In the spring of 2018, Eric Katzung was an undergraduate research assistant in the Kwon lab at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM). Hired in the fall of 2017, he had just started a project with important implications for human health. On top of his full UW courseload, Katzung was studying differences and similarities in gene expressions in regenerative and non-regenerative species, an investigation that could help point to new pathways to improve treatments for osteoporosis.
There was just one snag. Without reliable income, Katzung would have to return home to California for the summer. Then came the good news. Based on the strength of an application submitted several months earlier, Katzung had been awarded funding through the ISCRM Fellows Program, and with it, the financial resources he needed to stay in Seattle and work full-time on his promising research. “It was a huge relief,” says Katzung. “It meant I could commit to the lab all summer and get a feel for what it would be like to be a full-time researcher.”
For Katzung, the ISCRM fellowship was a lifeline and a springboard to the next step as a young researcher. And he isn’t alone.
The ISCRM Fellows program began in 2017, the year the Washington State Legislature first included funding for ISCRM in the state budget. In a critical show of support for stem cell research, the legislature appropriated $2.25 million for core staff and technologies, innovation pilot awards for faculty, and a trainee fellowship program to help the UW fulfill its mission, increase capacity for labs, and provide foundational research experiences for graduate, undergraduate, and postdoctoral students embarking on science careers. In 2019, the annual funding was increased to $2,625,000.
“The state funding was an opportunity to make a commitment to the most passionate and creative young scientists at all levels in the institute,” says Hannele Ruohola-Baker, PhD, a Professor of Biochemistry, Associate Director of ISCRM, and Director of the ISCRM Fellows Program.
In turn, those creative, passionate young scientists, like Katzung and others, are making real-world contributions to science and medicine by helping to fuel progress against Alzheimer’s, kidney disease, osteoporosis, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, and other conditions impacting billions of people worldwide.
ISCRM faculty member David Mack, PhD, oversees the award program at the undergraduate level. Mack stresses the importance of early opportunities for aspiring scientists to be in a professional research environment. “If someone wants to be in science, but they don’t get into the lab until their senior year, they may choose another path. There’s a critical window when they need the opportunity to see if scientific research is something they really love.”
Since 2017, thirty-three trainees have been awarded ISCRM fellowships, an all-around career boost that includes a stipend, waived tuition, benefits, speaking opportunities, and a chance to participate in public outreach initiatives. Graduate students and postdocs also receive stipends to travel to conferences.
“The fellowship is very exciting for the trainees,” says Mack. “It inspires them. They compete. They interview. And if they get it, they feel the affirmation that their research is important. It’s a big deal the institute recognizes that.”
Mack adds that the awards benefit faculty members and their entire labs. “Having a trainee funded brings financial relief,” he explains. “And it allows us as investigators to kick start areas of research not yet funded by other mechanisms, which broadens the types of questions we’re asking. That’s a fantastic way to speed up the conversion of research into actual therapies.”
The ability to find funding matters to trainees at all levels. For undergraduates like Katzung, it can be the difference between a summer in the lab and a summer waiting tables. For graduate students, it’s a rite of passage to advanced training and a career. For postdocs, securing funding is part of the final transition from student to professional scientist.
As a PhD student in the Freedman Lab, Louisa Helms is a pivotal part of a research team using stem cell-derived organoids to study kidney disease. “It was really great to qualify for funding as a first year graduate student,” says Helms, who is helping to shape the future of medicine by pioneering the development of a therapeutic to treat polycystic kidney disease in vitro. “The award let me just crank out research, and being able to show that I’m fundable is important for my career.”
Kira Evitts, a recent graduate in Bioengineering, and a future PhD student at UW, also feels the ISCRM fellowship has helped her make an impact in her young career. For the last year, she has been contributing to Alzheimer’s research in the lab of Jessica Young, PhD by studying the maturation of neural stem cells. “The fellowship helped me see that I really like doing research, especially in the collaborative environment at UW. The fellowship made it possible to get to know other lab members, to be more present, more connected, and more productive.”
The ISCRM Fellows Program has also fostered connections across University of Washington campuses. Through a partnership with UW Bothell, students from the branch campus located northeast of Seattle are eligible for ISCRM fellowships. In the spring of 2019, undergraduate student Djelli Berisha became the first ISCRM fellow from UW Bothell.
“UW Bothell provides various levels of undergraduate research experiences for all of its biology students,” says Bryan White, PhD, a Senior Lecturer at UW Bothell. “The energy, innovation, and expertise of ISCRM labs is unparalleled. Exposing UW Bothell students to the culture of ISCRM labs is invigorating and transformative. It is almost unthinkable that my students get to participate in stem cell science at this level.”
