Thankful for the rains and rainbows

rainbowsThis time of year the sun goes down early around 5pm here in San Diego. The early sunset has come to symbolize “high symposium” season to me each year.  As the days shorten, the CSUPERB program office goes into that impossible last gear (to 11?) juggling details for the annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium.

We started the day today in San Diego with rain showers and a couple of rainbows (a view across Penasquitos Canyon above).  San Diegans get giddy about rain these days so the CSUPERB program office is in a pretty darn good mood.

Rainbows aside, the real reason we’re feeling good is that the FCG/SPC committees have done top-notch work whipping the symposium program into shape this year.  We aim to get most program details settled by December 1st; we’re heading into the Thanksgiving holiday with our speaker roster and our hotel banquet order 99% complete.

We’ll have an all-time high of 290 posters from 22 CSU campuses presenting at this year’s symposium. Did you see that Dr. Penny Boston (NASA Astrobiology Institute) will be headlining the opening plenary session on Thursday evening?  With NASA funding Rakesh Mogul (Cal Poly Pomona) organized a CSUPERB Astrobiology Network this year. To celebrate we’re featuring astrobio-themed talks and presentations throughout the symposium. On Friday morning three speakers with amazing stories will talk about turning research-based ideas into solutions (yes, including one at the International Space Station). We’ve also signed Bruce Alberts (USCF) up to talk about mentoring students and non-academic life science career paths with the Faculty Consensus Group on Sunday. We are grateful to Gilead Sciences for their symposium sponsorship; with their support we involve greater numbers of I-Corps teams, Nagel finalists and Eden competitors.  Symposium registration closes December 1st – make sure to save yourself a spot at what will be an outstanding meeting of the CSU’s biotechnology community!

Tomorrow we have our last November Zoom meetings with the people doing the work and running the multitudes of committees: Jenn Lillig (posters), Paula Fischhaber (awards), Math Cuajungco (Graduate School Information Session), Sandy Sharp & Bori Mazzag (Biotech+Design workshop), Jill Adler-Moore & Koni Stone (professional development workshops & GRFP workshop), Daryl Eggers & Lorenzo Smith (Astrobio & Bioengineering Networks), Jim Prince (Career Networking Session), Katherine Kantardjieff (Soft Skills workshop), Stanley Maloy (CSU I-Corps), Kathie McReynolds (Faculty talks) and Mike Goldman (FCG meeting). We’ll surely uncover details that need attention but I have every confidence that working at level 11 the program office will be able to handle them!  I am exceedingly thankful to work with these dedicated, can-do, no-drama faculty and dean organizers!

We’re also very happy to have Oscar Zavala in the CSUPERB office.  He started work a short 3.5 weeks ago as our new Student Programs Specialist.  Oscar fills the void left (or capacity built) by our two VISTA members, Shannon Palka and Paige Hernandez.  Mr. Zavala is on a steep learning curve, but luckily he has notes from the VISTA members and help from the very capable Dayna Zarate to teach him the ropes and smooth the onboarding process. (don’t even get us started at the thought Dayna’s graduating from SDSU this spring!) Not only is Oscar coordinating CSU I-Corps teams as they work toward final Lessons Learned weekend at the symposium, he’s going to send out his first batch of award letters (Howell Research Scholars) later this week. We hope he’s still feeling good (rainbows!?) about his decision to join CSUPERB! Look for him at the symposium and introduce yourselves – he’ll be the point of contact in our office for students we support and alumni networks.

And what about that CSUPERB program office team?  Pam Branger, Tyson Gadd, James Schmitt and I have worked together as a team for a big chunk of time (not counting). It takes a high-performing team to operate at Level 11 year after year after year.  The symposium is the most visible evidence of the good work they do – but there are at least 12 other programs the office runs, involving and connecting about 1000 students, faculty and administrators in any given year. I am so very grateful to them.

Happy Thanksgiving to the CSUPERB community across California – we’ll see you in the New Year in Santa Clara!

CSUPERB team gathers before January 2016 symposium, Garden Grove, CA. Clockwise from bottom left: Paige Hernandez, Tyson Gadd, Julie Scalisi (volunteer), Thomas Myrick (volunteer), James Schmitt, Susan Baxter, Pam Branger, Jose Barreto Bezzera (visiting fellow), Dayna Zarate & Matthew Reyes (volunteer).

CSUPERB team gathers before January 2016 symposium, Garden Grove, CA. Clockwise from bottom left: Paige Hernandez, Tyson Gadd, Julie Scalisi (volunteer), Thomas Myrick (volunteer), James Schmitt, Susan Baxter, Pam Branger, Jose Barreto Bezzera (visiting fellow), Dayna Zarate & Matthew Reyes (volunteer).

    2016 Howell-CSUPERB Research Scholars Program – Annual Report

    Dr. Doris Howell is a hero to many clinicians, community leaders and palliative care professionals in San Diego and across the nation. But to 165 California State University undergraduates and alumni, Dr. Howell is forever linked to their personal experience starting out as researchers and healthcare professionals.

