USC’s May 14 commencement ceremony will mark a beginning, not only for its two-year-old master’s program in the nascent field of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, but also for this program’s second graduating class.

The 35 graduates of the master of science in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine in the Keck School of Medicine of USC are on the verge of starting their careers in both academia and industry, after gaining admission into competitive PhD and MD programs and landing jobs in the biotech industry and in university research settings.

Jiawei Zhao, a master’s student from China, committed himself to a career in cancer research at age 12, after his father died from myelodysplastic syndrome transformed acute myeloid leukemia. As an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, he performed research in a stem cell biology lab.

“I figured out there was a tight relationship between these two guys, cancer and stem cells,” he said. “There are not many institutions that offer master’s programs in stem cell biology, and USC is among them. So I came here to study more about stem cell biology and prepare my PhD applications in the future.”

Zhao gained admission to PhD programs at top institutions including Harvard University, Yale School of Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center, University of Massachusetts Medical School and University of Rochester Medical Center. In the fall, he will begin his PhD at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he intends to focus his research on cancer biology or immunology. Eventually, he hopes to become a faculty member and run his own laboratory, dedicated to finding new treatments for blood cancers.

Clare Yarka

Clare Yarka

Master’s student Clare Yarka came to USC with similar intentions of pursuing a PhD. But the master’s program opened her eyes to a different realm.

“One of the most rewarding parts of the program for me was the Bringing Stem Cells to the Clinic class,” she said. “Once I learned, after taking this course, about all the different opportunities in industry, I really thought that that could maybe be the direction that I go.”

After graduation, Yarka will work in the field of immuno-oncology as a research associate at the biotech firm Kite Pharma in Santa Monica.

“My long-term career goal is to get some experience in industry at the bench, and then hopefully move to some kind of drug safety or clinical operations capacity, maybe more on the business side,” she said. “So onward and upward!”

According to Henry Sucov, director of the master’s program, the first two cohorts of master’s students have achieved a great deal in a short time.

“The success of our graduates speaks to the virtues of our master’s program more pointedly than my words ever could,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of the first two cohorts of graduating students, who have established an impressive track record in both industry and academia. I look forward to witnessing their continued accomplishments well into the future.”

— Cristy Lytal