Last week a CSU team made public comments in support of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Bridges program. The CIRM board* decided to extend the program for one year. Of course, we’re hoping CIRM will decide to extend the program even longer.
Along with Ephraim Smith, Jill Adler-Moore and me, Sara Downey from ViaCyte made comments. Sara is a Humboldt State University graduate. Ms. Downey is a former CIRM Bridges Scholar who did an internship at University of California, San Francisco before landing a job at ViaCyte in San Diego. Even though Drs. Smith and Adler-Moore made important points, all ears in the room were on Ms. Downey as she made her remarks. You see, she represents the collective outcome and effectiveness of the Bridges program better than numbers and reports** can.
In 2009 we made the case that the Bridges program would operate as a networked workforce development program. The CSU educates undergraduate and master’s students. After they complete their degrees, they have a spectrum of career paths to follow: into industry, into medical school, into doctoral degree programs, etc. CIRM hopes that Bridges graduates continue their interest in regenerative medicine and take their skills into positions and programs to accelerate developments in the stem cell field. As they advance so does the field.
In fact Sara Downey’s presence at last week’s meeting was electric because most everyone in the room knew she’s on a team developing an embryonic stem cell-derived product as a treatment for type 1 diabetes. In fact ViaCyte announced this week they implanted their device into the first patient as part of its FDA-approved phase I/II clinical study. No one knows how the clinical trial will work out but hopes are high that the device is safe and effective and, especially, that patients might benefit. It was a blast talking with Sara over lunch after the meeting.*** After four years on the job, she’s transformed from a fresh biological sciences graduate with academic research experience into a biotech professional comfortable talking about Six Sigma, cGMPs, regulatory affairs, biotech business cycles, and even process engineering! My impression is that her learning curve mirrors the learning curves at CIRM as well.
So how do you show that a workforce development program is successful and effective? If only we could get in-person updates from all 702 of our Bridges Scholars! We did the next best thing (in a more efficient but less personal way) by asking for “last known status” data from the Bridges PIs.**** We discovered that 89% of the Bridges Scholars (n=530) find a job or enter a stem cell research-related graduate degree program within one year of their degree completion. This is pretty convincing evidence that employers and admissions officers value our graduates’ knowledge, skills and accomplishments. For comparison, only 40% of life sciences graduates found degree-related employment during the Great Recession. Likewise, the students themselves choose to continue in stem-cell inspired pathways, suggesting their experiences were supportive and transformative; only 6% chose to do something entirely different. As CIRM decides on what form a Bridges 2.0 program might take, I’m sure the Bridges PIs will be investigating “what worked” and what needs improvement in each of their programs.
Last week I really wanted to show a “last known status” map – but when you make public comments you’re lucky to get a microphone and three minutes! I’ll share the data here. Red map markers indicate CSU campuses hosting CIRM Bridges programs. Blue map markers with flask icons indicate organizations employing Bridges graduates (dark blue = company; light blue = non-profit). Green markers with a portico icon indicate universities at which Bridges graduates are attending graduate or medical school programs. (The map is not accurate down to street level; markers indicate only approximate city vicinity!) As I dust off my *.kml skills and the Bridges PIs provide new data, I’ll work to make a more layered map with interesting data queries – but for now – click on the markers, zoom and pan (don’t forget to zoom out to get the international view).
I am happy to see the number and diversity of companies in California hiring Bridges graduates. The roster includes not only early-stage, “next gen” California biotech companies, but also some venerable heavy weights in the pharmaceutical business. This is a healthy mix of organizations working to advance stem cell technologies. In spite of the recession and a drought of early-stage capital, California is still blessed with entrepreneurs and innovative developers choosing to work in the biomedical field. Just think what the map will be like when a few more classes of Bridges alums join the regenerative medicine efforts, additional product development investments are made, and technological challenges are worked out!
It’s been a good month for the CSU’s researchers. In addition to the CIRM Bridges extension, CSU campuses won Helmsley Trust-supported STEM Collaboratives grants and NIH-funded BUILD awards. In combination these investments help us offset cuts in public funding, build inspiring and engaging, up-to-the-minute courses, and support the CSU’s faculty research mentors who make all of this possible. Most of all these investments guarantee we’re graduating CSU students ready to make a contribution, to develop viable technologies, and to move companies and research teams forward.
* The CIRM board is called the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee, the ICOC.
**The report (.pdf) we submitted to CIRM is linked here.
***She’s agreed to speak at CSUPERB’s Strategic Planning Retreat in mid-November. She not only speaks as an alum or an industry professional – but also as an employer. She supervises CIRM Bridges interns from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at ViaCyte!
****Many thanks to the Bridges graduates who answer repeated surveys from the CSU and to the PIs and program administrators who collated this data together for me!