    “I would love to thank the donors for giving me this awesome opportunity. Through this program I was able to solidify the idea and confidence that I want to continue on a path of working in a lab environment. Through this program I have developed such a strong appreciation for the scientific method and the techniques that we use to increase our understanding.” – Jason Thomas (CSU Fresno)


    2016 Howell-CSUPERB Scholars meet Dr. Howell, February 2016. Left to right: Alan Tran (San Jose State University), Dr. Howell, Karl Liboro (CSU Los Angeles), Brandon Strong (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), and Sima Chokr (CSU Long Beach).

    Since 2001 CSUPERB has partnered with the Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research (DAHF) to fund mentored undergraduate research experiences. When I first joined CSUPERB, I was surprised that a local philanthropic group had chosen to fund undergraduates in this very specific way. But then I met Dr. Howell. Like many of us, she can look back and recognize the importance of mentorship along her career trajectory.

    This formidable woman truly believes in the value of engaging and supporting early-stage researchers. She would never say undergraduates aren’t ready to make discoveries or contribute to the advancement of science. Dr. Howell also recognizes the importance of encouraging young scientists to tackle women’s health issues and design studies that might guide gender-specific standards of healthcare. Long before undergraduate research was defined as a high-impact practice (apologies to Dr. Kuh!), Dr. Howell thought it was important to invest in undergraduate students. When Dr. Howell recognizes a good cause, she is very good at building consensus among her network of physicians, philanthropists, and friends at the Howell Foundation! As a result, this wonderful organization has a long history investing in the CSU’s student researchers.

    Later this week I’m meeting with the DAHF board to plan out the 2017 award process; this week we received applications from faculty-student teams across the CSU. To get ready for the board meeting, we read final reports from the 2016 Scholars, assess learning and update our outcomes database. As always, this process of “rolling up” information means that individual stories get lost; this blog post will help preserve voices from the 2016 Scholar cohort!


    Ms. Sa La Kim and Dr. Jonathan Kelber (CSU Northridge) at the 28th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium, January 2016.

    In this year’s CSUPERB annual report we featured Ms. Sa La Kim, who attended the American Association for Cancer Research conference in New Orleans to present her 2016 Howell-supported research project. Ms. Kim reported, “One of the most surprising [things] was that I understood much more than I anticipated. During many of the mini-symposium
    talks…delivered by Ph.D.s and postdocs…I understood the reasoning behind the work, the reason for their work, and could think of multiple follow-up experiments for their hypotheses. This also made me realize that the level of work Dr. Kelber’s students engage in is phenomenal. This level of research is the push that I believe prepares students for a higher level of education.”

    “Even though research is very taxing – having the support and camaraderie of my fellow students and mentors allowed me to make great advancements in my project.” – Cory Vierra (CSU Sacramento)

    This is the kind of mentored research experience that Dr. Howell aimed to support when the program began in 2001.  Based on final reports, we find mentorship is important to students; it’s the smotivation_howellecond most important motivating factor students (2012-2016) report – see chart above.

    “I would like to thank you for allowing me the honor of being a recipient of the Howell-CSUPERB Scholars program and for the many experiences I gained in the lab and at the conferences I attended. The research I conducted for your application process helped me to get over my fear of reading peer-reviewed journal articles. In the lab, I was able to learn new techniques, such as using enzymes to digest parts of biological molecules, how to purify using a technique called cytoplasmic purification, and how to use the larger equipment in the lab without direct assistance. Preparing for the conferences helped me learn how to bring together all of the data I collected, interpret it for a larger audience, and how to create a professional poster. Finally, presenting my research helped me to realize gaps in my knowledge base, which ultimately give me insight into how I can improve and I truly believe that I am a more well-rounded Biochemist because of it.” – Brandy White (CSU Fresno)

    Howell Research Scholars spend significant time working alongside peers and with their faculty mentors. 67% of Scholars (2012-2016) report working more than 20 hours a week on their research projects (see chart here)!  Remember –

    timeinlab_howellHowell Scholars typically take on this co-curricular activity during the academic year!  But we (and others) know that mentored research experiences lead to gains in self-efficacy, ability to self-identity as a scientist, and motivation to continue biomedical careers. The Howell Scholars self-report very large gains in all these areas, even those who had previous research experiences before being selected for these scholarships. We have the joy of reading about and observing these gains in the final reports students write.

    “Thank you for selecting me as one of the Howell-CSUPERB scholars! It was a truly exciting moment to receive the award during the last annual CSUPERB conference. The support that the donors, mentors, and the university provides to young scientists like me is what drives us to achieve even more than what we believe we can do ourselves.” – Sa La Kim, CSU Northridge

    A couple of years ago we began asking Scholars about the relationship they build with their faculty mentors.  We have only two years of data, but it’s clear that students see this relationship as important and helpful.  Not one Scholar (2015-2016) has disagreed with the statements listed in the chart below.


