In biology class last May, shortly before learning I had been given the opportunity to do stem cell research over the summer, I flipped open my textbook to a chapter called "The Essentials of Stem Cell Biology." Like with any other chapter, I looked for the list key terms and came across this:
Stem cell: noun. an undifferentiated cell of a multicellular organism that is capable of giving rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, and from which certain other kinds of cell arise by differentiation.
Solid definition, right? But what the book didn't tell me is that not only can stem cells give rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, but that they're giving rise to infinite scientific advances and discoveries that are changing the way we think, treat, cure, and thrive. It didn't tell me that for many patients, stem cells are more than just a definition: They are their last hope and their greatest savior. And it didn't tell me that because of stem cells my entire outlook on science and medicine would soon change.
I was assigned to work in the Stanford lab of Daniel Bernstein, MD, and my first few weeks were filled with lots of new experiences. I attended program lectures on topics ranging from the basics of stem cell science to the techniques and machinery I'd soon be using in the lab (like western blots, flow cytometry, and gel electrophoresis); from cloning to CRISPR. I heard about these things from researchers who are pioneers and forerunners in their fields, and the amount of passion in the room was empowering. Things that were once just vocabulary words in my textbooks were coming alive before my very eyes, and I was learning about scientific studies and clinical trials I never would have thought imaginable.
Then, of course, there was my lab. I entered every morning with greetings from my post-doc mentor and the other seven lab members, all PhDs or faculty members. The intimidation factor was high, but what shocked me was the incredible humility, kindness, and patience of all of those in the lab who answered my questions and walked me through protocols and experiments time and time again.
Soon I was taught how to coax induced pluripotent stem cells to become beating heart cells and was given my very own cell lines. For close to 20 days I exposed the cells to medleys of small molecules to induce their specialization while also providing them with a wide range of different growing solutions to keep them happy and alive. I also kept them on a special sugar starvation regimen. Finally they started to beat. They had become beating heart cells! That was the moment that solidified my love for research and showed me what I was capable of doing. In the weeks that followed, I even got to use these cardiomyocytes in one of the most important experiments of my project.
The next few weeks were filled with experiments galore. I became more independent in my daily lab duties and cell maintenance and really felt on top of the world. I made mistakes, but my mentor never got mad -- instead using every situation as a learning opportunity. I recognized that an integral part of science is learning to deal with failure and working through it with your end goal in mind. Science is tough, but science is worth it.
My time at Stanford ended earlier this month, and never would I have guessed that seven weeks of research could change my life so greatly. I was taught the true nature of science -- filled with excitement, failure, repetition, and success. And I learned so much about the power and potential of something that was once just a definition. My experiences this summer will undoubtedly influence every single one of my future endeavors.
Roxanne Ohayon is a senior at Oakwood High School in Morgan Hill, Calif. She is a CIRM SPARK student and wrote this blog as part of the 2016 SPARK blog contest; to read more student blogs, please visit The Stem Cellar.
Photo courtesy of Roxanne Ohayon