Boundless Potential at UW Bothell

A man stands in front of a large W sculpture
Bryan White on the UW Bothell Campus

Don’t ask Bryan White to choose a favorite between stem cells and his students. The Teaching Professor at the University of Washington Bothell campus loves them equally, and unequivocally. Instead, White focuses on the similarities between the two.

“Who doesn’t love stem cells?” says White, who teaches several science courses at UW Bothell, including Intro to Biology, Brain and Behavior, and the Science and Stem Cells. “Stem cells have the ability to take on so many identities depending on the cues they’re given. I see the same qualities in my students. They are filled with potential. They can be anything they want to be.”

Potential seems to abound at UW Bothell. Approximately 40% of UW Bothell students are the first in their family to go to college and 30% are eligible for Pell grants. However, while UW Bothell offers numerous excellent field research opportunities, students have access to just a few molecular research labs and there is currently only one tissue culture hood, creating a need to provide real-world laboratory experience elsewhere.

The UW Bothell campus sits on a hilltop roughly 15 miles north of UW Medicine South Lake Union, home to the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM). Over the years, White has forged deep roots in both places. In the early 2000’s, as a graduate student and then as a postdoctoral researcher, he studied the interplay of stem cells, spinal cord injuries, and wnt signaling under Dr. Randy Moon, who founded the institute in 2008 with Dr. Chuck Murry and Dr. Tony Blau. Wnts are a family of proteins that play an enormously important role in human development, first in the embryo, and later as a driver of cell proliferation, self-renewal, and, in some animal species, regeneration of injured tissues. Given his interest in the nervous system, White forged a collaboration with the Phil Horner lab to study the role of wnt signaling after spinal cord and traumatic brain injury.

“I loved the excitement and the passion for research in the lab,” White says. But, teaching called, and White answered. In the classroom, White carried the energy from the lab forward, urging his young students to believe in the potential of undifferentiated stem cells – and in themselves.

“Bothell has unbelievable students. Many of them are from marginalized populations that have not historically been welcomed into science. And here’s all these amazing students, full of endless possibilities. And we have great researchers at Bothell, but the lab opportunities are limited, especially in cell biology. I wanted these students to be able to research stem cells and learn the techniques scientists use in labs.”

Bringing UW Bothell Students to ISCRM Labs

For White, it was clear that the pathway to those opportunities ran through ISCRM. Back at South Lake Union, the idea of a fellowship that would allow UW Bothell students to gain real-world paid experience in ISCRM labs was met with enthusiasm.

By then, Chuck Murry had become the director of the institute. He agreed that ISCRM should sponsor a Bothell Fellowship alongside similar fellowships made possible by funding from the Washington State legislature. Additional support from Eileen and Larry Tietze and the UW Bothell Founders Endowment soon allowed ISCRM to expand the program to three students in partnership with UW Bothell.

a scientist in a lab holds a model of a heart
UW Bothell Student Djelli Berisha

The first UW Bothell ISCRM Summer Fellow was Djelli Berisha, an aspiring cardiologist who joined the lab of ISCRM faculty member Farid Moussavi-Harami, MD in 2019. Berisha stayed in the Moussavi-Harami Lab for three years and would go on to earn a Mary Gates Research Fellowship, get appointed by Governor Jay Inslee to the UW’s Board of Regents, and receive the UW Bothell Chancellor’s Medal. Berisha has since been followed by nine more Bothell Fellows, all of whom have stayed on a full year after their summer internships (eight have worked – or are working – toward two-year tenures).

Since then, nine UW Bothell students have received ISCRM fellowships and three more will join their ranks in the summer of 2024. Pluripotent as ever, the ISCRM Bothell fellows have contributed to research focused on heart disease, kidney disease, autism spectrum disorder, osteoporosis, and other health challenges, opening up career paths to academia, private sector research, and, in at least three, cases, patient care.

A student uses scientific equipment in a lab
Salvador Escamilla in an ISCRM research lab on the UW Medicine South Lake Union campus.