    Howell Scholars are typically high-achieving students even before they apply to the program.  However, Mica Estrada (UCSF) and others have noted that research experiences buffer even these students from losing interest in biomedical careers. We and others care very much about scaling these experiences to a wider pool of students. With help from partners like the Howell Foundation, we can do so!

    “I would like to thank the Howell-CSUPERB Schoolars Program for enabling me to pursue my interests in women’s health by providing the funding I needed. This was an unforgettable experience that I will always cherish.” – Alyssa Bowlsby (CSU Chico)



      Yet Another Annual Report Reminds Us Why

      One of the arcane things university administrators do is to comply with regulations.  Most of us see compliance as a necessary part of our jobs to remain good stewards of public funds, retain the trust of applicants, and justify budgets spent.  This spring Presidents’ Commission Chair Haynes and I gained authorization from CSU Executive Vice Chancellor Loren Blanchard to operate CSUPERB as a system-wide program for another five years.

      treeTo remain in good standing, EO 1103 (the CSU regulation pertaining to multi-campus programs) requires programs to issue annual reports. As CSUPERB regulars know, we’ve been issuing annual reports since 2008, long before EO 1103 was put into place. We compile reports because it’s downright fun to hear from the students and faculty members CSUPERB supports. Annual reporting also allows us to see what programs are working and which Requests for Proposals (RFPs) need tweaks.

      Each summer I spend a couple of joyful administrative months corresponding with CSUPERB-funded investigators. I celebrate faculty researchers’ wins and get all sentimental hearing back from alumni and recent graduates.  After nearly 10 years on this job, my LinkedIn network is full of CSUPERB alumni working in biotech companies or research institutes, grinding towards doctorates, and practicing law and medicine. I also see new courses and programs, seeded with CSUPERB grants or ideas planted during workshops we’ve designed, become part of how campuses across the state educate students and prepare them for life after graduation.  But, unless you’re talking with me daily, these wonderful stories from individual CSUPERB-funded students and faculty get “rolled up” into higher-ed jargon, trendlines, bar charts and graphs.

      I hope this year’s annual report (linked here) gives readers some sense of CSUPERB’s reach, influence and impact across the CSU system and the state.  Our newly redesigned website gives us a platform to expand on some of these stories and share them throughout the year. It also gives us space to archive all our annual reports in one place for a historical record. Let me know what you learn!


        So Many Research Scientists Doing Well



        The New York Times added (yet again) to the many articles about the oversupply of biomedical PhDs looking for jobs as professors.  This new article is titled, “So Many Research Scientists, So Few Openings as Professors.”

        The article concludes with this advice, “For those thinking of science as a career, said P. Kay Lund, director of the division of biomedical research workers at the National Institutes of Health, perhaps the best thing would be for a mentor to sit down with them and have a heart-to-heart talk, preferably when they’re still undergraduates.”

        I posted this on the CSUPERB Facebook page and a follower responded, “I am starting my PhD in September. Looks like I better focus on industry when I graduate.”  I was glad to see the resulting discussion. I am not sure Facebook comments count as the “heart-to-heart talk” Dr. Lund recommends – but we’re doing our best to raise students’ awareness of career path options (HT to Dr. Kelber* at CSU Northridge for jumping into the fray!).

        Of course here at CSUPERB we’re interested in finding out where the undergraduate and graduate students we support go next in their careers.** We want to know whether the education they received in the classroom and working alongside CSU faculty mentors prepared them to be ‘life-long learners’ and creative problem-solvers capable of contributing throughout society.

        Last year at annual reporting time we made our first attempt to reach out to Howell and Presidents’ Commission Scholar alumni.  This year*** we mined final reports, surveyed graduates, and followed up with about 700 undergraduate and graduate students we supported over the last handful of years. I can’t resist sharing our first cut at the data (preliminary data! thus the screen-shot quality of the figure!). Amazingly only 16% of the CSUPERB-supported students are lost to the sands of time and faculty lab websites (we loved great examples like this, this and this!); we were able to determine the remainder graduated, completed their degree programs or continue in their studies on CSU campuses.

        Our “CSUPERB alumni” are doing great things and working in fascinating organizations nationwide.  The word cloud at the top of the post adds some flavor to these rolled-up data (the bigger the font size, the more CSU alumni are working or studying in that organization****). About 26% (an earlier version of this post said 32%) of CSUPERB-supported student researchers entered graduate school (this figure mixes undergraduate and graduate student outcomes; see slightly larger figure here). The majority (58%) have degree-relevant positions in biotech companies, universities, hospitals, government laboratories and non-profit research settings.  Most are still hands-on scientists, clinicians and engineers working in research, production and design facilities.  Some of the alumni who have been working for a while (> 3 years) are working their way into management roles, gaining regulatory expertise and even starting companies.  About 10% are employed in a field unrelated to biotechnology. By including CSU I-Corps alumni, we see business students don’t always continue on in the life science industry – but some do!

