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CSUPERB-Howell Scholars:
Fueling the Biotech pipeline

How one research scholarship program has helped CSU students gain critical experience and continues to make a positive impact on California’s biotech industry.

“What I love about science is that it's a puzzl​​e you're trying to figure out. When you get it right, you feel like you're making a difference." —Dr. Marisa Briones, CSUPERB-Howell alumna 


The CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB) continues to prepare students for California’s growing biotechnology workforce in several disciplines across all 23 campuses.

Each year, the CSU awards select undergraduates across the system with the CSUPERB-Howell Research Scholarship​supported by the Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research. CSUPERB-Howell Scholars work with CSU faculty mentors on a research project related to women’s health, usually as third and fourth-year undergraduates.

There are now more than 196 CSUPERB-Howell alumni (2000-2020) doing amazing work and contributing to the California biotech space. Alumni include professionals in biotech and biotechconnected jobs, students enrolled in graduate and professional programs, licensed healthcare professionals and many more. 44% of the alumni are now employed at a biotechnology-relevant job at a company or in academia.

“The CSUPERB-Howell Research Scholars program provides amazing faculty mentorship as well as valuable financial support for exemplary CSU life sciences undergraduates—many of whom will go on to make an impact in California’s important biotech workforce,” says Bianca Romina Mothé, Ph.D., interim executive director of CSUPERB. “Many of our scholars are first-generation college students from underserved backgrounds, so supporting these emerging scientists and their educational experiences also supports their upward social mobility as they progress toward their careers,” adds Dr. Mothé, once a first-generation college student herself.

We spoke with a few CSUPERB-Howell Scholars, past and present, to learn how their experiences in CSU undergraduate life sciences research has shaped their career trajectory and how they are making an impact on the biotech workforce of California. 

MARISA BRIONES, PH.D.

MARISA BRIONES, PH.D.

CSUN ALUMNA

As a biology major at California State University, Northridge​, Marisa Briones, Ph.D., was awarded the CSUPERB-Howell Research Scholarship in her 2003-04 academic year. Her research project allowed her to build upon ongoing work she was doing on the mutational components of dyskeratosis congenita, a rare genetic disorder. While the disease affected primarily young boys, her CSUPERB-Howell Scholarship allowed her to focus on how mothers could pass this disease on to their children.

“It was really my first experience in writing a mini-grant, which was foundational for me in becoming a scientist,” says Dr. Briones, adding that the program provided her salary support so she could focus on research without having to get another job. “What I love about science is that it’s a puzzle you’re trying to figure out,” she says. “You have most of the pieces from building upon others’ research, and then it’s up to you to create, identify, and find those other puzzle pieces. … The handful of times that you do get it right, it’s wonderful. You feel like you’re making a difference.”

After earning her bachelor’s in biology at CSUN, Briones attended graduate school at UCLA, where she worked as a lab scientist on HIV. But she soon made the jump from the lab bench to the clinic. “It took on a whole new meaning for me—interacting with patients that you have the potential to actually help is very inspirational.”

After earning her Ph.D., she went on to become a research scientist at the AIDS Research Alliance where she worked on clinical trials for HIV treatment and prevention. She then became a clinical research director at UCLA’s Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine, focusing on medication development for substance use disorders, as well as HIV treatment and prevention studies. This eventually led Briones to co-found BDH Pharma, a pharmaceutical start-up developing cannabinoidbased medications to treat pain and addiction.

“In California, given that cannabis is legal, it is the best place to develop a cannabinoid-based pharmaceutical to help overall public health and provide more information, more data to understand the potential of cannabinoids as a therapeutic,” she says. “What motivates me is the puzzle of trying to find a better medication for patients who have pain to give them back daily function that they deserve.”


RODRIGO RODRIGUEZ, PH.D.

RODRIGO RODRIGUEZ, PH.D.

SAN DIEGO STATE ALUMNUS 

A first-generation college student, Rodrigo Rodriguez, Ph.D., didn’t originally plan to attend college but thanks to support from a teacher at his high school, he was accepted as a freshman at San Diego State University where he majored in cell and molecular biology. Then with the help of former SDSU professor Shelli McAlpine, Ph.D. (now at University of New South Wales), Dr. Rodriguez became a CSUPERB-Howell Research Scholar during his 2006-07 academic year. The scholarship provided financial support so the busy student could focus on research and leave his part-time job at a sandwich shop. For his CSUPERB-Howell project, Rodriguez made bio-active compounds from a molecule (San A-amide) that would target heat shock protein 90 (HSP90), which plays an instrumental role in cancer and other diseases.