Mike Rappleye, a PhD student in the Berndt Lab, was awarded an ISCRM fellowship in the spring of 2018 to support his work creating genetically encoded fluorescent indicators that accelerate drug screening. Rappleye believes being an ISCRM fellow has helped him grow outside the lab. “Our ability to get funding hinges on being able to communicate,” says Rappleye, who took the stage recently to present his research at the ISCRM Fellows Symposium. “The fellowship has definitely helped me to do that.”
“That was the largest room I’ve presented to so far,” says PhD student Nisa Williams, who joined Rappleye on the docket at the symposium. “We need as many chances as we can get to showcase our research and sharpen our speaking skills in a professional environment,” says Williams, who presented her work engineering miniaturized models to study the structure and function of cardiac tissue.
Opportunities to practice presentation skills are valuable at all stages of training. Shiri Levy, PhD, is a postdoc fellow in the Ruohola-Baker lab. “I’ve applied for lots of grants, but this one was more exciting because it allowed me to present in front of the people who were closest to me. It was nerve-wracking, but also a great way to get credibility within our research community.”
The ISCRM Fellows program has enabled many of the awardees to reach new audiences out-of-state, and even abroad. Since the program began, ISCRM trainees have traveled to high-profile conferences as far away as China. “Attending an international conference in Beijing was amazing,” says Darrian Bugg, a graduate student whose fellowship project is focused on improving the way hearts heal after heart attacks. “The broader exposure will make me more marketable in the future, and it helps spread the word about the research happening at ISCRM.”
Several of the ISCRM fellows have even been able to use their communications skills for the benefit of the broader community. Williams and Rappleye were among the ISCRM faculty and trainees who traveled to Chehalis, WA in August 2018, to lead a two-day summer STEM camp in the Orin Smith STEM Wing at WF West High School.
“It was very rewarding to give back when these students are so primed to become scientists or medical doctors,” said Williams at the time. “I think there were certain light bulbs that went off when they connected ideas with each other that they’ve been reading about in their textbooks. Just teaching them for two days made me learn more about the work I do in my own lab.”
For Ketaki Mhatre, PhD, a postdoc in the Murry and Regnier Labs, the ISCRM Fellows Program was a particularly good fit as a funding source. “I am an international fellow, so I’m not eligible for a lot of grants and fellowships,” explains Ketaki, who is from India, and is now working at the intersection of gene therapy and stem cell therapy to develop better recovery treatments for heart attack victims.
Similarly, Fred Yeboah, from Ghana, was eager for a way to join the Young Lab at ISCRM, where he is now a graduate research fellow. The ISCRM fellows award is helping to fund his project using stem cells to study Alzheimer’s disease. “The fellowship was instrumental for Fred and extremely beneficial for our whole lab,” says Jessica Young, PhD. “We get a talented new student in the lab with novel ideas to help us develop treatment options for Alzheimer’s disease and Fred gets to establish himself as a scientist in an amazing and collaborative environment.”
Mhatre paints a picture of the positive impact the fellows program has had on diversity within ISCRM. “You can look around the lab and see people from Saudi Arabia, Somalia, China, Belgium, France, and Italy, all bringing new perspectives, new mindsets, and different ways of thinking. This is very important for the face of science.”
Bryan White notes that increasing diversity has particular meaning for UW Bothell. “Twenty percent of our students are from a traditionally underrepresented ethnic group and 50% of students will be the first in their family to receive a four-year degree. Training marginalized students and helping them realize that they can do science in a stem cell lab is transformative for them and beneficial for society.”
Propelled by funding to focus on research, and to travel, speak, and network, the ISCRM fellows are rapidly establishing themselves as emerging leaders in stem cell research as they confront some of the most widespread medical challenges on earth, including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Many are completing their undergraduate degrees and planning to join PhD programs at UW and elsewhere. Others have taken their expertise to biotech companies, where they are working to bring new treatments to the market as quickly as possible.
Shiri Levy has even received a patent for a tool that allows researchers to manipulate cells by designing proteins that create – or erase – cell memory, potentially reprogramming cancer cells to become healthy, and controllable. “It’s huge,” says Levy. “It’s happening right here. And the fellowship made it possible.”
For Diego Ic-Mex, an undergraduate in the Ruohola-Baker Lab, being an ISCRM fellow is a source of personal pride – and a source of comfort for his friends and family in Renton. “I was able to tell people this is an actual job I can do after I graduate. You don’t have to worry about me. And it was just really awesome to know that my work was funded. It was set in stone. I’m going to be here full time, to commit to the project, and see it through.”