        We’ll talk more about this data at the summer Faculty Consensus Group meeting Monday, August 1st. I’m looking forward to the discussion with CSUPERB’s committed and effective faculty mentors!





        *Dr. Kelber noted the NY Times article didn’t “cite any employability stats for those with PhDs vs others (it only states that most PhDs were employable).”  Some graduate schools are starting to track graduates’ career paths and even publicize the outcomes. For instance, UC San Francisco (UCSF) posted their 2012 data on a website ( The NIH, NSF and others are also improving their data collection methods, aiming to better track career outcomes for doctoral level researchers.

        **There’s a new level of controversy about linking career outcomes with higher education. It is extraordinarily inexact to try linking life outcomes to a set of genes; likewise it’s difficult to predict career outcomes on a combination of courses and co-curricular activities like undergraduate research.  So – I’ll use the classic “SEC-type disclaimer” here; our data are not “forward-looking,” it’s based on past student cohorts and can’t be used to predict individual outcomes!

        ***We did this work with the very capable help of our CSU STEM VISTA Summer Associates, Ms. Zarate and Ms. Stelter!  They investigated “last known status” of ~700 students supported on CSUPERB Major Grants (2011 – present), Howell Scholars (2007 – present), Presidents’ Commission Scholars (2011 – present), Student Travel Grants (2011 – present) and I2P/CSU I-Corps participants (2012 – present).

        ****Yes – it appears that CSUPERB-supported alumni seem to beat a wide path to UCSF…

        Word cloud image credit:

          Spring 2016 Grant Program Report: Success Rate Declines

          Yesterday evening we sent out award letters for the New Investigator, Joint Venture and Research Development grant programs.The award list will post at our website soon, if it’s not there already.

          We’re still busy in the program office with the myriad communications and logistical details of giving out CSUPERB grants. We have yet to announce Curriculum Development, Travel, Presidents’ Commission grant awards – so hold tight out there; we’ll get them made before the fiscal year close.  I want to take a break, though, and let you know about our new funding rates.  Spoiler: they’ve declined.

          All CSUPERB grant and award programs are competitive and involve peer review panels of CSU faculty. We make funding decisions based on 1) recommendations from the CSU faculty proposal review committees, 2) the available CSUPERB budget, and 3) program priorities.  We get ranked order lists from review panels.  We “pay” down that list as long as we have funds to make grants; this year we have a ~$510,000 budget to make major grants.  The Faculty Consensus Group and Strategic Planning Council set “program priorities” each summer and they are reflected in the requests for proposals (RFPs) we issue each fall. In addition the FCG and SPC want to see similar funding rates across all grant programs, if possible. There is no CSUPERB ‘formula’ for campus or disciplinary distribution of funds. The awards made depend on applications received.

          CSUPERB calculates “success” or “funding” rates as (the number of awards made) divided by (the number of applications received); we usually report these rates as percentages.

          Due to the increase in applications this year across programs, we’re making awards to only 26% of the applicants, down from our average “success rate” of 33%.  This year we saw a large spike in the number of applications to the New Investigator and Curriculum Development programs; across grant programs we’ve received 25% more applications this year compared to last year.

          Interestingly 77% of the New Investigator applicants were first-time applicants to CSUPERB major grant programs, reflecting new hiring system-wide. We’re making awards to new faculty members in biological sciences, chemistry and biochemistry, bioengineering, physics, geology and kinesiology departments system-wide.  They are investigating new coatings for drug-eluting stents, point-of-care diagnostic devices, biosensors, small molecule inhibitors of viral infection, genomic effects of environmental toxins, fundamental mechanisms of cell development, the role of alternative splicing in adaptive evolution and more. Just think of the cool science and engineering projects CSU students will be part of in the coming years!

          This funding rate is sad news for faculty applicants who might have been funded at the higher funding rates (we publish those rates in our annual report).  We follow national reports and news about peer review, of course.  We know that the difference between proposals at the 25% and 30% “pay lines” are negligible and is not predictive of future success or impact.  Many disappointed applicants are going to receive the written reviews and wonder why they weren’t funded based on the positive and encouraging things they read there (we’ll send written reviews to applicants later this week).

          We hope the written reviews will help PIs focus on points to be made when writing proposals to NSF, NIH and other external-to-the-CSU funding agencies. Each year I get emails saying ‘CSUPERB didn’t fund me – but NSF did!’ I celebrate those moments too. Each new research grant represents uncharted discovery opportunities for the CSU’s students.

          What I advise between now and next February’s proposal deadline is to: 1) call the CSUPERB program office for advice and pointers (we run a proposal writing workshop* at each CSU Biotechnology Symposium), 2) sit down with a colleague who has won CSUPERB funding to get tips and advice, 3) write a new draft (far in advance of the next deadline!) for a general review panel – not a panel of experts in your subspecialty (!) and 4) have someone else willing to read it, able to red-line edit like crazy, and who is not an expert in your subspecialty. Last – but definitely not least – address ALL the CSUPERB review criteria in your proposal. It’s not only about the science or technology at CSUPERB. It’s also about demonstrated need, future plans, student involvement and/or partnerships (depending on what RFP you’re answering!).

