific research was working on my high school biology project.
The first day of SIMR came sooner than I anticipated. On the first day, my mentor gave me a tour of our lab. After the lab tour, we set off to the tissue culture (TC) room. Before entering, we clothed ourselves in personal protective equipment and I grew nervous. The door to the TC room was heavy and the biosafety cabinet (or the hood) beeped as my mentor turned it on. I glanced around and read biohazard signs across the wall and cabinets. My mentor sprayed ethanol, important for avoiding cell contamination, across everything that entered the hood. She was preparing to passage our induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Little did I know about the revolutionary advancement of iPSCs in medicine and later that week, little by little, I would be learning about the importance of iPSCs in my eight-week summer research project. It was that same day that I learned essential lab techniques such as pipetting. I sprayed ethanol on my gloves and slowly stuck my arms inside the hood ready to begin pipetting. I was considerably afraid to pipette medium into our cell plates because I feared to make mistakes. However, my mentor taught me the technique and I soon pipetted with confidence. In the end, my arms had become more steady and I was beginning to gain confidence in my pipetting technique.
Every week after that day was fundamentally the same. I was challenged by new lab techniques or scientific concepts but built up the courage to try it. I was willing to learn and tackle challenges without being fearful of making mistakes.
My research experience has taught me very much about iPSCs in cardiovascular medicine. I never imagined that I would consider the medical field but after this summer research experience, I have grown interested in the intersection of CS and biology.
My idea of an ideal summer: travel the world, go to the beach, and make up for my lack of sleep during the school year. I never expected that my experience at the Plant Lab as part of the SIMR program would become the best summer of my life. After all, I didn’t travel anywhere outside the bay area (at least I have my upcoming trip to Caltech for the CIRM conference!), I did not go to the beach once (the closest I got to seeing the ocean were the fish in our lab), and I got less than 8 hours of sleep every night (wake up at 6:30 in the morning for SIMR on the weekdays and work on the weekends). So why did I enjoy it so much?
Honestly, if it weren’t for the amazing individuals in the lab, this summer would probably not have the same impact that it has had on my life. From lab chores with my high school peers to literature reviews with undergrads, learning about undergraduate school from med students to listening in awe about the life of postdocs and neurosurgery residents, I thoroughly relished getting to know each personality in the lab on a personal and professional basis. The collaboration with and support from every member of the Plant Lab were invaluable to making the research process enjoyable.
Additionally, the work itself was fascinating! At the Plant Lab, where we study stem cell therapy for cervical spinal cord injuries, I had my first encounter with the various methods of in vivo rat work. Behavioral studies and tissue processing (especially viewing beautiful images of immunostained tissue under a confocal microscope) were some of the captivating procedures that I had been introduced to.
Yet, the best part of the experience was the independent thinking and problem solving inherent in the research process. I became familiar with the unpredictable, trial-and-error nature of original research, and savored the rare moments when valuable data was obtained.
After this summer, I am beginning to see a possible future for myself doing research. Who knew that working in a lab could be so much fun?
Having spent my past summers at research facilities before, I applied to the CIRM SPARK program with the intention of continuing my research endeavors and to expand the breadth of my scientific knowledge and understanding. Arriving at the Chetty Lab, I anticipated what I’ve known prior: the distinctive smell of the 37°C incubator where all cells are kept in culture, the soft hum of the biosafety cabinet in which no contaminants should penetrate and the gentle press of the pipettes that facilitated the transfer of liquids no matter the quantity. Where I find myself present in the lab, I was reminded of the lingering memories of my previous summers that I so treasured, and along with it, the joy of science and the excitement from the unknowing of what each day of research would bring.
Even so, my experience working in the Chetty Lab presents itself as a journey with an essence completely different and unique. While all anticipated aspects were present, what I thought was so familiar before again took me by surprise. I found myself intimidated by the possibility of failure regardless of the reinsurances reinstated by my mentor, and self-conscious about my ineptitude compared to the intellectual brilliance that surrounded me by the daily. Unfortunately, the most dreaded, at times, tends to come true, and my summer began with a series of failures and disappointments.