For a student who began with little knowledge of scientific research, Rodriguez went on to earn several other fellowships, including the McNair Summer Research program and the Pfizer Minority Summer Fellowship at SDSU. He also co-authored several papers while an undergraduate at Dr. McAlpine’s lab—including being a first author on one. “I really owe a lot to [Shelli]. We were doing the same stuff that her master’s students were doing. She helped me make the decision to focus on research that I was totally passionate about.”

While initially interested in becoming a doctor, Rodriguez was attracted to biology with a mix of applied chemistry to gain a fundamental understanding of how diseases work in the human body and how a drug or bioactive compound can help the immune system. “It’s still pretty useful in terms of the greater good for human health. I just kind of fell in love with it,” he says.

While attending Scripps Research Institute for his Ph.D., Rodriguez says he was fortunate to be able to work with leading chemistry researcher Phil Baran, Ph.D., and others. The skills he mastered there set him up for success in his career. He began his professional career at Novartis Pharmaceuticals and then transitioned to a senior scientist role at Singular Genomics, a startup based in La Jolla, California specializing in DNA “printing” and sequencing technologies. “It has many different applications from forensics to genetically modified foods,” Rodriguez explains. “In forensics, if there is not enough of a blood sample to test the DNA, we can use this technology to print more DNA or identify something that’s missing.”


SOUVIXADA SOMSACKSY

SOUVIXADA SOMSACKSY

FRESNO STATE

Souvie Somsacksy, a senior at Fresno State ​majoring in biology with honors, is a current CSUPERB-Howell Scholar for the 2019-2020 cohort. The first-generation college student immigrated from Laos as a young child and grew up in the Fresno area, yet was only able to obtain her permanent U.S. residency status five years ago. “It’s been a real journey because I had lived in fear of getting deported for the better part of 18 years,” Somsacksy says.

After transferring from Clovis Community College to Fresno State as a junior in fall 2019, Somsacksy knew she wanted to get immediately into a lab program to follow her pathway to eventually earn an M.D-Ph.D. Enter Jason Bush, Ph.D., professor and chair of the biology department at Fresno State, who welcomed her into his research lab and encouraged her to apply for the Howell-CSUPERB grant. Some of Dr. Bush’s research areas include breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and thyroid cancer and their high prevalence in Central California. Somsacksy was personally struck by the thyroid cancer project, having been diagnosed with a thyroid malignancy herself. “I knew personally the struggles that people were going through with this disease.”

Somsacksy began her Howell-CSUPERB Research project on campus late fall of 2019, before the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Her research is looking at genetic markers between two types of papillary thyroid cancer—a disease more prominent in women than in men. Both cancer types appear nearly identical in the early stages, yet one type becomes malignant and requires more aggressive treatment. Microscopic analyses have not been effective in determining which type patients have early on, but DNA biomarkers could hold promise for earlier detection of the malignant type, which could save lives.

Somsacksy is anxious to get back into the lab once permitted to do so, but in the meantime, she is keeping busy with her job at St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno where she works as an ER scribe. The hospital has been part of a Mayo Clinic statistical analysis on convalescent plasma as a therapy for COVID-19, and Somsacksy has been inputting patient data as part of the project. 

“I work directly with the doctors who treat COVID patients on a daily basis and see how they’re improving and their trends. It’s probably as close as I can get to the patients without being with them,” she says. 

In addition to her Howell-CSUPERB scholarship, Somsacksy is also a fellow of the NIH Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (NIH RISE). Not only is she a driven student, musician and healthcare worker, she is also an ambassador for Laotian students in STEM. Prior to the COVID lockdown, she was scheduled to address approximately 500 Laotian high school students at the Annual Laotian Educational Conference (ALEC). 

“Statistically, Laotian students have some of the highest dropout rates in high school and the lowest representation in higher education—especially medicine," Somsacksy says. "My hope is to inspire other underrepresented minority students to get into those fields.”


Learn more about how CSUPERB seeds biotechnology innovation and educates a diverse, professional workforce for California and the global economy.