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A Prized Experience

Last fall when two scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work reprogramming mature human cells to become pluripotent, two Santa Clara bioengineering students were especially excited: they were already helping to commercialize the technology by taking the discovery from theory to reality through their work with ALSTEM, a Silicon Valley biotechnology company.

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From left, Dane Tomseth, Robert West, and Zhiwen (Jonathan) Zhang
Photo: Heidi Williams

Under the supervision of ALSTEM founder and CEO Dr. Gary Li and SCU’s bioengineering associate professor Zhiwen (Jonathan) Zhang, Dane Tomseth and Robert West are working on increasing the reprogramming efficiency and potency of human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for their Senior Design project; circumventing ethical issues by using skill cells to mimic human embryonic stem cells. Working across disciplines of biomolecular, stem cell and tissue engineering, the students have been learning the process of molecular cloning and engineering genetic constructs to generate the iPSCs that may be used to combat cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other maladies.

“The benefit for us,” said Li, “is that we get to know how students are learning at school and can identify the top candidates for hiring. The students benefit from this collaboration by getting to know how industry works and having the opportunity to work with scientists in the field; they learn to think differently than they do in academia.” Li has been very impressed with Dane and Robert’s work: “They are both very smart students and energetic. Once they were assigned the project, they did a lot of research work at home before conducting experiments in the lab. I have had interns from Stanford and Berkeley work with me in the past, and Santa Clara’s students are well trained and every bit as competent.”

Santa Clara’s strategic location, in the heart of Silicon Valley’s biotech industry, affords a fruitful synergy for Bronco bioengineers. “We’ve worked extensively to build collaborations with local biotech leaders for internships and co-supervision of Senior Design projects—more than half of which are being done for company partners,” said Zhang, who continued, “Strong academics and collaboration with local industry creates a very strong bioengineering program here at SCU.”

Dane and Robert couldn’t be happier with their Senior Design experience. “Dr. Li is so helpful,” they said; “he’s very excited to see us learn. Dr. Zhang provided us with a great opportunity.”

“This is exactly what we expected,” said Zhang; “truly outstanding students can contribute to the advancement of Silicon Valley firms, and our students are doing just that.”