In the spring of 2018, Susana Simmonds was strolling through a career fair at the annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) in Atlanta.
At the time, Simmonds was a junior at the University of Texas in Austin studying nanoparticles and drug delivery. That day, she followed a friend to the University of Washington booth, where she struck up a conversation with ISCRM faculty member Dr. Cecilia Giachelli, then the Hunter and Dorothy Simpson Endowed Chair in Bioengineering.
The chance encounter took an exciting turn when Simmonds asked Giachelli whether she knew of any summer research opportunities for undergraduates.
Summer research experience for undergraduates, or REUs, are offered by colleges and universities nationwide, often to students from out-of-state institutions. An REU exposes aspiring graduate students to different campus environments and helps schools court talented young researchers.
Giachelli was so impressed with Simmonds that she created an REU position for her, funded by the UW Bioengineering Department. Because Simmonds was not recruited as a member of a cohort, Giachelli turned to Dr. Eric Chudler, who runs an REU through the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) and is a Research Associate Professor in Bioengineering and Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine. Connecting Simmonds to the existing CNT REU offered her access to infrastructure, like accommodations and community, that enriches the experience for out-of-state students. Next, Giachelli steered Simmonds toward the lab of Dr. Kelly Stevens, PhD, a faculty member in the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) and an Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and Laboratory Medicine and Pathology.
Over the past few years, Stevens and Chudler have worked together to build on this momentum. At the same time, interest in the program has increased steadily. In 2021, the program received applications from 85 candidates representing universities all across the country.
To help meet the demand, Stevens identified state and local financing for an ISCRM REU that is still a partnership with Chudler and the CNT. There is now sufficient funding to support stipends and housing for six ISCRM REU students in the summer of 2022. As the program expands, the mission is still rooted in inclusion and exposure to science careers.
“The goal is to increase diversity in our institute and in our field,” says Julie Mathieu, PhD, who currently manages the REU within ISCRM. “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 to graduate school.”
The REU is one aspect of a broader effort to increase diversity and equity within ISCRM. Recently, the institute published a five-year strategic plan that outlines measurable steps to create a more inclusive and welcoming research community.
For Susana Simmonds, the summer of 2019 in the Stevens lab made the University of Washington “the one to beat” during her graduate school application process. “The lab culture was incredible. Everyone was very hands-on and helpful. I loved being adjacent to clinical buildings. The whole setting felt unified and collaborative. And it was really nice to have a cohort to come back to at the end of the day. The UW became my gold standard.”
Today, Simmonds is a second-year graduate student in the Stevens Lab, where she is contributing to the development of groundbreaking tissue engineering tools. Specifically, she is working on 3D imaging and quantification of human liver tissues. The goal is to create a multiscale map of the liver’s functional features. Long term, the hope is to use this 3D map to produce bioprinted liver constructs that are anatomically accurate and, someday, can emulate a functional liver.
Meanwhile, the ISCRM REU continues to introduce undergraduate students to lab life at the University of Washington.
Maria Rojas, a senior from Southern Oregon University in Ashland was one of three students selected for the summer 2021 cohort. Rojas, a chemistry major with minors in biology and psychology who harbors ambitions of attending medical school, came to UW hoping to conduct research in a translationally focused lab.
Ten weeks later, she completed an experience she calls “beyond valuable.”
Rojas joined the lab of Ron Kwon, PhD, a leader in the effort to uncover the genetic underpinnings of osteoporosis and other bone diseases. Under the guidance of Kwon and Acting Instructor Claire Watson, PhD, Rojas learned the finer point of decoding zebrafish images. Using sophisticated instrumentation, she measured differences between mutant and control specimens, before compiling her analysis into a chart that appeared in a recently published paper.
“It was a very nurturing environment,” says Rojas. “Ron and Claire are both committed to helping people deepen their knowledge. Being here allowed me to shadow working scientists who are doing zebrafish genotyping, to do fin clips on my own, and to discover how research and medicine can go together.”
Reina Luna was another member of the 2021 ISCRM REU cohort. The Heritage University student worked alongside PhD student Colleen O’Conner in the Stevens Lab, where she seeded microwells with combinations of cells and tissues that were then implanted into mice – all part of a broader effort to study the mechanisms of liver regeneration.
“My summer experience was amazing,” says Luna. “Not only did I work with Colleen and Kelly, but I also had the opportunity to work with Dr. Chudler. It was so great to learn from them and be exposed to so many new things.”
Dorice Goune Goufack came to ISCRM as an REU student from Oregon State University, but her journey began much farther away. Growing up in Cameroon, in west Africa, Goune Goufack developed an affinity for biology and chemistry and remembers being excited about doing experiments in the lab.
That enthusiasm carried over to further studies in the United States – first as an exchange student in the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange & Study Program – then as an undergraduate student at Oregon State, where she is now majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and contributing to research focused on changes to the structure of a protein linked to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
With a strong grounding in biochemistry, Goune Goufack wanted to gain a new perspectives on biomedicine. She found her opportunity in the Stevens Lab, where she teamed up with PhD student Sarah Saxton to investigate how levels of transforming growth factor beta affect the growth and differentiation of human liver cells in lab dishes, an effort that could lead to real-world treatments for patients.
Goune Goufack says the ten weeks she spent with Stevens and graduate students like Saxton helped shape her decision to apply to graduate programs with connections to hospitals and medical centers. Beyond that, she is open-minded about the future. “The REU program helped me create relationships with people who will remain mentors to me. The experiences I have after this will define the next steps of my life.”
“The REU program is a great stepping stone to graduate school for young researchers,” says Ron Kwon. “It also brings fresh perspective and thinking into our labs which is needed to solve complex challenges, and helps our institute and university build bridges to some of the most exceptional students in the country. It’s a fantastic program that benefits the fellows as well as the labs that host them.”