Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells awarded $1M training grant for postdoctoral researchers

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Camilla Forsberg and Lindsay Hinck, co-directors of the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells, have brought in more than $12 m
Camilla Forsberg and Lindsay Hinck, co-directors of the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells, have brought in more than $12 million in grants for the Institute in two years.
ecerf@ucsc.edu (Emily Cerf)

As academic researchers, UC Santa Cruz Professors Camilla Forsberg and Lindsay Hinck push the frontiers of stem cell biology by looking for unexplored areas of their fields. They bring this same innovative spirit to their roles as directors of the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells (IBSC), searching for untapped areas that can be enhanced within the academic research infrastructure.

This drive led them to focus on bringing in grants to support postdoctoral researchers, and their efforts have been 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 the IBSC’s support for postdoctoral scientists.

Postdocs bring mature research ideas to the university, but in the past they have largely lacked a robust infrastructure to support them. To provide more support and career development opportunities for these scholars, the IBSC has received grants from four other sponsors over the past two years, in addition to the NICHD grant.

The IBSC has also received funds for predoctoral 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 the IBSC, which brings together more than 30 laboratories across the Engineering and Physical and Biological Sciences divisions, as well as the Science & Justice Research Center.

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

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

“We didn't set out to have five training programs, but then there were more opportunities, so we kept pitching our basic mentoring philosophies to different funders,” Forsberg said. “Now we have five different programs. I guess we found a secret sauce that made our funders excited.”

Their unique approach is manifested in their devotion to forming strong peer connections amongst a group of talented postdoctoral researchers, using strategies for strengthening the research endeavors at all levels of activity on campus, and creating outside relationships with companies that expose postdocs to industry jobs. The programs aim to connect cohorts of trainees who can interact and network through the IBSC in order to form a peer support ecosystem, rather than being siloed in individual labs.

Through spending time in career training workshops, postdocs have the opportunity to gain feedback not just from their supervisors but from additional faculty and their peers. This helps to create a sense of belonging, which is especially important for underrepresented researchers. The IBSC strives to build cohorts that welcome and foster diverse perspectives for the betterment of scientific endeavors. 

To this end, the IBSC will host families on campus this summer for a pilot  program that aims to demystify the oftentimes lengthy path through academia to a research career. The event will include poster sessions and short talks that distill the essence of stem cell research and science career paths.

While the directors’ main focus is advancing stem cell research, they are also committed to  fostering other areas of biomolecular research, as allowed by the specifications of the grant funders. One such area is the exploration of ethical questions in stem cell research, and the directors are collaborating with mentors and trainees at the UCSC Science & Justice Research Center to do so.

With the new NICHD grant, Forsberg and Hinck hope to provide robust support for a cohort of postdoctoral scholars, including those who are interested in the biotech industry. Collaboration with a panel of industry advisors will create shadowing opportunities for the trainees to learn outside of the academic environment. The biotechnology advisors will offer career development advice about entrepreneurship to help scholars navigate either a collaborative relationship with industry as part of an academic career or a career in industry itself — whichever makes the most sense for the individual. 

“It's a great two-way training,” said Hinck, professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology. “Because we are in academia, our scholars have the freedom to investigate wide-ranging hypotheses free from commercial concern. Our industry collaborators are very appreciative of the biological insights our trainees have to offer.” 

Partnerships were formed through personal connections of the two directors and include biotech companies such as Jasper Therapeutics and Roche, with the aim of further expanding this network in the future.

Pre- and postdoctoral trainees supported by these training grants can be hosted by a number of labs in the IBSC and beyond. The training programs were developed in consultation with a number of colleagues, most importantly IBSC program director Catharina Lindley and Aparna Sreenivasan, the lead collaborator at CSUMB. The team also drew on the substantial experience of John Boothroyd, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, who shared key insights from developing similar programs for Stanford trainees.

Forsberg and Hinck are reaching out to additional faculty colleagues to bring fresh ideas to the Institute and its members, and to help stay up to date about the newest pedagogy in doctoral and postdoctoral training. Because mentoring norms and best practices continuously evolve, all mentors in the program must participate in annual mentorship training. As part of purposeful mentoring, all trainees are expected to create individual development plans — a living, breathing document for mentees to reflect on and understand their goals, and, with their mentors, map out their paths to success. 

“The key thing about all these training programs is that they implement new ideas about structured graduate and postdoctoral training," Hinck said. “While getting a training grant position is competitive, we try to make the structured training provided by the grants widely available so that all graduate students and postdoctoral scholars at UCSC can increase their skill sets. The environment that's built around these training programs elevates opportunities for everyone.”