They are from the Seattle area and rural Washington. They are from California and communities across the country. They are from as far away as Nigeria, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. They are aspiring scientists, physicians, and both. They are exploring cardiology, the neuromuscular system, kidney health, tissue engineering, and a wide range of regenerative medicine topics. And they are making lasting impressions on the field, each in their own way.
What do these young leaders and innovators have in common? They are all undergraduate students conducting summer research in labs affiliated with the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM).
This year, five are UW Seattle students supported by state-funded awards. Three are UW Bothell students supported by Eileen and Larry Tietze and the UW Bothell Founders Endowment. And six have come to UW for the summer as part of the ISCRM Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).
While each of these programs has existed for several years, this is the first time ISCRM has offered a cohesive 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.
ISCRM faculty member Julie Mathieu, 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 Bryan White, a Teaching Professor at UW Bothell, and Kris Vosk, ISCRM’s Operations Manager.
“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.”
The list of people who supported the program includes ISCRM faculty members Alec Smith, PhD and Marta Scatena, PhD; ISCRM Genomics Core Director Mary Regier, PhD; current and former ISCRM graduate students Ashish Phal, Asis Hussein, Susana Simmonds Bohorquez, Jordan Jackson, Logan Bailey; Flora Hu. and Courtney Vishy; ISCRM postdoctoral reseacher Devon Ehnes; ISCRM staff members Leena Pranikay, Jenn Hesson, and Erica Jonlin; and MedTech clinical professional Alicia Moreno-Gonzalez and Novo Nordisk Principal Research Associate Angel.
The largest cohort in the ISCRM Summer Program belongs to the REU students. Generally, the goal of an REU is to expose students from out-of-state institutions to new campus environments, while enriching the field by bringing together researchers with diverse backgrounds and worldviews. That’s also true for the ISCRM REU, says Mathieu.
“The goal is to increase diversity in our institute and in our field. We want students to have opportunities to do paid research during the summer, to see how research is done at another university, to build community, and to make informed decisions about where to go next in their scientific journeys.”
Jessica Okolo is one of the REU students researching in ISCRM labs for the summer. Okolo, who is from Nigeria, is a student at Howard University, where she is on a premed track studying Biochemistry and Psychiatry. She views her project in the Mack Lab as a way to prepare for her long-term goal of expanding mental health awareness and treatment for people in Nigeria.
“I’ve always been interested in cardiology and neurology,” says Okolo. “When I was deciding what to research, I want to make sure I learn about each area. Now I’m working with cardiomyocytes and studying Duchene Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) and trying to help people in the clinical field. In the future I see myself working in the clinic and working as a scientist so that I’m able to help patients on a day-to-day basis but also able to research new ways to treat them.”
Ayomi Fadaka is also a Howard undergraduate from Nigeria and an ISCRM REU student. A biology honors major and chemistry minor, Fadaka has similar ambitions of practicing medicine while also conducting research that might yield new treatments for patients. Her interest in regenerative medicine made ISCRM a fitting setting for a summer job.
“Regenerative medicine is a way to provide treatment beyond stopping the issue and giving patients back what they have lost,” says Fadaka. “It’s a way to give them back their life. In the Stevens Lab we are working on developing organoids that can serve as near exact models for liver diseases and drug testing, and I believe this science could lead to required knowledge for growing viable organs in labs for transplants in the future.”
Like the REU students, the ISCRM Undergraduate Fellows are also gaining pivotal (and paid) lab experience while contributing to advances in regenerative medicine.
The ISCRM Fellows program began in 2017, the year the Washington State Legislature first included funding for ISCRM in the state budget. Since then, ISCRM fellows representing 28 labs across 13 departments have been listed on more than 60 published papers and have advanced research on more than 20 diseases.
“Young scientists from diverse backgrounds bring passion, creativity, and fresh perspectives to our labs,” says Hannele Ruohola-Baker, PhD, a Professor of Biochemistry, Associate Director of ISCRM, and Director of the ISCRM Fellows Program. “What they don’t always have is the financial means to be full-time researchers. The ISCRM Fellows Program allows them to maximize their time in the lab and really commit to the projects. The payoff for them, for their labs, and for society is huge.”