          Grantsmanship requires life-long learning. Sometimes it can feel like there is never enough time to learn when you’re teaching multiple sections of organic chemistry, working with a student researcher on a lab protocol, writing proposals, serving on committees, and trying to move a research idea forward. But – pace yourself – take the time to read a lot, follow Twitter feeds from experts in your field, get advice from colleagues, find a mentor to help, stay grounded in why you chose this career, and rest. In academia there is always another deadline ahead.


          *Find here a slide deck from our January 2016 CSUPERB proposal writing workshop. It’s dated – assume details reported here will be different for the next review cycle!

            Guest Blog: José C. B. Bezerra

            From the Editor: This is a guest blog written by Dr. José Clecildo Barreto “Barret” Bezerra, a visiting professor from the Federal University of Goias (UFG) in Brazil.  He won a 6-month fellowship from a Brazilian government agency, Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES), to study how CSUPERB works with our regional and university partners to offer biotechnology entrepreneurship education across California. Barret arrived at CSUPERB right before the annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium and jumped right in, serving as a behind-the-scenes photographer during CSU I-Corps activities that week in January. As a result – I had a hard time finding a photo of him in our archives (below!).  He hopes to improve his english speaking and writing skills while he is here, so he’s taking classes and immersing himself in the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem here in San Diego. I was delighted he agreed to my challenge to write a blog post! We’ve only lightly edited this blog post since we know our readers will understand the very steep learning curve Dr. Barret’s on here at CSUPERB.  The similarities and contrasts between the US and Brazilian biotechnology ecosystems fascinate us. It’s been very interesting to all of us in the office having him here – we hope you’ll learn something about how other countries encourage a “greater proximity between knowledge and market” as well.

            The California State University (CSU) Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB) has a mission to support and improve the biotechnology workforce into California. The program reinforces interdisciplinary characteristics that are fundamental and indispensable to university biotechnology discovery. But CSUPERB also balances the demand for professionals with the skills needed in today’s workforce whether graduates enter the life science industry or stay in universities.

            The fellowship proposal I wrote was inspired by Creative Innovation and Education Overseas. I submitted it to the Brazilian agency, Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES). I proposed studying how CSUPERB works across the State of California since it is organized to serve the CSU’s biotechnology students and faculty researchers at all 23 campuses. By bringing together researchers from a variety of disciplines, CSUPERB promotes interdisciplinary learning, as well as research-based discoveries and innovation. I was fortunate enough to win this fellowship and as a result, since December 2015, I have been based in the CSUPERB program office to study research-based innovation with the purpose to add high education, technology transfer system and a management of interaction with innovation environments to Brazil’s models.

            Brazil’s universities are growing their international reputation in terms of world-class research and innovation as investments in our universities from federal funding agencies, such as National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP) & CAPES. In addition, supports from the Brazilian States’ Foundations for Research Support have also increased. Brazil is building a policy framework to make efficient investments in strategically-important business sectors (sectoral funds), especially high technology sectors for which the government would like to see greater proximity between knowledge and market.

            In January 2016 Brazil took another step forward with the adoption of a new legal framework for Science, Technology and Innovation. A new law was adopted by National Congress (n. 13.243) to stimulate scientific and technological development. Among the various topics of this law, it includes provisions for monetary incentives (royalties) to universities and researchers engaging in innovation activities. Among various guidelines and goals, the law supports the development of human resources (students, administrative staff and faculties). The new law asks higher education institutions to establish technology transfer and innovation policy processes.

            Since my arrival in San Diego, I have learned that CSUPERB is already running programs and following strategies that are aligned with our new Brazilian legal decision. I think that well-structured and institutionally supported educational programs in strategically-important research sectors (for example, biotechnology) can boost the achievement of goals that the new Brazilian law aims to reach. What I have observed so far is that CSUPERB has decided to put students at the center of its programs, and I think the program is highly effective because students are included in research and development (R&D).

            Countries have biotechnology, in large part, organized in the form of innovation habitats. Biotechnology “integrators”, like regional initiatives, research centers and industry associations, help build bridges between knowledge and practice leading to technological transfer. These bridging initiatives are considered to be one of the key elements for sustainable scientific infrastructure, for example: the United Kingdom’s One Nucleus (, Singapore’s Biopolis (Fischer & Mellon, 2013), Germany’s Biotecnological Cluster in Germany (, and California Life Sciences Institute’s FAST program. Governments and industry are making large investments in biological resources, but a number of institutional and interdisciplinary research programs also integrate career planning and student professional development, which should be intensified.

            An example in the United States is the ongoing National Science Foundation program called Innovation Corps (I-Corps™). It is a nation-wide program that encourages research-based innovation and entrepreneurship. I-Corps provides a experiential learning opportunity for students and faculty and involves industry mentors, redrawing the usual university- or faculty-based mode of mentoring. We all know that mentoring is important in developing research and laboratory skills, in classroom-based learning, but I-Corps extends mentoring into innovation. I-Corps mentoring also fosters the professional development of faculty researchers and principal investigators by teaching them about product markets (scientific or technological). As a result, they understand better how technology transfer happens and even how they might contribute to workforce development.

