By following her love of science, Kalya Stanten has found herself in some very interesting places — including a virology lab at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m in Paula Cannon’s lab,” said Stanten, who is graduating with a Master of Science in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine from the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Through my own work there, not only did I get more of a look at the gene editing process, but I also got to understand a lot more about HIV infection and different strategies to work against HIV. And through that, I’ve gained a greater knowledge of virus biology. And it’s been really inspiring now to see the lab transition to try to tackle the COVID-19 situation, and to figure out what they can do, given the techniques that we already use in the lab.”
Stanten joined the Cannon Lab during her junior year as a biochemistry major at USC. When she was accepted into USC’s progressive degree program, which allows students to earn their undergraduate and master’s degrees simultaneously, she was able to continue working in the Cannon Lab while pursuing specialized course work in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.
“Even though biochemistry is notoriously one of the hardest biology majors, the reason that I was in these classes was because I love science,” Stanten said, “which set me up well to make the transition into the stem cell master’s program and keep choosing to follow science, choosing to follow the thing that I really like.”
Stanten began following science from a young age, wreaking havoc with her chemistry set. She credits her father, a jet engine engineer, with being the first person who inspired her to think like a scientist.
“Even when I would need help on math problems when I was really young in elementary school, instead of giving me the answer or showing me the way to do it, he would question me about three different ways to figure out the problem,” she said. “That way of exploring the world raised me to be inquisitive and to be interested in science.”
She credits her mother, who works at the sustainability office at Clorox, with imparting a joy for biology. As early as middle school, Stanten recalls being “blown away” — in a good way — when her class had the opportunity to dissect a cow eye.
As a high school student at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, Stanten attended her first lecture about stem cells during a global youth summit on the future of medicine hosted by Brandeis University.
“That blew my mind,” she said. “We had a talk from a professor from Harvard about how there are limitations with embryonic stem cells, because they can become cancerous, and then there are also the moral issues. And then they made induced pluripotent stem cells, and he was talking about his research starting to use those. Right there was really what solidified my desire to pursue the research route.”
She knew that USC would offer excellent opportunities to continue learning about new scientific findings and to pursue her passion for research. As an undergraduate, she participated in the Freshman Science Honors Program, an advanced curriculum in the natural sciences for high-achieving students.
She made the most of her undergraduate years: studying abroad in Athens; joining a sorority; and participating in both the rugby team and the ski and snowboard Team. She also began volunteering at Camp Kesem, which provides free and fun activities for children ages 6–18 whose parents or guardians have been affected by cancer.
One of her favorite undergraduate courses was Regenerative Medicine: Principles, Paradigms and Practice, taught by Andy McMahon, PhD, the director of USC’s stem cell research center.
“At first, I remember feeling pretty overwhelmed, because Dr. McMahon teaches on more of the graduate school level,” said Stanten, who took the course during her senior year. “We read and discussed foundational papers that were used to build up the field of regenerative medicine from developmental biology and stem cell biology. He is such a great teacher. I totally loved that class.”
The challenging and comprehensive course provided an ideal segue into the stem cell master’s program. As a master’s student, Stanten enjoyed working hands-on with stem cells and exploring their applications related to synthetic biology — which takes an engineering approach to designing and fabricating new biological components or systems.
Stanten has also gained broad exposure to current research, learned how to design better experiments and grown as a scientific thinker.
“By seeing so much current research, I learned how stem cell biology and its principles are at the core of regenerative therapies,” she said. “It has made me excited to pursue gene editing- and cell therapy-focused research in any system of the body. The master’s program also gave me a lot of experience talking about science, making me excited to bring my perspectives into future research spaces.”
In particular, she’s enjoyed the course Bringing Stem Cells to the Clinic, taught by Justin Ichida, PhD, and Qing Liu, PhD. Throughout the course, guest speakers from the biotech industry addressed the business, legal, ethical, manufacturing and regulatory aspects involved in moving stem cells and related products into actual medical practice.
The course cemented her desire to work in the biotech industry before applying to PhD programs.
“After my three years in the Cannon Lab, I’m coming out of it wanting to contribute to regenerative therapy development and still feeling excited to do laboratory bench work,” Stanten said. “I’ve experienced the grinding halt of all your progress to try to troubleshoot one assay that’s going wrong. And then it turns out the temperature of the incubator is a few degrees below 37 degrees, which is why the cells aren’t growing, which is why this whole thing is not working right. But even though bench work can come with some tediousness and some frustration, I find the problem-solving satisfying, whether it is at the bench or musing over therapeutic strategies. So I’m excited to go into the industry, because I want to experience what research looks like there.”
— Cristy Lytal