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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Area high school students shine in UC Davis stem cell labs

High school interns with mentors © UC Regents
Left to right, front row: Summer intern director Gerhard Bauer; student Kalani Ratnasiri; mentors Jing Liu, Whitney Cary and Karen Pepper; student Rex Reyes. Back row: students Jaskaran Dhillon and Thomas Gepts; mentors Fernando Fierro and Stefanos Kalomoiris.

Posted Aug. 11, 2011

Summer vacation for high school students doesn't typically consist of working inside the world's most advanced scientific laboratories. But for a group of talented California teens, that's exactly what this summer entailed. An innovative program sponsored by the state's stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), encouraged several dozen high school students from around the state to work with stem cell scientists at major universities, including UC Davis.

Elk Grove teen among student researchers

The students worked closely with highly skilled scientists over the summer and were invited to share the results of their research during a presentations-and-poster session hosted by CIRM in Oakland last week. Jaskaran Dhillon, a soon-to-be senior from Elk Grove, gave a presentation about mesenchymal stem cells and their capacity to produce bone to heal fractures and osteoporosis. He was recognized as the best student overall among the group, which included young students from labs at Stanford, UC San Francisco and UC Santa Barbara.

"These students truly exceeded our expectations," said Jan Nolta, director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures and a mentor for several of the students. "One of our other interns was so determined to learn about stem cell science that he traveled two hours from Vallejo and back each day to work in our Sacramento lab. All of these young people performed fabulously, and they represent a very bright future for science, particularly, I hope, in stem cell research."

Jan Nolta © UC Regents"All of these young people performed fabulously, and they represent a very bright future for science, particularly, I hope, in stem cell research."
—  Jan Nolta

Nuturing young scientific minds

The teen program is part of the CIRM's effort to strengthen the pipeline of stem cell expertise in California by funding young faculty, graduate students, and masters and undergraduate students, ensuring that California has the scientific talent to fill biotech jobs and create the next generation of stem cell therapies. This year's high school program was a pilot project that reached even further down the pipeline to enable promising high school students to gain college-level experiences and inspire them to pursue science degrees and careers.

"One of the most valuable parts of my experience at the Institute for Regenerative Cures was the fact that I was able to translate theoretical work and my passion for medical research into lab experiments that provided concrete results," said Dhillon, a Sheldon High School student, who, as a junior, created a website dedicated to information about genetics and gene therapy.

"I've realized that regenerative medicine is part of a new revolution in health care," said Dhillon. "Although I knew beforehand that I wanted to become a physician-scientist, working at the Nolta lab has steered my research interest toward discovering cures using innovative stem cell and gene therapies."

Rex Reyes and mentor Karen Pepper © UC Regents
High school intern Rex Reyes works in the lab with mentor Karen Pepper.

Dhillon and the other students also participated in this year's Teen Biotech Challenge at UC Davis, which is sponsored by the UC Davis Biotechnology Program and led by Judith A. Kjelstrom and Denneal Jamison-McClung. That experience enabled the budding scientists to confidently put their newly developed biotech skills and interests to use in the university's regenerative medicine laboratories.

Vallejo student makes daily commute to participate

"I experienced many wonderful things at UC Davis' stem cell lab at in Sacramento," said Rex Reyes, a soon-to-be senior at Vallejo High School who traveled by train, bus and on foot to the institute's labs each day. "While the highlight was working in the lab's unique Good Manufacturing Practice facility, I was amazed to be able to learn about use of lentiviral vectors in gene therapy as well as induced pluripotent stem cells, which are stem cells derived from adult cells."

CIRM support

The intern program is the state stem cell agency's second to reach high school students. Last year, it created a high school curriculum that teachers could download and use to teach students about stem cell research. Calling innovation and creativity the keys to developing breakthrough discoveries in science, the agency has been supportive of programs that encourage the work and interests of young scientists as well as college and high school students who may want to pursue medical or research careers.

UC Davis Health System scientists who mentored the summer students and encouraged creative thinking, in addition to Jan Nolta, included Gerhard Bauer, Fernando Fierro, Stefanos Kalomoiris, Karen Pepper, Jing Liu, Min Zhao and Whitney Cary.