Nurturing Scholars

How the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells grows more than cells

The Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells (IBSC) at UC Santa Cruz is planning an ambitious postdoctoral training program called the Discovery Scholars in Stem Cell Research (DiSC). The DiSC’s primary mission will be to plunge postdocs into ambitious, cutting-edge research. But there’s more.

The DiSC will also address one of the most confounding problems in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education: when postdoctoral researchers break away and form their own laboratories after completing their post-doc, they are often ill-prepared for the leadership and mentoring skill leading a lab requires.

Camilla Forsberg and Lindsay Hinck, professors in UCSC’s departments of Biomolecular Engineering (BME) and Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology Department (MCDB) respectively, co-direct the interdisciplinary Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells (IBSC).

“What Camilla [Forsberg] and I are doing,” said Hinck, “is bringing together an interdisciplinary project that spans two divisions [Engineering and PbSci (Physical and Biological Sciences)]. We’re bringing in scholars who have the ability to reach across those disciplines and learn the skills they need to start their own labs or guide their research into the next phase.”

Postdoctoral research is a stepping stone between the Ph.D program and becoming a professor or researcher running his or her own laboratory. It’s a crucial moment, when funding and recognition tmean the difference between launching a career and sputtering out.

DiSC provides structured mentoring and career development for postdoctoral researchers at the IBSC. The program beginning will pay salary and benefits for two years to competitively selected candidates to pursue cutting-edge stem cell research, while also providing instruction in grant-writing, leadership, teaching, mentoring, industry relations, and project management. Additionally, the formation of training cohorts will strengthen the postdoc community and build professional networks for sustained, career-long peer-to-peer interactions. An important goal is to recruit and retain underrepresented groups to diversify the future leadership of stem cell research.

“The postdoc [training/appointment] is a special time in the development of a young scientist’s career,” said Dr. Sofie Salama, a research scientist in biomolecular engineering at the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells who directs Professor David Haussler’s wet lab. “In their Ph.D. programs, young scientists learn how to do science. The postdoctoral period is when they really get a chance to develop a research program that they’re going to take out into the world, it’s their time to take the skills that they’ve learned in their Ph.D. and start to build a career.”

Dr. Smrithi Rajendiran is a postdoc in Forsberg’s lab. She began her education in India and completed her Ph.D. at the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center. “I came here from the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center where I studied cancer biology. Now I’m working with hematopoietic (blood) stem cells. One of my projects involves studying a specific molecule which allows stem cells to move in and out of their preferred niches. We’re also deeply interested in identifying what types of cells stem cells make: which is particularly useful in therapy.”

Rajendiran would like to run a lab of her own. “My long-term goal is to work on pediatric and leukemic cancers. I didn’t have any in vivo training before coming to the Institute. This lab has given me an extensive skill set that enables me to combine both my knowledge of cancer and of stem cells to make a difference in the future.”

“There’s a little bit of a herd mentality in science,” said Salama. “The big famous guys—and I say guys because it actually still is mostly men—tend to attract more money, so funding people at the postdoctoral level gives them a chance, a leg up to penetrate the academy and continue.”

Among the research underway at the IBSC: aspects of mammalian brain development, stem cell plasticity in prostate basal cells, circadian clock regulation, breast stem cell development, the molecular aspects of stem cell division and differentiation, hematopoietic (blood) stem cell regulation during early development and into aging, and epigenetics.

“We are at a paradigm-shifting moment with stem cells,” Rajendiran said. “CRISPR technology now allows us to add, subtract or otherwise modify stem cells and transplant them back into a patient. The majority of diseases could be treated this way, be it editing with CRISPR or supplementing existing stem cells with others grown in a petri dish instead of waiting for a transplant.”

“CRISPR-based technologies are also accelerating stem cell research by enabling manipulation beyond gene editing,” said Forsberg. “Such “epigenetic” regulation is core to understanding stem cell differentiation into mature cells, both during normal development and in regenerative medicine.”

The Discovery Scholars in Stem Cell program will foster the next generation of postdoctoral scholars, letting them launch their own laboratories and advance stem cell science and human health.

“We don’t just produce research at the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells,” said Forsberg. “We also produce researchers.”

Would you like more information about the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells? Please see

For information about supporting the Discovery Scholars in Stem Cell Research Postdoctoral Training Program (DiSC) please contact Roger Trippel at


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