For Ashi Jain, a rising senior and Biochemistry major, earning an ISCRM fellowship to study transcription factors that help tadpoles regenerate their spinal cords when they lose their tails was both affirming and empowering. “Going into the internship in the Wills Lab, I had very little lab experience. I didn’t think I knew what I was doing. Being able to start a project and then earning the award to support it was validating and shows me it’s possible for me to get where I want to go. I’m learning the scientific process and what it takes to plan and execute experiments.”
Willow Chernoske is an ISCRM Undergraduate Fellow in the Escobar Lab. Chernoske echoes the appreciation to be a full-time member of a lab. “The research in the Escobar Lab is definitely different than anything I’d been exposed to. We do a lot of epigenetic work, which was new to me. Now I have a project of my own. I’m setting up protocols, troubleshooting, and trying to learn as much as I can. I’m fascinated by so much of it – and there’s so much of it I don’t know yet.”
“I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be there – and for this to be my summer job. The fellowship has allowed me to dive into the science and get experience writing proposals, drawing figures, and making presentations. And I get to be part of a community with other students and to see what they are doing in other labs.”
Lauren D’Amico is a Public Health/Global Health major, a choice driven by her interest in the social determinants and general impact of health.
For the last three years, D’Amico has been a student researcher in the Moussavi-Harami Lab and a member of a team studying genetic mutations that lead to dilated cardiomyopathy and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
D’Amico says her undergraduate experience has helped shape her ambitions of becoming a physician scientist. “I’ve been doing research for so long,” she says. “It’s been a huge part of my undergraduate experience. I’m excited to build on that as a doctor and a researcher and this summer program has helped that by connecting me to people I wouldn’t have met and giving me a chance to learn about medical ethics or how to write a paper.”
Located less than 30 minutes away in traffic from Seattle, the UW Bothell campus is home to a distinctly diverse student population. More than two-thirds represent communities of color and/or international students and 40% of incoming first-year and new transfer students will be first in their families to earn a four-year degree.
Bryan White teaches several levels of biology courses. Several years ago, he saw in ISCRM an opportunity to give his students a career boost by connecting them to stem cell-focused research labs. Now, UW Bothell students have become part of the fabric of the ISCRM community.
“A lot of our students want to go to medical school or are considering graduate school and many of them are not well represented in the field of stem cell science,” says White. “Allowing them to work in ISCRM labs gives them a chance to see themselves in that light.”
Dang Truong is one of the three UW Bothell students participating in the ISCRM Summer Program. Truong, who moved to the United States from Vietnam when she was fifteen, has a multifaceted interest in biology that blends her affinity for trees and wetlands with a curiosity about how physical forces influence cellular evolution.
She has found a summer home in the Sniadecki Lab, where she is part of a team using microfluidic devices and micro-post array technology to measure the contractile forces of platelets. The goal is to develop new methods of assessing thrombosis risk for emergency room patients.
It almost didn’t happen. Truong, who is a Biology major hoping to also major in Physics, explains that she was close to moving on from pursuing research for financial reasons when word arrived that she had received a fellowship to join the Sniadecki Lab. “I had been looking for research opportunities for a while,” says Truong. “I’m very excited to join a lab for the first time.”
While the experience of conducting research in ISCRM labs will give the summer students additional momentum as they plan their next steps, the chance to build a community with other young scientists has also expanded their horizons.
“It’s amazing to have peers who can encourage and motivate you through parts of the internship that are difficult because they are going through similar experiences,” says Ayomi Fadaka. “It’s grounding, in case things get overwhelming in our labs or with our experiments. It’s also important to have people at our level because we are mostly interacting with P.I.s and postdoc who are not at this stage.”
Jessica Okolo shares a similar message. “Knowing that there would be a community of students was really reassuring to me. I knew I wouldn’t be here alone. And hearing opinions from people with different backgrounds has helped me grow as a person.”
As a capstone to the summer experience, the ISCRM Fellows, Bothell Fellows, and REU students will be presenting their research at poster symposium on the UW Medicine South Lake Union Campus. That event takes place Tuesday, August 16th from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM Building C Lobby