Monday, October 14, 2013

UC students pull together stem cell community and exhort members to stay connected and spread the word

The Berkeley Student Society for Stem Cell Research pulled off a coup Saturday. They filled an auditorium with about 150 people, about two thirds of them looking like students, at 10:00 on a weekend. What’s more, the event featured some serious science and in depth discussion of how scientists of all ages, patients, and members of the community can come together to advance a field that has the potential to change society. They aptly named the event “Culturing a Stem Cell Community.”

I was proud they asked me to speak, and pleased the topic they wanted was my favorite: how scientist and lay people can both become better advocates for the field. This was just the latest chapter in a long collaboration between the Berkeley student group and me and CIRM. The group was founded by Laurel Barchas the year before I came to CIRM in 2008. One of the first projects the group decided to tackle was an effort to share the knowledge they were learning about stem cells with high school students in the Bay Area.

They created an introductory lesson and field-tested it and got feedback from teachers and students. They were in the middle of revising it based on that input when I was introduced to Laurel. I had discovered that the California high school curriculum did not include anything on stem cells and the state had no budget to design new curriculum. So, we contracted with Laurel to manage a project that resulted in the five-unit curriculum we have at our stem cell education portal. That project required a community to complete, including several students, Berkeley scientists and education experts, along with local high school teachers.

Several members of that community were in the room Saturday clearly still committed to spreading knowledge about stem cells. For the first two hours they heard from four scientists who shared information on the general nature of stem cells, some clinical trials that are underway and some of the potential for future clinical developments.

The afternoon was devoted to ways to become better advocates for the field. Friend and fellow blogger Paul Knoepfler led off with a discussion of the power of online communication. His blog now has more than 3,000 daily viewers in part driven by his Twitter and Facebook posts. I followed with a demonstration of the wealth of information on the CIRM website and tips for keeping science understandable, ending with one of our stem cell elevator pitch videos.

Next Laurel, who recently completed her master’s degree while working in a stem cell lab, updated the group on the continuing role of the Berkeley student group in reaching out to local high schools. She also discussed her latest work for CIRM, which created two more units for our curriculum, this time designed to match the newly established national science education guidelines.

The day ended with a keynote address from Alan Fernandez, associate director of the Genetics Policy Institute, discussing how his group organizes the World Stem Cell Summit coming up in December in San Diego. They pull together a diverse community similar to the one in the room Saturday. He advised the students and others there to step out of their heads and not just think about the field, but get out and actively share information at every opportunity.

Don Gibbons

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