Somehow by the end of my first week, I’ve managed to decimate a majority of the hiPSCs that I had plated on day one. With each passing day, I desperately hoped that the few remaining cells I saw under the microscope could perhaps flourish and repopulate the entirety of the plate, but such hope was futile as they were unsalvageable and destined to wind up in the biohazardous waste. Even when tasked the simple assignment of cell counting, my lack of pace and efficiency frequently resulted in drastic variations in the measurements, denoting of inaccuracy and imprecision. However, with each setback, it provided a new opportunity for learning and growth, and I emerged with the knowledge and determination to do better.
Through the patience and guidance of my mentor who believed in me even when I didn't, my mistakes diminished with each execution of a protocol. Yet, what I realized to be the most important was not the perfect execution of a laboratory technique but rather the underlying purpose of our work and the further extension and application of it. For each passage of my cells, each extraction of RNA, each plate immunostained and each lecture attended, my curiosity and appreciation for the research process grew immensely. I felt exhilarated to be amidst the assembly of scientists and their exchange of ideas through shared failures and successes in order to generate the foundational knowledge applicable to all spectrums and fields whether it be medicine or technology. As such, the beauty of science and research, I find, lies within our attempts to learn and comprehend the world to further improve the lives of people globally.
Perhaps this is why I can’t let go of research completely despite my engineering pursuits as a college freshman in the fall. To be a part of a community so profound and driven for the betterment of others is both invigorating and inspiring. The study of life on the cellular and molecular level never ceases to amaze, and I hope to integrate the wonders of stem cell research within my engineering studies so that I too can partake in the advancement of healthcare and next-generation therapies for the enhancement of patients’ quality of life.
This summer has fostered an explosive growth of my knowledge in research. At the start of these 7 weeks, my only experience with science was in a classroom setting learning textbook biology and chemistry. So when I dove into experiments, I found myself struggling to maneuver around with pipettes and tubes. Also, I was unable to think beyond the protocol and understand the actual questions we wanted to answer in the experiment. However, because of the mentoring and support provided through SIMR I was able to practice technique and think beyond what was just given. Due to this early exposure to science, I was able to learn essential microbiology techniques and the thought process of going through a project.
Working in the Weissman Lab, which focuses on developmental biology, has allowed me to learn fundamental microbiological skills. I started off learning how to clone plasmids (which is a circular strand of DNA) through bacterial transformation. In this process, bacteria take in the desired plasmid and duplicates the DNA by dividing into colonies. Next, the plasmid from the colonies can be isolated, giving a bigger sample of the plasmid. Cloning is essential as it allows for the creation of a DNA sample that can be used to transfect or transduce cells. This means we can make cells express proteins which are coded in a plasmid. An example of an existing application would be the production of insulin. Insulin is made using bacteria that had the insulin gene inserted. This insulin can then be used as a drug. Cloning and transfection of cells were some of the important skills I learned during the summer.
Besides technical skills I've learned on the bench, I have also been shown the process of designing experiments. For instance, I had to think of a solution after an experiment failed. When I wanted to grow colonies with one of my DNA samples, no colonies had grown. The DNA inserted was supposed to provide resistance to the antibody present in the dish, so it was a problem nothing grew. At this point, my mentor taught me to look at all the factors of an experiment and how to test for each possible fault. I had to think about the reagents, techniques, and equipment used. After a whole afternoon of brainstorming, we came up with a plan to test the most probable causes of failure. We made a new plasmid and tried to make new colonies along with our old one. The experiment resulted in the new plasmid growing colonies, while the old one growing nothing. Without the dissection of the first experiment, I would not have learned to analyze my results and attain new ones. I would have simply redone the experiment thinking it would be somehow different than the first time. So by learning how to test for unexpected results, I gained the skill to keep a project going without being setback and stumped.
SIMR has provided me an early dive into research which is a major benefit to my future career. Without this experience of constant mentoring and support for 7 weeks, I would have struggled to learn these essential skills on my own later in life. This program has truly been an impactful and worthwhile experience.
CIRM SPARK 2018 STUDENTS
CIRM SPARK 2017 STUDENTS
CIRM SPARK 2016 STUDENT BLOGS
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.