THE BLOG
04/30/2013 03:55 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2013

California "Bridges" Program Helps Young Scientists

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If you or someone you know wants to be a stem cell researcher, read this article carefully, because it could be a career-maker.

To be a stem cell researcher or biomedical lab worker is a noble career: not only would you be helping to save lives and ease suffering, but also taking on the greatest challenge to humanity today -- the budget-crippling costs of chronic (incurable) disease.

How big a problem is incurable disease and disability?

In 2009, chronic disease cost America $1.65 trillion, more than that year's installment of the national debt. ($1.6 trillion.)

Another way to look at those gigantic costs: By the end of this year, 2013, it is reasonable to suppose that the cost of chronic disease will have grown to at least $2 trillion. Compare that to our estimated income tax receipts -- $1.9 trillion.

In other words, if we poured all our federal income tax dollars into the payments for chronic disease, it might not be enough!

But if some of those endlessly expensive diseases could be cured... everything depends, of course, on having young scientists involved: people with energy to burn and the creativity to consider all things new. So how does one get that all-important first job?

Imagine a job interview, where everything goes wrong, maybe something like this:

Boss: "What can you do?"

Applicant: "I can do anything!"

Boss: "When somebody says they can do anything, that generally means they have not actually done anything yet. What experience do you have?"

Applicant: (after painful pause) "How can I get any experience, if nobody will hire me?"

A happier outcome might result, if the applicant could say: "I had a year of experience at a world-renowned institute..."

The California stem cell program is trying to help young deserving candidates have that edge -- to actually get that all-important foot-in-the-door first job -- as part of their college experience!

The "Bridges to Stem Cell Research program" puts deserving students into a world-class laboratory.

Here's how it works:

First, the colleges themselves apply for a Bridges grant. There are some very reasonable requirements, such as being associated with one or more top-flight research institutions.

Interestingly, the really big colleges can be the associates, but not the home base.

Michael Yaffe, CIRM's associate director for research activities, who oversees the Bridges program, said:

"The Bridges grants (are) available to all colleges (both public and private) except for those that are essentially research-intensive universities... Undergraduates and Master's students at the big research universities already have opportunities to do projects in stem cell labs... while those at smaller schools may not have access to the most cutting-edge research environments."

Once selected, the college will be provided with funding: both for administration of the program and stipends for the students.

Students take basic stem cell training at the home college for the first year, followed by a second year in a lab position at one of the aforementioned associated research institutions. In the second year, they receive up to $30,000 as a stipend, while they gain experience working at the lab.

At the end of the two year program, they will have produced a Master's degree* thesis, the research for which was done in a world class lab -- priceless practical experience.

*"Every college has a slightly different program", says CIRM's Yaffe, "Three Junior Colleges, for example, have a certificate program designed for those who might want to go directly to work in a lab job at a biotech company or at a research institute."

They now have a degree qualifying them to go on to further education to become a research scientist, or be ready to go to work immediately as a fully qualified and experienced lab technician.

All across the state, from Humboldt to San Diego, Central California to the Channel Islands, colleges (16 in total) are participating in the Bridges program.

I visited one of these, San Francisco State University (SFSU), to meet with Dr. Carmen Domingo, who directs the program there. (You can meet her and her students in a three-minute video):

She was bursting with pride and enthusiasm, and her classroom-full of students was the same. These were students going through their first year of the stem cell program. After their base of knowledge in stem cell science had been established by successful completion of Year 1, they would spend the second year (with up to a $30,000 stipend) at one of the partner institutes, including: UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, Stanford University, the California Hospital at Oakland Institute for Research and the Buck Institute for Aging Research.

As a junior high school teacher years ago, I organized a multicultural history club to point out the contributions of various ethnic groups. It was a joy to see all the students of color in the SFSU program -- African American, Hispanic, Asian, as well as Caucasian -- a stem cell United Nations! According to Dr. Domingo, nearly 70 percent of the young scientists were either first in their family to achieve college, or a member of an under-represented minority.

The San Francisco State University program offers both a master's degree for scientists on a Ph.D. track, and a professional master's degree with course work in business for those who may want to pursue a more immediate career in the biotech industry.

Does the program work? The answer is the students themselves: look at the graduates of the first three years of the program: all working in the field, or continuing on to a higher degree.

Check out their progress here.

And how do they feel about it?

Myra Gordon said [used with permission]:

"I'm doing my research... on cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that causes sticky mucus to line the lungs and airways. Generally, people (with this condition) die before the age of 40... The Bridges program introduced me to literally hundreds of uses for stem cells to treat both disease and injury. In addition, the program allowed me to combine my interests and perform research in a lab that was using stem cells to model and correct genetic disease. The Bridges program provided me with hands on experience... Regenerative medicine is a relatively new field in respect to disease modeling and I hope to be part of it for many years to come, something I wouldn't have considered if not for this program... "

Ian Blong noted [used with permission]:

"I found out about the CIRM Bridges program when I started looking for states and universities that conducted stem cell research. I had just graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in biology but didn't know what to do with my life. I thought of my best friend who suffered a spinal cord injury when he was 16 and was told he would never walk again... of my grandparents who died of Alzheimer's... my father-in-law with early onset Parkinson's... stem cell research was the one field that (might) have helped them all. It is because of the CIRM Bridges program that I will be continuing my education and research on ... stem cells at a world class institution. The CIRM Bridges program gave me the foot in the door I needed to get into the field of my dreams".

Dr. Domingo states that "Ian has just been admitted to the Ph.D program in molecular cell biology at UC Berkeley, which is very prestigious! He will continue to do research in this area as a Ph.D student in Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi's lab."

The California stem cell program is advancing the field of regenerative medicine for the good of all humanity.

Maybe you could be part of that tremendous effort.

To find out more, visit www.cirm.ca.gov.