Salvador Escamilla is a biology major at UW Bothell. Escamilla, who is on a premed track, learned about the fellowship from White. However, it was an endorsement of the program from his T.A. Dessiree Ortac, a former ISCRM Bothell Fellow, that convinced him to make the leap. “By then I was super excited to apply,” says Escamilla. “It just felt like one of those moments that is a life achievement and something big to build on.”

As a 2023 ISCRM Bothell Fellow, Escamilla joined the lab of David Mack, PhD, where he is supporting an effort to identify a small molecule drug that might help patients with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy – an effort he sees as good preparation for a medical career. “If I’m going to become a doctor, I think understanding the research that goes into new medicines and therapies will help me make better decisions. I feel like that’s how science and medicine can go together to improve lives.”

Two people pose in a lab
Joanna Agana (L) and her mentor, Darrian Bugg in the Davis Lab

Like Escamilla, Joanna Agana also has her sights set on medical school. The UW Bothell Junior seconds the notion that research experience she is gaining in the lab of ISCRM Associate Director Jen Davis, PhD will pay dividends. “I think learning the basic process of research, interacting with graduate students, and practicing how to communicate science to people who are not in the field will all inform my patient care,” says Agana, who was a 2023 ISCRM Bothell Fellow.”

In the Davis Lab, Agana is studying how cardiac fibroblasts – the cells that secrete collagen during the process of scarring – respond to an injury to the heart.  “There’s so much to be uncovered,” says Agana. “It’s fun and challenging. A lot of it is trying to develop procedures for experiments to test our hypotheses. And I think I’m really seeing that we shouldn’t just look at what ‘s broken or damaged. There’s a whole story to the heart.”

four people pose at a poster symposium
Jayma Erker, second from right, with Larry and Eileen Tietze and ISCRM Director Chuck Murry (far right)

Jayma Erker also sees the connection between her research in mechanical engineering and her aspirations of becoming a doctor. As a 2023 ISCRM Bothell Fellow, she was part of a team in the Marcinek Lab using 3D engineered muscle tissue to study how ATP production changes depending on the age of the muscle. Originally a biology major, Erker switched to mechanical engineering during her fellowship.

“I wanted to explore not just the biology behind what we were doing in the lab, but the machinery,” says Erker, who recently joined the Ọlánrewájú Lab in the departments of Bioengineering and Mechanical Engineering. “And a lot of that is engineering. The fellowship allowed me to spend more time in the lab and to see that medicine and mechanical engineering mesh well together in a way that would help me as a doctor. It’s about being able to understand what a patient is experiencing and to design devices to help them.”

Joining a Research Community

UW Bothell Fellows, ISCRM Fellows, and REU Fellows on the UW Medicine South Lake Union campus in 2022. ISCRM faculty member Julie Mathieu is in the front row (third from right)

When the Bothell Fellows come to the UW Medicine South Lake Union campus, they also become part of the ISCRM Summer Undergraduate Program, a ten-week experience that provides paid summer jobs in labs, weekly training in professional skills related to publishing, presenting, and communications, and an opportunity to connect with other undergraduate researchers from around the world.

That summer community is made up of the Bothell Fellows, ISCRMU Fellows, and ISCRM REU Fellows. ISCRM faculty member Julie Mathieu, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Comparative Medicine, directs the ISCRM REU Program and has played a lead role in shaping the summer program in collaboration with White and Vosk.

“It’s definitely a team effort, and an exciting experiment,” says Mathieu. “We feel very lucky to host these amazing scientists and be a part of their early careers. Just by bringing their knowledge and perspectives to ISCRM labs, they are helping us as much as we are helping them. It was exciting to see the ISCRM community really come together to make this summer program a rich learning experience by welcoming them in their labs, mentoring them, or being part of the classes.”

“My desire is not necessarily to have every student become a stem cell scientist, but I want them to know and realize that if they can do this, they can do whatever they want,” says Bryan White. “They can do stem cell science here and then they can choose whatever path inspires them.”