            CSUPERB runs one of the NSF’s I-Corps Site programs, CSU I-Corps. Altogether, what I have observed so far is an evolution of new educational practices. CSU I-Corps is awakening in faculty mentors and participating students the desire for off-campus activities. Quite often, teams are motivated to address social or public health problems that might be solved by some kind of research-based solution. CSU I-Corps encourages researchers to find “problem-solution fits” (Osterwalder et al. 2014, page 49). I-Corps activities teach researchers that there is not only a commercial point of view, or to solely expand skills, but that there also is an objective to search for viable solutions to improve the quality of life and build a qualified workforce. CSU I-Corps does not directly prioritize the opening of a new businesses or increased income, goals that incubators and technological parks often target, but instead I-Corps encourages teams to learn about knowledge transfer and commercialization strategies.

            I have also seen that CSUPERB encourages interdisciplinary collaboration (engineering, biomedical, applied social sciences and even business administration) to involve the 23 CSU campuses and encourage students and professors to conduct biotechnology research. Along with over 650 others, I attended the 28th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium in Orange County on January 5-7, 2016. This annual event highlights the role of the university as a producer of new knowledge and graduates in strategic business sectors, such as biotechnology. The symposium also emphasizes that the tight association of teaching practice, research and application should be highly valued. CSUPERB operates through a network of key faculty members. After the symposium, dozens of faculty members on CSUPERB’s Faculty Consenses Group (FCG) participated in a meeting that made plans and designed the best practices for the program based on CSUPERB’s strategic plan and input from faculty at 22 of the 23 CSU campuses. I think that program transparency and clear objectives can provide a trusted framework for innovation.

            We should encourage curiosity and creativity in all our students, and for that reason, some faculty mentors attending the symposium learned how to be more skillful and strategic in the development of students. I attended the “Culturally Competent Mentoring” workshop at the symposium and learned about training with inclusive approaches and appropriate care. I also learned that faculty members can be strategic leaders and, at the same time, create environments in which creativity, innovation and teamwork happen around the student. This workshop showed me the close correlation between teaching and research – and the impact that a program like CSUPERB can have.

            Brazil’s new approach to innovation (National Congress Law Nº 13.243/2016) aims to strengthen and integrate the links between university knowledge and the world of work. Similar to California, Brazilian biotechnology research also contributes to advances in new markets and prioritizes government investment in this strategic sector. However, our major universities and research centers have difficulty finding an introductory market strategy for their discoveries or new products, just as our American colleagues do (OECD, 2010; 2015). Programs like CSUPERB end up supporting bolder policies of technology transfer, expanding the participation of faculty researchers in new ventures and innovation, and building awareness of the commercialization process among students. Of course, our students are full of innovative ideas and – in the future – they will likely be collaborators, research partners or owners of the next generation of biotechnology businesses.


            Blank, S. (2012) Innovation Corps: A Review of a New National Science Foundation Program to Leverage Research Investments. Available online:

            Brazil (2016) Science, Technology and Innovation. Law Nº 13.243, January 11th DE 2016. Available online:

            Fischer, M.M.J. & Mellon A. W. (2013) Biopolis: Asian Science in the Global Circuitry. Science Technology Society, 18(3): 379-404. Available online:

            OECD (2010) Innovation to strengthen growth and address global and social challenges. Available online:

            OECD Innovation Strategy (2015) An Agenda for Policy Action. Available online:

            Osterwalder, A., Pigneur, Y., Bernarda, G., Smith, A., Papadakos, T. (2014) Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want. 320 pages. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. (2015 Thinkers50 Strategy Award)

            About the author: Dr. José Clecildo Barreto Bezerra, Professor of Federal University of Goias (UFG) in Brazil and Doctor in Natural Sciences from the University of Hamburg, Germany, is on sabbatical at SDSU/CSUPERB with Dr. Susan Baxter’s guidance. His special interests here are researching learning-teaching methodologies and the interaction between universities and enterprises. In Brazil he teaches special classes: “Innovation Management, Entrepreneurship and Opportunities” and “Management and Entrepreneurship in Biotechnology.”


            Ed. Note: Dr. Barret attended all the CSU I-Corps sessions at the 28th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium – but this was one of very few he was in front of the camera, albeit way in the very back (blue arrow!)


