When human embryonic stem cell research began in the late 1990s, only two university labs in the United States were conducting studies – one at the University of Wisconsin and one at UCSF. Both efforts involved a senior scientist and a handful of junior colleagues.

Many labs nationwide were conducting studies with adult human stem cells and animal stem cells, but the excitement about the potential of the field had not taken hold. Since then, it has burgeoned. Key to maintaining the field's momentum will be educating the next generation of stem cell scientists.

While UCSF has long had a premier program in developmental biology – the field from which embryonic and adult stem cell research emerged – there were no courses in stem cell biology when UCSF embarked on the research in 1998.  Today, UCSF offers several education opportunities, including:

CIRM Training Program in Stem Cell Research – Since 2006, UCSF has operated a three-year training program for 16 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and physicians. The goal of the program, supported by a competitive grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is to educate basic researchers about the scientific issues involved in translating discoveries into treatment strategies and to educate clinician-researchers about the basic science of stem cell research.

Susan J. Fisher, PhD, UCSF professor and co-director of the UCSF Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center. 

The program includes courses in developmental and stem cell biology, embryology, human disease, and transplantation, training in the rigorous ethics required to carry out the basic research of regenerative medicine, and a mentored research program for CIRM scholars under the guidance of leading basic science and clinical stem cell investigators. It also involves seminars, journal clubs, stem cell symposia and scientific retreats.

The CIRM scholars program includes scientists representing a variety of scientific backgrounds, including computational and molecular biology, nanotechnology, and clinical medicine.  Scholars receive salary and benefits. In addition, they receive research funds ($5,000 per year for predoctoral fellows and $10,000 per year for postdoctoral and clinical fellows).

The program is directed by Susan Fisher, PhD, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and director of the UCSF Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center, and Kevin Shannon, MD, professor of pediatrics.

Evidence of the program’s impact can be seen in the productivity of CIRM scholars, such as former UCSF neuroscience graduate student Laura Elias, PhD, who was a CIRM scholar while working toward her doctorate.  She did her graduate work in the lab of Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF.  Elias’ first scientific paper, of which she was first author, was published in 2007 in Nature and was featured on the cover of the journal.  The study reported discovery of a mechanism that plays a key role in the migration of neural stem cells to the brain during embryonic development.    This mechanism may also play an important role in other developmental processes and diseases, including cancer.

“We are extremely pleased with the caliber of students who have been drawn to the CIRM scholars program,” says Fisher. “These scientists are among the top researchers emerging in the field today.”

UCSF Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Graduate Program – This program offers a doctoral degree that involves training in four overlapping and interrelated areas: stem cells and cell differentiation, organogenesis and tissue regeneration, pattern formation and morphogenesis, and evolutionary developmental biology. Students in the program also participate in courses of the three-year CIRM scholars training program.

CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program – This weeklong, CIRM-funded stem cell certificate training course includes lectures in developmental biology, the derivation of embryonic stem cells and the ethics of the research. Hands-on training is provided in a lab constructed with funds from a CIRM training and facilities grant. Because no federal funds were used to construct or equip the facility, the work is not restricted by federal regulations that apply to work in federally funded labs.

The program is offered in conjunction with City College of San Francisco, Berkeley City College, San Francisco State University and Humboldt State University, and is designed to train scientists and laboratory technicians for work in university and biotechnology company labs.

The program, funded by a CIRM "bridges" grant,  supports undergraduate and master’s-level students in training courses at UCSF, followed by six-month internships in labs at local universities, including UCSF, and companies. Students who earn a stem cell certificate will be qualified to apply for internships and employment, bolstering San Francisco’s workforce in the field.

At City College of San Francisco, priority placement in the program is given to students enrolled in the college’s biotech programs, which serve low-income students who have traditionally been underrepresented in science fields.