08:44 AM

CSUSM Receives $3 Million Grant for COMPASS Training Program

Cal State San Marcos has been awarded a nearly $3 million, five-year grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to invest in its newest education pillar, the COMPASS training program. 

COMPASS, which stands for Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science, works to prepare a diverse group of undergraduate students for careers in regenerative medicine by combining hands-on research opportunities with strategic and structured mentorship experiences. COMPASS at CSUSM is a comprehensive program that aims to recruit local high school students to the university and train them in stem cells and life sciences, culminating in summer capstone experiences on campus.  

The $2,877,200 grant will fund stem cell awareness at three North County high schools; support 30 students for two years of training; and provide diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training for research mentors. 

The program will recruit first-year CSUSM biotechnology undergraduate students as well as students from High Tech High North County, Mission Hills High School and San Marcos High School. One of the first events under the grant, Stem Cell Awareness Day, will kick off Oct. 11 as CSUSM biology professor Bianca Romina Mothé, the director of the grant program, takes undergraduate students to the partner high schools to introduce the COMPASS program to high school seniors. 

“This new program highlights our growing commitment to creating a diverse workforce, one that taps into communities that have been historically underrepresented in the biomedical sciences,” said Dr. Maria T. Millan, president and CEO of CIRM. “The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that the benefits of scientific discovery are not always accessible to communities that most need them. CIRM is committed to tackling these challenges by creating a diverse and dedicated workforce that can meet the technical demands of taking novel treatment ideas and making them a reality.” 

In addition to Mothé, other CSUSM professors participating in the program include economics professor Ranjeeta Basu, who will serve as the diversity and outreach coordinator; biology professor Mallory Rice, who will serve as mentoring coordinator; biology professor Sujal Phadke, who will help develop and deliver DEI programming and training; and biology professor Denise Baker, who will develop formal and informal mentoring plans for trainees. 

Additionally, sophomore biotechnology majors who are selected to the program will have the option to work in several different CSUSM laboratories on campus that focus on immunology, virology, stem cells and bioengineering. These include the labs of Mothé and fellow CSUSM biology professors Julie Jameson, James Jancovich, Jane Kim and Carlos Luna Lopez. 

As part of the mentoring program, CSUSM is partnering with La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) and Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery. The institutions will present tours and instruction on the different components of each organization’s research and development pipelines. 

Sanford Burnham Prebys will be a major training site for COMPASS trainees. The institute has a long history of commitment to training students in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, particularly those from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds. The institute has a CIRM-funded training program for Ph.D., post-doctoral and clinical fellows; a CIRM-funded program for mentoring high school students; and a longstanding partnership with CSUSM’s CIRM-funded Bridges program. Sanford Burnham Prebys has a unique graduate school that is ideally suited for the COMPASS program – highly individualized, tutorial-based learning with rapid immersion into bench research.

Sanford Burnham Prebys, by virtue of the fact that it is part of the broader La Jolla Mesa Training Network, will also enable trainees to participate in “patient-facing” and “clinical correlation” events, as well as exposure to opportunities in the private industrial sector. Because of the longstanding partnership between CSUSM and Sanford Burnham Prebys, the COMPASS program will seamlessly integrate into that infrastructure. 

At LJI, Drs. Mitchell Kronenberg and Sujan Shresta will serve as mentors for COMPASS trainees. Kronenberg is focused on learning more about immune cell roles in the airways, lungs and gut. He will also share his expertise in autoimmunity with COMPASS trainees. Shresta is dedicated to shedding light on how immune cells interact with viruses such as Zika, SARS-CoV-2 and dengue. Her lab also specializes in the development of cutting-edge mouse models for immune-system research. Through her work, trainees can learn how researchers can leverage their findings to fuel new studies into vaccines, therapies and more. 

“We’re thrilled to give COMPASS trainees a firsthand look at the challenges and opportunities in immunology,” Kronenberg said. “This is a fascinating field where students can follow their curiosity to pursue many different career opportunities and contribute to life-saving work.” 


Additional quotes related to the grant: 

“Here at High Tech High North County, we strongly believe in connecting our students with meaningful projects, learning experiences and opportunities that produce curious, creative, emerging adults and citizens of the world. We are extremely excited about the opportunity to partner with Dr. Mothé and the CSUSM COMPASS program. Our students have a variety of lived experiences, and the access and opportunity this partnership offers will have significant impact, especially for our students with disadvantaged backgrounds. This program will contribute greatly to our students’ ability to successfully navigate the CSUSM application process while engaging in the exploration of biotechnology, life science and stem cell career path options. It will also connect HTHNC graduates majoring in biotechnology at CSUSM with potential opportunities to work in various CSUSM laboratories focused on immunology, virology, stem cells and bioengineering as they progress as an undergraduate. The COMPASS program will be instrumental to High Tech High North County and our ability to successfully bring the goals established in our shared vision to life as a school community." 

Joseph Davidson, director, High Tech High North County 


“We are excited to partner with CSUSM to provide our high school students with this introduction to life sciences. This work aligns perfectly with our vision to ensure all SMUSD students are ‘future ready’ by providing opportunities to explore future career fields." 

Andy Johnsen, Ed.D., superintendent, San Marcos Unified School District 


“Education and infrastructure are two funding pillars critical for creating the next generation of researchers and conducting stem-cell-based clinical trials. The importance of these programs was acknowledged in Proposition 14, and we expect that they will continue to be important components of CIRM’s programs and strategic direction in the years to come.” 

Jonathan Thomas, Ph.D., J.D., chair of the CIRM board