collage of virtual field trips
UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center’s inaugural cohort of trainee outreach mentors led virtual field trips at two Los Angeles County public high schools.

César Pérez-Ramírez’s STEM journey has taken him from his hometown of Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican border town, to Princeton University, where he earned a doctorate in molecular biology and afterwards to Germany, where he worked as a research assistant. Today, he’s a postdoctoral scholar studying stem cell metabolism at UCLA.

This spring, when the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA launched a High School Outreach Program in partnership with the UCLA Science Project, Pérez-Ramírez was quick to sign up to be a mentor.

“As a Mexican immigrant, I always enjoy taking part in outreach opportunities because I want to provide students with an image that’s not an archetype of what a scientist looks like,” he said. “I wish I had that when I was in high school.”

He and fellow trainees of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center Training Program led virtual field trips, which included video lab tours, recaps of the sometimes-circuitous paths that brought them to UCLA and advice about how to navigate the college application process, at two Los Angeles County public high schools. The interactive presentations delved into how stem cells are currently being used to treat blood disorders and grow mini-organs in a dish for disease modeling, as well as how regenerative medicine is informing future disease treatments.

Although there has been a push to increase diversity in STEM, Black and Hispanic people remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. While the Outreach Program aims to enable students of all backgrounds to see themselves in a STEM field, the trainee outreach mentors are also given a platform to practice talking about their often complex research to a lay audience—a key component of the Center’s training program.

“After the [virtual field trip], my students told me that they didn’t know scientists could be so cool and easy to talk to,” said Sonia Perez, a 10th grade biology teacher at the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy in Los Angeles, California. “Our high school students generally come from low-income families, so it’s difficult for them to imagine themselves in certain professions because they’re focused on surviving instead of thriving,” she added. “Having young people who come from backgrounds like theirs come talk to them during this pivotal time in their lives can really open their eyes to all the opportunities that they have access to.”

Below, the Center’s inaugural cohort of trainee outreach mentors share what motivated them to take part in this activity, why they believe high school outreach is important and what they’re taking away from the experience:


female scientistEva Segura
Graduate student in the lab of Donald Kohn, MD
UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center trainee
The Rose Hills Foundation Graduate Scholar

You don’t know the impact you can have on somebody's life. For me, a simple one-day research event at my community college led me to where I am now. Maybe the time I spent with the students made them think differently or gave them something to discuss with their friends or family that night over dinner. Besides gaining a deeper understanding of stem cell science, I hope the students learned from my story that it’s OK to not know exactly what they’re going to do in life right after high school. There’s time to explore different career paths and take things one step at a time.


male scientistAndrew Lund
Graduate student in the lab of Brigitte Gomperts, MD
UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center trainee
The Rose Hills Foundation Graduate Scholar

When there’s an opportunity to mentor others, I’m of the mindset that we should grab onto those connections. I’m a first-generation college student and I wanted to convey the message that I’m not special in any way… and yet now I’m a stem cell researcher at UCLA. I feel like if I can do it, anyone can. There are definitely still barriers, but higher education in general is becoming a lot more accessible, and I wanted to urge the students to dream big. We’re not beholden to our fates. We don’t need to be legacy students to have accomplishments.


female scientistAya Barzelay, MD, PhD
Clinical fellow in the lab of Steven Schwartz, MD
UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center trainee
California Institute for Regenerative Medicine Scholar 

This outreach program was a special opportunity for me to connect with high school students right around the time they’re trying to figure out their careers. People rise, or fall, to the level of expectation placed on them. To know that UCLA exists, to be exposed to a thing called research and to learn about the concept of stem cells—these outreach sessions could really open their eyes to a different set of possibilities than what they have imagined for their lives. I’m also walking away with a really positive experience because the students were super engaged and they asked a lot of thoughtful questions.


female scientistJenna Giafaglione
Graduate student in the labs of Andrew Goldstein, PhD, and Paul Boutros, PhD
UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center trainee
California Institute for Regenerative Medicine Scholar 

When I was in high school, I didn't really have an opportunity to talk to people who were at later career stages, so I think it's valuable for high schoolers to hear how people got to where they are and the pros and cons of what they're currently doing. I hope my talk helped the young females in the room see that they can be scientists too. It’s true that we’ve made a lot of progress on this front and there are a lot of brilliant females in this field, but there’s still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in science.


male scientistCésar Pérez-Ramírez, PhD
Postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Heather Christofk, PhD
UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center trainee
California Institute for Regenerative Medicine Scholar 

I enjoy having casual conversations with students to demystify what a career in science looks like and to show that you don’t have to come from a particular background to be a scientist. I’m a Mexican immigrant, and I hope that some of the students were able to see themselves through my journey in STEM and realize that they can succeed in this field too. I also wanted them to know that a career in science isn’t just becoming a medical doctor or a researcher in a lab. With a background in science, you can go into science communications or consulting or even something as funky as art restoration. Exposing them to all these different possibilities could really make a difference in their lives.


female scientistPatricia Loren Nano, PhD
Postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Aparna Bhaduri, PhD
UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center trainee
California Institute for Regenerative Medicine Scholar 

A big reason why I’m in the position I’m in today is because of the kindness of teachers and mentors I’ve had along the way. This was a chance for me to pay it forward. It’s hard to see yourself as a scientist if you’re not deeply ingrained in that world, so it’s important for scientists like myself to try to make the reality of a scientific career less opaque. This wasn't only a good exercise for me to talk about my science at a level that’s engaging for high schoolers, but it also opened my eyes to some of the stereotypes students have about the research we do and gave me a platform to debunk some of those misconceptions.

female scientistFei-man Hsu, PhD
Postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Amander Clark, PhD
UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center trainee
California Institute for Regenerative Medicine Scholar 

When I was in high school, I learned everything from a biology textbook. Nothing I was learning was real for me. I hope interacting with someone who’s working in biology sparks a curiosity in science. I want the students to know that there are multiple paths to becoming a scientist and that being a researcher is attainable if they’re willing to work hard and ask questions along the way. I also gained a lot from this experience. This was an opportunity to improve my science communication skills and tweak how I talk about my research in a way that’s understandable for a new type of audience for me.


For Nicole Bottomley, an 11th grade biochemistry teacher at the Odyssey STEM Academy in Lakewood, California, the program aligned with why she entered the field of education in the first place: “I wanted to make science relevant for my students,” she said. “Outreach programs are so awesome because they help students see ‘Here’s a problem and then here’s this person actually working to solve the issue.’ “

With all of the trainee outreach mentors saying they’d enjoy taking part again, plans are underway to expand the program and move to in-person field trips for next year.

“All of these touchpoints matter,” said Jon Kovach, director of science programs at the UCLA Science Project. “We’re trying to instill a love of science in students so they can understand their communities better and figure out ways to ultimately help the world through science.”

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