In late February 2020, 10 local high school juniors gathered at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC for the first meeting of a four-month hands-on learning experience, sponsored by the Amgen Foundation. Each of the 10 students had been nominated by a science teacher from an LAUSD school near USC’s Health Sciences Campus, and then selected through a competitive application process to participate in the USC Stem Cell Scholars Program. These 10 high school juniors attended the first two introductory lectures, taught by the seven USC graduate students and postdocs who served as mentors — and were then informed that the program had been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the seven USC graduate students and postdocs had committed to serving as mentors and were determined to make the program happen. After LAUSD issued laptops and Spectrum provided free Wi-Fi for distance learning, the mentors re-vamped the program as an online experience.

The mentors gave lectures in stem cell biology topics ranging from organ development to gene editing to bioethics. They gave virtual tours of their labs, and trained the high school students in key bioinformatics and statistical techniques for analyzing scientific data and microscopic images outside of the laboratory.

The program culminated with an online mini-symposium where the high school students presented their research projects related to diabetes, metabolic disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer to an audience of USC faculty and staff, an Amgen Foundation representative, LAUSD teachers and administrators, and parents and family members.

“We felt like we had worked so hard to design a program, and that the high school students had been so excited about these opportunities, that we didn’t just want to give it up,” said Katelyn Millette, a USC PhD candidate who served as a mentor. “The online program still gets to the heart of what this program was designed to do, which is uplifting high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These students worked hard and deserve something like this. It gives them a little bit of an upper hand when they go on to college, so they have a confidence boost.”

Calista Lee, a student at Francisco Bravo Medical High School, called the USC Stem Cell Scholars program “an amazing experience.”

“My project on the ex vivo culture of single circulating tumor cells in breast cancer metastasis really opened my eyes to the potential of stem cell research, which could possibly hold the key to treatments for human diseases,” she said. “The ability to do research in breast cancer metastasis held a more personal meaning for me, as my grandmother was diagnosed with this disease. Knowing this disease on a more personal level reminds me of the importance of medical research.”

Lee plans to major in biology or public health and to pursue a career as a medical professional involved in both patient care and research.

For Zarina Osmani, a student from Roosevelt High School, the program piqued her interest in stem cells. “I know that not all high school students get such a chance to work with great mentors, to be part of such an advanced level program, and to learn a lot of things ahead of time before going to college,” she said. “It is one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had during my entire educational journey.”

In the future, Osmani plans to major in biology and to pursue a career as a doctor.

“Being interested in a career as a doctor is basically because of the fact that I am from Afghanistan, a country where there is need for doctors, and there are a lot of patients who don’t get the necessary medical support,” she said. “I see being a doctor as a way to help the people in my community.”

Heidy Barrera, a student in the Math, Science, and Technology Magnet Academy within Roosevelt High School, was excited to help “chip away” at the monumental challenge of finding new therapies for diabetes, a disease that has affected many in her family and community.

“My mentor used the example of the Parthenon — that’s a big structure,” said Barrera. “So when they first started working on it, they were just chipping away at some rock. And they might have found it useless, because they wouldn’t think it would become something with architectural significance. But you’re chipping away at the beginning, so that you set the foundation for others. And that’s what really hooked me on wanting to go above and beyond with this, and to continue pursuing this wherever I go.”

Barrera plans to major in biochemistry and to become a researcher focused on stem cells, regeneration, and diabetes.

Barrera’s mother, Maria Bazan, added: “It’s very satisfying to see that my daughter gets opportunities like this, because you make so many sacrifices as a parent. Not only do I feel joy within myself, but I feel like I’m also taking part in these opportunities. And the day that my daughter can graduate college will be the day where it really does all matter. It will be the most monumental moment. It will make it all worthwhile.”

As the high school students begin their senior years, the USC mentors will continue to provide advice with college applications and future career directions.

“Personally, I would love to continue to give support to our students, and I’m sure a lot of the other mentors feel the same way,” said Riana Parvez, a USC PhD student who served as a mentor. “I’ve been helped so much along the way in my career, and I’m happy I’m finally in a position to provide that same support to someone else. Our students were all excellent, so I’m looking forward to raising them up as much as I can.”

Qing Liu-Michael, PhD, director of strategic initiatives at USC Stem Cell, said, “We started planning this program a few years ago and were grateful that the Amgen Foundation decided to sponsor it. I am so glad that the mentors took the initiative to resume a revised version of the program in spite of the ongoing pandemic. It is rewarding that our work can make an impact on these students’ career paths.”

Andy McMahon, PhD, director of USC Stem Cell, said that he’s looking forward to welcoming the high school students for a tour of the research laboratories as soon as it’s safe to do so.

He added, “I am really delighted that both the mentors and students decided to carry on. LAUSD students and USC mentors have benefited immensely from this collaboration between the stem cell research center and our sponsors at Amgen.”

— Cristy Lytal