High School Students Explore the Exciting World of Stem Cells


For 47 high school students, a deep dive into the many facets of STEM as part of the 2021 NYSCF High School Summer Immersive Experience is helping them discover a passion for science. 

“This is the second year for the program, held virtually, and it’s a really special opportunity to show these talented young minds what’s possible in STEM,” remarked Richard Ha, Associate Director of External Programs.

A Crash Course In Everything Stem Cells

The Immersive gives students an up-close look at the fast-paced field of stem cell science, with special glimpses into the revolutionary technologies that make NYSCF’s research possible. Talks covered everything from the NYSCF Global Stem Cell Array® (our robotic platform for making stem cells) to gene editing, and students engaged in thoughtful discussions about the future of research.

“How can stem cells help us understand the spectrum of disease experiences?” one student asked.

“The exciting thing about stem cells is that we can use them to study large groups of patients, because no two patients have the same disease experience,” replied Daniel Paull, PhD, Senior Vice President of Discovery and Platform Development. “With the Array, we can make lots and lots of stem cell lines, and we make them available to other labs. This helps us understand what makes each patient different and point to new treatment opportunities.”

“Has CRISPR [gene editing] made any big breakthroughs in medicine?” another student asked Josephine Wesely, PhD, Senior Staff Scientist in Functional Genomics.

“[Treatments for] sickle cell anemia has been a big one,” she answered. “It has also accelerated our ability to study diseases. Being able to introduce a mutation or correct for one is now so much faster than when I started in this field.”

“How do you manage to remember everything you’ve learned?” asked one student.

“The things I remember the best are the things I’m talking about a lot,” reflected Dr. Wesely. “I always found that talking through things with classmates helped me with exams, too. The more you speak about something, question it, and examine it with another person, the better you’ll remember it.”

The Social Side of Science

Science is far more than a lone researcher pipetting liquids in a lab: there are many social and political facets to the field that students also discussed.

NYSCF Vice President of Scientific Outreach Raeka Aiyar, PhD, spoke with students about the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in STEM and strategies for promoting it.

“When I was growing up, and in college, there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me [in STEM],” noted Josh Modeste, a science teacher at the Urban Assembly School for Global Commerce who helped lead the immersive. “That’s why inclusion is super important, and that’s why I like working with NYSCF, because we actively try to include people who wouldn’t typically have these opportunities or see themselves in these positions.” 

“Having programs like this, not just for high school students, but for students as young as elementary school and sparking that interest is so important because low-income students and students of color don’t typically get access in that way,” added a student. “Actually getting in the lab changed the way I viewed science and could do the same for many others.”

NYSCF Chief of Staff David McKeon also spoke with students about how federal policies have shaped stem cell research over the years and how private philanthropy has made much of our work possible.

“It was federal policies that led to the creation of NYSCF and the development of some of our major programs,” he shared. “We opened as a safe haven laboratory to do science with private philanthropy when the government wasn’t funding stem cell research.”

“The Array is a result of this too. About 11 years ago, the NIH put out applications for big projects. We wanted to create stem cells that represented the genetic diversity of the global population, but we proposed doing it by hand. They said it was crazy to create that many stem cell lines by hand, so we came up with the Array, and its development was made possible through private funding.”

Building Skills for A Successful Career in STEM

Exploring the many career paths in STEM and building professional skills is also a focus of the immersive. Dr. Aiyar held a workshop on scientific communications where students learned about the different avenues for communicating about research and even developed their own elevator pitches.

“Scientific progress can’t impact people if people do not understand and believe it,” noted Dr. Aiyar. “It’s also important for fueling collaborations and helping you understand your own work.”

Career panels also allowed students to explore the many roads one can take in STEM, including engineering, operations, legal, and business.

“I was very into biology when I was younger, and I liked learning about how things work,” shared Jordan Goldberg, a Staff Engineer in Automation. “I don’t think I knew automation engineering existed when I was younger, but it intersects with a lot of disciplines. It feeds my love of biology while also allowing me to work with all this cool equipment, and it’s really rewarding.”

“How much of your job is about learning vs knowing?” one student asked Laura Andres-Martin, PhD, a Research Investigator in Oncology.

“Learning never stops. Science is all about learning,” she noted. “You design an experiment and might have an expectation, but you don’t know for sure what will happen, and that’s how we make new discoveries.”

The panel also shared what makes them most excited about their work.

“Packing myself up from sunny California to move to New York and follow my passion was definitely one of the most exciting – and riskiest – things I’ve done,” said Rhoda Mondeh-Lowor, a Principal Scientist in Process Development. “And now we have a GMP suite [a facility for making clinical-grade cells] and are recruiting patients [for our age-related macular degeneration trial]. It’s amazing.”

NYSCF staff also shared their advice for students who are looking to explore different options in college and beyond.

“Take classes in a lot of different things and talk to different people,” said Jane Beaufore, Scientific Communications Coordinator. “I was undecided in college for a long time, and talking with professors and trying new things really helped me discover what I liked and what I didn’t like.”

“Don’t be afraid to create your own opportunities,” added Corvis Richardson, JD, Associate Vice President, IP Tech Transactions & Legal Affairs. “If you have something you want to do and maybe a program doesn’t exist for it yet, you can be the one to build it up.”

“No matter what you’re doing, as you go from job to job, you never know who you’re going to see later,” remarked Carmen Gill, Senior Director, Finance & Operations. “Even if you’re not doing something in the field you want to be in, the way you work and treat other people is important. That makes a big difference.”

Hope for the Future

The students left with a renewed passion for science and for their futures.

“I admire all the work NYSCF does to connect young scientists around the world,” said one student.

“I like that NYSCF creates opportunities like this program to expose students to stem cell research, and that they focus not just on the science, but on social aspects like gender equality as well,” agreed another.

“NYSCF is doing such significant work, and it is empowering to see them turn hopes and dreams into realities.”