Aparna Sreenivasan builds bridges between students and science

Aparna Sreenivasan teaches genetics, advanced cell biology, issues and ethics in biology, eukaryotic molecular biology laboratory, and more.

Photo by: Randy Tunnell Aparna Sreenivasan teaches genetics, advanced cell biology, issues and ethics in biology, eukaryotic molecular biology laboratory, and more.

March 16, 2021

By Walter Ryce

“My heroine is Marie Curie,” says Aparna Sreenivasan. “I recently found out that she has the same birthday as me.”

Sreenivasan is an associate professor of genetics and molecular biology at CSUMB. She employs her professional relationships in a synergistic way that benefits students and her field. She and colleagues are building pipelines that connect CSUMB and UC Santa Cruz, and funnel highly trained scientists into the nation’s biomedical research field.

Last August, both institutions, as partners, were awarded a five-year, $4.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA) promotes consortia between research-intensive institutions like UCSC and those adept at recruiting and teaching under-represented minorities in the sciences like CSUMB.

Over a three-year period, postdoctoral students in the IRACDA program will do research at UCSC’s Stem Cell Institute for 75% of their time. The other 25% will be at CSUMB receiving teacher training from biology and chemistry faculty, and then putting that training into practice by, in turn, teaching and mentoring CSUMB undergraduates.

“This combination will prepare these young scientists better than the traditionally unstructured post-Ph.D. training period to succeed in any academic career of their choosing,” says Catharina Casper-Lindley, director of the IRACDA program and research grant program officer at the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells.

Sreenivasan is a co-principal investigator on the grant along with UCSC colleagues Camilla Forsberg, professor of biomolecular engineering; Lindsay Hinck, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology; and Casper-Lindley.

“This semester I have two post-docs observing my course,” Sreenivasan says. “I’m conducting workshops for them, integrating them into our Biology and Chemistry program, and developing future workshops in which various faculty will attend and explain the literature behind why we teach the way we teach.”

The goal is triple-fold: to boost the post-doc students’ qualifications for research and teaching jobs, fortify undergraduate students for graduate school and beyond, and diversify the field of science.

From left to right: Professor Lindsay Hinck (UCSC, co-PI), Dr. Catharina Casper-Lindley (UCSC, Program Director), Professor Aparna Sreenivasan (CSUMB, co-PI), Professor Camilla Forsberg (UCSC, co-PI).

From left to right: Professor Lindsay Hinck (UCSC, co-PI), Dr. Catharina Casper-Lindley (UCSC, Program Director), Professor Aparna Sreenivasan (CSUMB, co-PI), Professor Camilla Forsberg (UCSC, co-PI).

Kelsie M. Rodriguez, Ph.D., began undergraduate study at CSUMB with Sreenivasan and other professors. While there, she mentored diverse populations of students who were at risk of failing classes, and during her third year, she worked part-time with a post-doctoral researcher in a lab at UCSC.

For graduate school, she attended Oregon Health and Science University where she volunteered with minority secondary students on science projects and career choices. She wanted to continue on that path, so she applied for and was accepted into the UCSC/CSUMB IRACDA program, where she reconnected with former teachers and mentors. She is one of Sreenivasan’s two post-docs (another is Ben Topacio from Stanford) observing and contributing to her Bio 414 class — a class Rodriguez took as an undergraduate.

“I’m very grateful that my past connected me to these wonderful mentors and for all that I have learned and will continue to learn from them,” Rodriguez says.

The IRACDA also pays its post-docs, which frees them up from fundraising for themselves. Rodriguez is one of five others in the 2021 UCSC/CSUMB cohort, and they are part of a much larger national IRACDA program.

“Within our smaller cohort, we communicate about our research, news, challenges, and even just logistical things like how to get your lab keys,” Rodriguez says. “It’s nice to feel like we’re not alone in navigating the novelty of beginning a new position.”

Sreenivasan describes Rodriguez’s trajectory as “a full circle.”

However, the IRACDA grant was missing one key sector of the pipeline between the institutions: There was no funding for CSUMB students to gain research experiences with postdocs at UCSC. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic created technological disparities among CSUMB undergrads.

That’s where another grant, also aimed at STEM diversity, comes in. Sreenivasan and her UCSC colleagues applied for a $400,000 foundation grant from Genentech, one of the world’s leading biomedical companies. It was recently announced that they were among 40 awardees among a pool of 380 applicants.

Genentech’s South Bay Area headquarters

Genentech’s South Bay Area headquarters

The grant supplies CSUMB students with tools to overcome COVID-19 shelter-in-place limitations, including laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, and eight gigabyte internet plans. It also bolsters the research pipeline between the two university partners while diverting more underrepresented minority students into STEM fields.

“The way the two grants synergize is that the private Genentech grant provides funding for CSUMB students, the IRACDA for postdocs,” Sreenivasan says. “It was a perfect fit for what we wanted to do.”

Sreenivasan is one of the principal investigators on the Genentech Foundation grant along with Casper-Lindley from UCSC. This is also the first time CSUMB has gotten a grant from the Bay Area-based company. And even there, she has connections; she worked at a company founded in 1992 by Dave Goeddel, who cloned the insulin gene and was the first scientist hired by Genentech in 1976.

“We are honored to partner with essential leaders in this space who are dismantling systemic barriers in science and medical education,” says Carla Boragno, board chair of the Genentech Foundation and senior vice president and global head of engineering and facilities for Genentech.

Sreenivasan has had the makings of this exchange in place for a long time. She got her Ph.D. from UCSC and maintained her relationships with faculty in the molecular cell and clinical biology programs there. A former advisor is now a collaborator, she’s had long relationships with the PIs on both grants, and she’s invited numerous faculty from UCSC to speak to CSUMB students over the years.

“Aparna is a terrific colleague,” says Lindsay Hinck. “Many of us at UCSC have known her for years. What we appreciate about Aparna is her passion and curiosity for science, her tremendous ability to explain biological concepts to a broad student demographic, and her empathetic approach to mentoring.”

Sreenivasan adds: “The relationships between CSUMB and UCSC were really strong. The grants were like icing on the cake.”

"The College of Science is very proud of Dr. Sreenivasan's continued collaboration with USCS's IBSC and the support from Genentech and the NIH,” says Andrew Lawson, dean of CSUMB’s College of Science. “This program provides support and opportunities for our underrepresented students, while also providing teaching and mentoring opportunities for postdoctoral fellows."

Both CSUMB and UCSC are Hispanic Serving Institutions, and the four scientists who are collaborating on these grants are all women. Sreenivasan says that first-generation, minority, and female students may feel like they don’t belong in a science classroom or environment if they don’t encounter others there who share their identities.

“It creates a ceiling,” Sreenivasan says. “That’s been shown to affect decision making and foster imposter syndrome. Even if they are the best and the brightest. Diversity in science, in that way, is imperative.”

It’s also healthy for science to access diversity.

“We want diversity in terms of how we think,” Sreenivasan continues. “There’s not just a straight-line way of thinking; it’s harnessing creativity. We’re influencing the practices of others, which is really exciting.”

NIH grants are difficult to get, especially for institutions that are not primarily research-oriented, but CSUMB has received three in the past four years.

The team hopes to increase that number. The NIH IRACDA grant began last August, its first cohort started in January, and although the total project period may not exceed five years, the projects are renewable.

“We want to renew,” Sreenivasan says.