The Bridges to Stem Cell Research (BSCR) program at California State University – Fullerton (CSUF) has provided academic and practical training in stem cell research to a diverse group of students since its inception in 2010. For the undergraduates selected into the program (BSCR Scholars/Interns), it is an intensive 14-month experience dedicated to training them for future laboratory careers or in preparation for graduate or medical school. The BSCR program has greatly benefitted the interns as well as the CSUF Biology Department and indirectly the state of California.
The training component is divided into three main segments. Shortly after being accepted into the program, the new cohort participates in the summer course – Essential Techniques in Cell Biology. This class teaches students the basics of working in a research lab including molecular cloning, cell culture, immunoblotting and immunocytochemistry. During the summer, students also conduct research full-time in a CSUF faculty member’s lab. This is often the first hands-on research experience for many of the BSCR Scholars each year. This research experience links the information that Scholars have learned in the classroom with its direct application in the laboratory. Through this process they also learn for the first time how to implement the planned experiments, the basics of working in a research lab, time management with lab responsibilities and other research-related skills. At the end of August, the Scholars present their research projects and initial observations at the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics’ Summer Research Symposium.
For the fall semester, BSCR Scholars enroll in a select set of stem cell-related courses: Stem Cell Biology, Research Ethics, BSCR Professional Seminar, Independent Research and Techniques in Stem Cell Biology lab. The courses provided a jump-start for the students in the theoretical aspects of cell biology and hands-on techniques necessary to become an effective stem cell researcher. Students are also empowered by learning essential laboratory techniques in the laboratory courses and then directly utilizing these skills in their individual research projects in the CSUF research laboratories (continuation from summer). Our external evaluator has found that the curriculum is very effective in preparing the students for their internship, especially in comparison to the regular upper division biology curriculum. Furthermore, the Scholars are more confident in their research capabilities as a result of their completion of the stem cell- and research-focused curriculum.
After developing a strong foundation in stem cell research and having planned their internship projects with the internship mentors during the Fall semester, the BSCR Scholars are ready to hit the ground running at their internship sites. The BSCR Scholars conduct their seven-month, full time internship at a participating host institution lab from January to July. In 2013, the CSUF BSCR Scholars gained the rare experience for a CSU student to be involved in full time research at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Children’s Hospital Orange County, Stanford University, University of California – Irvine, and University of Southern California. They have conducted research on the potential of stem cells for treatment of a vast array of disorders including: bone disorders, cardiovascular disease, cancer, craniofacial disorders, metabolic disorders, neurological injury and skeletal muscle injury.
The BSCR program fosters the transition of the selected participants from a “student” who attends lectures and completes coursework to a “scholar” that is an independent, focused and inspired researcher, capable of making scientific contributions in some of the best research labs in California. Research mentors have noted that BSCR Scholars are more advanced than other undergraduate members of their lab and are comparable to first-year Ph.D. students.
Over the past three years, the CSUF BSCR program has trained 29 undergraduates to become competent stem cell researchers. More than 50% of the BSCR Scholars who have graduated are currently working as technicians in stem cell or related fields. Another 30% are pursuing advanced degrees (mainly PhD, and some MD) and plan to apply their knowledge of stem cells in their future careers.