Dean Tracy Johnson receives $2.9M CIRM award to launch undergraduate stem cell training program

The UCLA COMPASS Program will enable students from underrepresented backgrounds to fully commit to the pursuit of scientific research
By Jalyn Walker | Aug 30, 2022 Awards & Funding

Tracy Johnson, a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, and a team of stem cell researchers have received a $2.9 million Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science, or COMPASS, grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state’s stem cell agency.

Johnson, who serves as the dean of the UCLA Division of Life Sciences, will use the funding to establish the UCLA COMPASS program, a training program for undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds who have an interest in stem cell biology. The program is open to sophomores and transfer students from two-year colleges.

Each UCLA student accepted into the COMPASS program will be matched with a faculty mentor from the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center and will engage in at least six quarters of laboratory research, gaining valuable hands-on experience and earning credit towards their degree. COMPASS scholars will also complete courses designed to equip them with the skills they need to build careers in the stem cell field, present their research at conferences and receive training in science communications and community outreach.

Applicants will initially be recruited from two UCLA programs: The Academic Advancement Program’s Transfer Summer Program and Pathways to Success. The Transfer Summer Program assists transfer students from historically underrepresented backgrounds with acclimating to the UCLA campus as well as its academic rigor and standards. Pathways to Success, which was developed by Johnson, is a four-year, honors-level program designed to support undergraduate students’ efforts in STEM majors, academic achievement, sense of belonging in science and career goals. Both the Transfer Summer Program and Pathways to Success offer authentic research experiences, rigorous coursework, quality peer relationships and distinctive opportunities for undergraduate students and their mentors.

The Pathways to Success Program is a key example of Johnson’s efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the STEM fields at UCLA and beyond. Her progressive approach has helped UCLA students achieve success throughout their undergraduate academic journeys. Of those students, 96% identify as a racial or ethnic minority, and about one-third of participants are first-generation college graduates.

Dean Tracy Johnson stands smiling for a photograph.
Dean Tracy Johnson

“I am proud of UCLA’s efforts to create and maintain programs that help ensure the future success of undergraduate students who are determined to bring about positive change in the world,” said Johnson, who also holds the Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in Life Sciences and is a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six in 10 adults in the United States have a chronic illness. Programs like UCLA COMPASS are needed to continue to produce innovative treatments and therapies for the multitude of illnesses, diseases and disorders individuals face on a daily basis.

UCLA is one of the most ethnically diverse campuses among public universities in the United States. Research has shown that programs that include individuals from a variety of diverse backgrounds have notable advantages in terms of quality, creativity, productivity and problem solving. In addition to the Transfer Summer Program and Pathways to Success Program, students from organizations like the Society for the Advancement of Chicano and Native Americans in Science will also be recruited to apply to the COMPASS Program.

“This program will reach talented students from underserved communities, including transfer students who often have less access to quality research experiences,” wrote a member of the CIRM grant review committee. “The plan combines high-quality research training with exposure to stem cell and regenerative medicine as a career option.”

Recruitment for the UCLA COMPASS Program will begin this Fall.