The COVID-19 pandemic underlined the importance of science, education and technological progress. Science and education are among the many components needed for safety and well-being of our communities. In such moments, we realize and appreciate CIRM’s goals to cure ailments that severely debilitate some of our citizens regardless of the pandemic.
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. This objective was successfully met for 2020-21 cohort despite the pandemic. With CIRM’s permission we were able to accept an eleventh intern to fill one of the three intern positions that were not filled in 2019-20. Eleven undergraduate students were selected into the program (BSCR Scholars) in May, 2020, and trained for 7-months at CSUF from June to December, 2020. All their academic, administrative, and technical instructions were provided online and by emails. The program leadership recognized that hands-on activities were going to be impacted, and thus focused on learning different concepts in the field of stem cell biology and the theoretical knowledge behind various techniques used in stem cell research and regenerative medicine. For the one in-person lab course, hands-on skills demonstration were provided through video recordings and as written protocols. These eleven interns were well-versed in fundamental concepts in stem cell biology and were able to gain a stronger understanding of ongoing research through attending the virtual 2020 ISSCR meeting.
CSUF’s commitment to the mission of BSCR program in face of the pandemic was apparent in at least four situations described under Program Activities. All in-person activities were susceptible to sudden changes in regulations. The campus was completely closed for most of summer. Drs. Miyamoto and Patel had planned for this and moved up the Stem Cell Biology lecture (B427) courses from fall to summer so that when the campus reopened students would have more time for hands-on activities. We had to offer the Essential Techniques in Cell Biology course (B329) online during summer, which used to be taught during summer from 2010-2019. Techniques in Stem Cell Biology (B429) lab course was offered in-person during fall semester, but with extensive changes in how the class operated. The other two required courses (BSCR Professional Seminar [B480C], and Regulatory Affairs – Bench to Bedside [B425]) were not heavily impacted as moving those courses to online was not difficult.
The BSCR scholars are required to enroll in independent research courses (B499L or CHEM 495) and complete a small research project in one of the CSUF laboratories. These credits apply towards graduation requirement for their bachelor’s degrees. This experience was impacted to a greater extent because of dramatic reduction in number of people allowed in a lab on a given day. The importance of these hands-on, independent research experiences was apparent in the fact that the students who had participated in research from 2019 or prior found it easier to startup their research project at the internship site.
The scholars also completed three workshops on Research and Stem Cell Ethics, Leadership in Research Projects, and Time Management. All three were led by Dr. Patel. For patient engagement, we initiated a new project to take the place of the regular in-person volunteering: a virtual library of patient experiences, in which the scholars identified web-based resources (videos, blogs), wrote questions about the resource, and then peer reviewed each other’s work. Community outreach was performed via social media, especially around the Proposition 14 initiative.
The scholars met with their potential internship mentors online and planned out their internship projects remotely. These scholars/interns completed their 12-month, full-time internship in-person from January to December, 2021. This select group of CIRM-funded interns across California were among the very few individuals that got to participate in research and advance their careers due to their desire to preserve and master the skills needed to be effective researchers. Four of the students came back to CSUF to complete their remaining courses. The remaining seven interns had a full-time job at the end of the internship, with most of them continuing as research technicians in their internship labs.