              Workshop Report: Preparing Students in Bioinformatics

              Bioinformatics7I’m pleased to turn the CSUPERB blog over to Bori Mazzag (Humboldt State University) and Sandra Sharp (CSU Los Angeles)!  Bori and Sandy are both members of the CSUPERB Strategic Planning Council.  They jointly organized the “Preparing Students in Bioinformatics: Challenges, successes and opportunities” workshop held January 8, 2016, during the 28th annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Orange County. Here is their workshop report:

              This year for the first time, the CSUPERB GATC (Genomic Analysis and Technology Committee) and the QB (Quantitative Biology) faculty networks hosted a joint workshop at the 2016 CSU Biotechnology Symposium, entitled “Preparing Students in Bioinformatics: Challenges, successes and opportunities.” The two groups are led by Sandy Sharp (CSU Los Angeles, CSULA) and Bori Mazzag (Humboldt State University), respectively.

              The GATC has focused on research-based curriculum since its inception in 2010. QB has worked on exploring and disseminating best practices in quantitative (mathematical, statistical and computational) preparation of CSU biology students. The two interest groups have organized separate sessions at the CSUPERB Symposium since 2012, but with members of each group expressing a desire for a workshop on bioinformatics, we decided to undertake a combined offering. It turned out to be a powerful, well-received strategy!

              We concentrated on two main themes: (1) Does the current bioinformatics training offered by CSU campuses meet workforce needs? (2) What are some differences between the skills needed by end users/biologists versus programmers/software developers?

              To address these questions, we invited a panel of CSU faculty, industry employers and hiring managers: Jamil Momand (Chemistry and Biochemistry, CSULA) and Nancy Warter-Perez (Electric and Computer Engineering, CSULA), Paul Wolber (Agilent and San José State University, SJSU), Soheil Shams (BioDiscovery, Inc.), and Pleuni Pennings (Biology, San Francisco State University, SFSU).

              The "Preparing Students in Bioinformatics" workshop featured a "bi-directional" panel of CSU faculty, industry employers and hiring managers. The panelists were (left to right): Paul Wolber (Agilent and San José State University), Soheil Shams (BioDiscovery, Inc.), Pleuni Pennings (Biology, San Francisco State University, Nancy Warter-Perez (Electric and Computer Engineering, CSU Los Angeles) and Jamil Momand (Chemistry and Biochemistry, CSU Los Angeles).

              The “Preparing Students in Bioinformatics” workshop featured a “bi-directional” panel of CSU faculty, industry professionals and hiring managers. The panelists were (left to right): Paul Wolber (Agilent and San José State University), Soheil Shams (BioDiscovery, Inc.), Pleuni Pennings (Biology, San Francisco State University), Nancy Warter-Perez (Electric and Computer Engineering, CSU Los Angeles) and Jamil Momand (Chemistry and Biochemistry, CSU Los Angeles).

              The ~45 workshop attendees included faculty members from 18 of the 23 CSU campuses and 4 California Community Colleges. Faculty from a wide range of disciplines participated, from Biology, Chemistry and several different types of Engineering. Participating faculty members either aspire to or are already involved in bringing bioinformatics into the classroom, often as components of original student research. The workshop facilitated the sharing of expertise and challenges in genomics/informatics research and teaching, with the aim of providing the best possible learning experiences and outcomes for our students.

              The workshop began a panel discussion, followed by round-table discussions among the participants, with panelists and other faculty participants serving as discussion leaders. Near the close of the session, each table shared a few important lessons learned. Workshop participants who had curricular materials to share also spoke briefly about their work and the materials they were offering.

              First, each panelist described his or her training and current work in genomics/informatics research and education. It was fascinating, and even somewhat surprising, to realize that each panelist arrived at their current position by career paths that required them to cross disciplinary or sector boundaries. For example, Paul had long been working at Agilent when he became an external evaluator and advisor for the SJSU bioinformatics program. The collaboration grew, and Paul has now been teaching an engineering course on next-generation (“next-gen”) sequencing technologies at SJSU for several years. He also described positive impacts his teaching job had on his own industry career.

              Drs. Warter-Perez and Momand describe a biology-computer science course they co-taught. Bori Mazzag (Humboldt State) moderated the panel discussion.

              Drs. Warter-Perez (left) and Momand (center) describe a biology-computer science course they co-taught. Bori Mazzag (right, Humboldt State) moderated the panel discussion.

              Jamil and Nancy gave a detailed description of the bioinformatics course they team-teach to computer science and biology students. They shared strategies and philosophies around designing a successful course that meets students at their current level, but also pushes them to complete an interdisciplinary project. As instructors from very different backgrounds, they model the sort of interdisciplinary collaboration they ask from their students in the course.

              Soheil talked at length about the need for programmers at his company and the pressures his and other, similar mid- and small-sized bioinformatics companies feel in competing with the likes of Google or Uber for software engineers. From his perspective, one of the greatest challenges is to inspire (or recruit) and train (and retain) programmers who are willing to forego some potential earnings to work on and solve the new and impactful problems that biology has to offer.

              Pleuni shared information about her own training that built on a biology background but became increasing quantitative. The bioinformatics course she developed draws upon that experience.Bioinformatics6

              The academic panelists spoke on skills or knowledge they want to impart to students and what challenges they face as instructors with students varied levels of preparation. Industry representatives talked about important skills needed by programmers and end users, but seen as lacking in current job candidates. Not surprisingly, both written and oral communication were mentioned as a critical skill for all students entering the job market. Several examples were given of the specific types of writing required and it was clear from Paul and Soheil’s comments that although writing is more emphasized in teaching STEM fields nowadays, there is a need for continued improvement in this area.

