UC Graduate Students Explain Their Role in Research at Advocacy Day in Sacramento

The University of California is a magnet for budding scientists. After they complete their training — guided by some of the best researchers in the world — they very often remain in the Golden State, fulfilling their potential in academia or industry by making discoveries and creating innovations that drive economic development.

State legislators in Sacramento will be presented with some of this scientific talent firsthand today (May 11), during the second annual Graduate Research Advocacy Day.

Each of the deans of graduate education for the 10 UC campuses are sending two students who have recently completed work on their doctoral degrees to the state capitol, where lawmakers are embroiled in painful decision-making to address state budget shortfalls.

California’s master plan for higher education, established by the state legislature in 1960, is justly celebrated for its three components: UC, California State University and the California Community Colleges, collectively providing access to college education for all who may benefit. However, the proportion of state revenues allocated to higher education has declined significantly in comparison to the first years of the master plan. In recent years this shrinking support has raised concerns about affordable access to undergraduate education.

Importance of Graduate Education

Patricia Calarco, PhD

Patricia Calarco, PhD

Graduate education, an integral part of the master plan, receives less attention, but is also threatened, notes Patricia Calarco, PhD, dean of the Graduate Division at UCSF.

“The legislators don’t often hear very much about the research done by students and how important it is, and about how central it is to the California economy.”

Students who complete doctoral degrees at the University of California routinely join or start new companies or become university faculty members who train future generations of scientists while also engaging in productive research careers on campus, Calarco says.

Calarco will be accompanying to Sacramento two young UCSF scientists who have recently completed their doctoral work. Both work on research related to diabetes — an often life-threatening disease that continues to become increasingly common in the United States. They were selected from among those nominated by leaders of graduate programs at UCSF.

To make the cut, Calarco says, “In addition to being a good scientist, you have to think quickly on your feet and be able to explain what you are doing in a way that is easy to understand.”

Transplant Challenges in Type 1 Diabetes

One of the two, Adam Mendelsohn, PhD, has earned his doctoral degree through the joint UCSF-UC Berkeley bioengineering graduate program, working with UCSF bioengineering professor Tejal Desai, PhD.

Mendelsohn directed a student-led multidisciplinary organization called the Venture Innovation Program in Life Sciences. With two fellow students he won or placed in several international business-plan competitions. He went on start and a new company, Nano Precision Medical. The company is developing encapsulation technologies to deliver treatment, including living cells. The technologies will allow for delivery of constant levels of medication over many months.

Adam Mendelsohn, PhD

Adam Mendelsohn, PhD

For his doctoral thesis, Mendelsohn tackled a problem related to the newest treatment strategies for type 1 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. These cells are organized within units known as islets.

To survive, transplantable, insulin-secreting cells must be encapsulated within materials that will allow some molecules to pass in and out while excluding others — such as immune antibodies that would attack the transplant. Using this strategy researchers hope to one day overcome the need to provide lifelong immunosuppressive drugs to prevent transplant rejection.

“Islets that would survive just fine in the natural pancreas won’t survive when encapsulated,” Mendelsohn says. In part this is because of limited access to nutrients from blood.

Mendelsohn, working with researchers from the UCSF lab led by Michael German, MD, identified the optimal size for clusters of insulin-secreting cells, which were grown from embryonic stem cells. The cells produced the most insulin when grown to optimal cluster size, yet they could still obtain nutrients without being connected to a blood supply.

Stopping Cell Death in Type 2 Diabetes

Alana Lerner, PhD, works as part of a laboratory team led by diabetes expert Feroz Papa, MD, PhD. Lerner has been mapping in ever greater detail the biochemical chain of events inside a cell that can cause a routine cellular housekeeping chore — ensuring that proteins are folded properly — to become overwhelming. When this occurs biochemical events may propel the cell toward a kind of suicide. 

Alana Lerner, PhD

Alana Lerner, PhD

Papa has proposed that beta cells under pressure to churn out ever increasing amounts of insulin protein because cells of the body have become insulin resistant due to obesity or other causes might be especially susceptible to becoming overwhelmed in this way — with cell death leading to type 2 diabetes.

Lerner studies the molecular players that determine how the cell throws the switch when under so much pressure to keep up with protein folding. In particular she is studying how two enzymatic activities driven by a protein called IRE-1 might be separately manipulated to help keep cells alive.

“We are interested in how this ‘unfolded protein response’ can cause the cell to switch from survival mode to trigger cell death, and how this contributes to diabetes,” Lerner says. “If we can intervene in this biochemical signaling pathway and delay or prevent beta-cell death, then this could be a promising therapeutic drug target for diabetes.”

Lerner is on the executive committee of the Graduate Students’ Association at UCSF and has been awarded a scholarship for her graduate work from the National Institutes of Health.

Regarding the trip to Sacramento to visit legislators, Lerner says, “It should be interesting. It’s definitely outside the domain of everyday graduate student life.”