The Institute of Stem Cell Biology Receives a $1M Training Grant for Postdoctoral Researchers

As academic researchers, UC Santa Cruz Professors Camilla Forsberg and Lindsay Hinck are pushing the frontiers of stem cell biology by researching uncharted areas of their fields. They bring that same spirit of innovation to their roles as Chief Institute of Stem Cell Biology (IBSC), looking for untapped areas that can be improved within the university research infrastructure.

This desire led them to focus on obtaining grants to support postdoctoral researchers, and their efforts were remarkably successful. The latest example is a $1 million training grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) that will expand IBSC support for postdoctoral scientists.

Post-docs bring mature research ideas to the university, but in the past they largely lacked a solid infrastructure to support them. In order to provide more support and career development opportunities for these researchers, IBSC has received grants from four other sponsors over the past two years, in addition to the NICHD grant.

IBSC has also received funding for undergraduate and undergraduate training programs – in total, Forsberg and Hinck’s fundraising efforts will provide nearly $12 million in extramural funding for training programs. This funding will shape the future of IBSC, which includes more than 30 laboratories from the Engineering and Physical and Biological Sciences divisions, as well as the Science and Justice Research Center.

“We really wanted to make an effort to elevate everyone’s ability to do more research,” said Forsberg, professor of biomolecular engineering at the Baskin School of Engineering. “Postdocs are great because they already have a PhD and they come with mature ideas and ambition. They bring a whole new dimension to our research and help us both to innovate and to train more junior students.

The other four funding institutions include the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which provides graduate and postgraduate funding; the NIH-funded Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA), which supports a partnership with California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) to train academically-minded postdoctoral fellows; UC President’s Office Hispanic Institutions Serving Ph.D. Diversity Initiative; and the Academic Inspiration Network (GAIN) program sponsored by the Genentech Foundation which builds on the partnership with CSUMB.

“We didn’t plan to have five training programs, but there were more opportunities, so we continued to introduce our core mentoring philosophies to different funders,” Forsberg said. “Now we have five different programs. I guess we’ve found a secret sauce that got our backers excited.

Their unique approach is evident in their dedication to building strong peer-to-peer relationships within a talented group of postdoctoral researchers, using strategies to strengthen research efforts at all levels of activity on campus, and creating external relations with companies that expose postdocs to jobs in industry. The programs aim to connect cohorts of trainees who can interact and network through the IBSC to form a peer support ecosystem, rather than being siled into individual labs.

By spending time in professional training workshops, postdocs have the opportunity to get feedback not only from their supervisors, but also from other professors and peers. This helps create a sense of belonging, which is especially important for underrepresented researchers. IBSC strives to build cohorts that welcome and foster diverse perspectives for the enhancement of scientific endeavours.

To that end, IBSC will welcome families to campus this summer for a pilot program that aims to demystify the often long path through academia to a career in research. The event will feature poster sessions and short lectures that distill the essence of stem cell research and science career paths.

Although the principal objective of the trustees is to advance stem cell research, they are also committed to fostering other areas of biomolecular research, as permitted by funder specifications. One such area is exploring ethical issues in stem cell research, and directors work with mentors and interns from the UCSC Science & Justice Research Center to do this.

With the new NICHD grant, Forsberg and Hinck hope to provide strong support for a cohort of postdoctoral researchers, including those interested in the biotech industry. Working with a panel of industry advisors will create shadowing opportunities for interns to learn outside of the academic environment. Biotechnology Advisors will offer career development advice on entrepreneurship to help researchers navigate either a collaborative relationship with industry as part of an academic career, or a career in industry itself. even – depending on what suits the individual best.

“It’s great two-way training,” said Hinck, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. “Because we are in academia, our researchers have the freedom to investigate large-scale hypotheses without commercial concern. Our industry collaborators greatly value the biological insights our trainees have to offer.”

Partnerships have been formed through the personal connections of both directors and include biotechnology companies such as Therapeutic Jasper and rockwith the aim of further expanding this network in the future.

Pre- and postdoctoral trainees supported by these training fellowships can be hosted by a number of laboratories at IBSC and beyond. The training programs were developed in consultation with a number of colleagues, including IBSC Program Director Catharina Lindley and Aparna Sreenivasan, CSUMB’s senior staff member. The team also drew on the considerable experience of John Boothroyd, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, who shared key insights into the development of similar programs for Stanford trainees.

Forsberg and Hinck enlist other faculty colleagues to bring new ideas to the Institute and its members, and to help keep up to date on the newest pedagogy in doctoral and postgraduate training. As mentoring standards and best practices are continually evolving, all mentors in the program are required to participate in annual mentorship training. As part of focused mentoring, all interns are expected to create Individual Development Plans – a living, dynamic document for mentees to reflect on and understand their goals and, together with their mentors, chart their path to success.

“The key thing about all of these training programs is that they implement new ideas about structured graduate and postgraduate training,” Hinck said. “While getting a fellowship position is competitive, we try to make the structured training provided by fellowships widely available so that all UCSC graduate and postdoctoral students can increase their skills. The environment that has been built around these training programs increases opportunities for everyone.

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