              A discussion developed around the term “bioinformatics” itself. Soheil argued that it is too broad an umbrella term that encompasses vastly different types of jobs and skills.* This point resonated with many in the audience and came up as an important takeaway in the post-workshop survey. As Bioinformatics2it often happens in interdisciplinary settings, the panelists and audience were split on the relative importance of increasing depth of knowledge in a discipline versus interdisciplinary training. Often those who advocate for depth see interdisciplinary projects primarily as a way to teach students how to communicate and work with others from a different discipline. Others see interdisciplinary training as a fundamental, new approach to teaching content to students. This perspective often implies that the current academic silos do not provide the right organizational structure for the sort of work that graduates do or problems they face after leaving school.

              As CSU faculty members, it was interesting to us to discover the diverse ways campuses, departments and researchers have devised to teach bioinformatics and mentor their students in this field. Because bioinformatics is so new and technologies evolve so quickly, professionals and professors in the field must stay agile. For some, it means learning new programming languages, building new collaborations around research questions, pooling resources, or sharing equipment across campuses.

              One challenge for faculty has been finding resources and a network of CSU researchers in the field, dispersed in home departments across engineering, computer science or biology. CSUPERB, and the GATC specifically, has been instrumental in facilitating networking across the CSU. Bay Area and Southern California campuses certainly benefit from having tight connections with industry (for example, the SJSU/Agilent relationship). But far-flung or isolated campuses, such as CSU Chico, have successful bioinformatics concentrations as a result of purposeful hiring and faculty networking.

              Bioinformatics4The panel discussion was followed by round-table discussions involving all participants. One table gathered faculty who all teach a bioinformatics course. The course designs described varied greatly. Much of the discussion centered on recruiting students to take bioinformatics courses (for whom programming is often a deterrent) and how to teach programming most effectively. Most agreed that for biology courses in which informatics software is used as a tool, it is necessary to treat the software itself as a “black box” to some extent, but there was disagreement over where the right limit was.

              An interesting side-note: MANY participants wrote they would like to see further workshops and training on programming, either in R or Python or other languages. CSUPERB will look into inviting Software Carpentry to offer a workshop to faculty this year.

              Janey Youngblum (CSU Stanislaus) motivates students by getting genomes sequenced by 23 and Me. This resonated with many of the participants. While there are several problematic, ethical and financial considerations around using students’ genomic data, making research questions personally engaging and relevant clearly struck a chord among the workshop participants.


              Amy Sprowles (Humboldt State) takes notes as Judy Brusslan (CSU Long Beach) describes CyVerse as a bioinformatics teaching and learning platform.

              Two other tables had extensive discussions about programming and software. Clearly, finding the right software to teach at the right level has been a huge obstacle to effective teaching and desired learning outcomes. As more on-line tools become available, and some methods standardize, this hurdle may become easier to cross over time. One of the most animated table discussions was on iPlant (or now CyVerse). The discussion morphed into a mini-tutorial by Judy Brusslan (CSU Long Beach) on how to use CyVerse for the analysis of large data sets. Because CyVerse has cloud-based data storage and analysis tools, many concerns about availability of computational power and storage space have been alleviated.

              Several members of the audience, including David Keller (CSU Chico), Jose de la Torre (SFSU) and Renaud Berlemont (CSU Long Beach), talked about their curricular materials and shared materials or posted links to them. We also learned that Jamil and Nancy’s book, based on their team-taught course, is going to be published this year.

              In the immediate post-workshop survey, a handful of main takeaways were mentioned. These open text replies are representative:

              • “There are (effective) strategies to teach bioinformatics to bio students without programming skills”.
              • “Next-Gen Analysis is possible at CSU.”
              • “Finding out what’s going on related to bioinformatics on other campuses.”
              • “Learning about different resources to use in my courses.”
              • “Lots of cool resources and programs at different institutions.”

              The session also received very positive feedback from faculty participants who responded to the post-symposium survey. We have been in contact with the workshop attendees, disseminating workshop notes, contact information and curricular materials. There is a lot of energy around bioinformatics (for lack of a better term!) networking and developing a workshop around hands-on skills (perhaps programming!) next year.

              — Bori Mazzag & Sandy Sharp

              *Editor’s note: A recent search of bioinformatics-related corporate (non-academic) job position openings in California (Jan. 2016) used these technical keywords: statistics, data analysis, data management, quality control, version/revision control, software engineering, methods development, algorithm development, expertise in a series of scripting languages (“Perl or Python, R, shell scripting, and MySQL”), programming skills in a series of languages (“Python or Perl/Java/C++; shell scripting and R”). Many job descriptions dedicate more text to “soft skills” (communication, agility, teamwork, etc.) than technical skills.