Sue Bryant, dean of UCI's biological sciences school, discusses a grant that will benefit schools on Costa Mesa's Westside.

November 10 2002

A $14-million National Science Foundation grant that UC Irvine received in October will benefit teachers and students in Westside schools. Last month, City Editor James Meier visited the school to talk to Sue Bryant, dean of the School of Biological Sciences, about the program the grant will pay for, as well as her work studying salamanders in hopes of helping humans regenerate limbs and other tissues.

Tell me a little about the Faculty Outreach Collaborations Uniting Scientists, Students and Schools program that the $14-million National Science Foundation grant will start at UCI.

The FOCUS grant is a joint effort of the science deans and the Center for Educational Partnership, which is the outreach of the campus. What its goal is, is to create more teachers better for science. The whole of the FOCUS program is to improve math and science education at targeted schools, lower-performing schools. The three school districts that the money is for are Compton, Santa Ana and then the Westside schools of Newport-Mesa.

We've been interested in the Newport-Mesa district partly as parents -- that's how we got interested in the first place -- but we realized when we did get interested that Newport-Mesa didn't have science fairs for their kids. That's how we first started it. We started a science fair in Costa Mesa, which quickly expanded to Estancia. It's grown phenomenally. Last year, more than 1,000 students were involved.

The reason I like science fair is it's hands-on science experiences. I think it's like trying to teach painting without giving anybody a paint brush. A lot of the experiences that students have in classrooms are dry lab, with descriptions and books. They don't actually get to do much. Sometimes you have exceptional teachers that really can do that. But I think modern science is intimidating for a lot of teachers, especially if they've been out for a long time.

In this school, our other area of interest is in teaching professional development. That's a program we started last year. What it does is teachers work in the lab here so they get lab experience and they get to manipulate the machinery and use it. It makes it easier for them to go back to their classroom and do things within the classroom. The teachers are actually pretty interested in this program for biology because it gives them this experience. So we figure the kids will benefit from that, as well.

That's just the biology part of it. There's a lot more to it. They've been having a Saturday math academy for some time that I know has been successful. I know some of the physics faculty go out and take demonstrations out to schools.

So we've been doing all of this already. So this grant deals with the teachers who teach those kids. It also gets more people to go into teaching. That's something we'll be doing on campus -- improving the links between degree programs like ours and the education department, so we'll send potential teachers through that route. Most of our students are pre-med and not all of them will be medical students, so they're looking for alternative careers, and this is a good one. I think teaching has become more attractive in the last few years. As the demand for teachers has gone up, the pay has gotten better. We've got some really smart kids who don't get into medical school who would make great teachers.

So what's the next step?

What's happening right now is we're in the process of creating a strategic plan to figure out what the key components are that we're going to focus on. In a couple of months, there's going to be a strategic plan that we'll lay out.

But the components will be making more teachers that come out of the process with science and mathematics backgrounds. And we'll teach professional development to teachers who already exist to upgrade their skills. And, of course, outreach to the students like we currently do. There's three different levels -- the current teachers, current students and future teachers.

So we'll be expanding what we have to reach more people. In teaching professional development, we've only run through about a dozen teachers so far, but we can reach a lot more.

The math component is pretty important, too. I'm only talking about biology. When you look at the scientific work force, the missing components are women and minorities, because it's predominantly white male. There are a lot of kids out there who have an opportunity to benefit and to improve the diversity of the scientific work force. I really do believe having people with different backgrounds and points of view are important.

Tell me about your other grant.

We got this grant last year. The FOCUS grant was $14.2 million, so it makes this one seem like peanuts now. It was $3.2 million. That was an NSF award. Again, there was a small number given out in the country. I think there were only eight advanced grants.

They're gender equity programs. Specifically, this grant is for gender equity within the research university environment. One of the problems is, in my discipline and also other sciences, is there aren't many women coming into the graduate school. And some of them don't have women getting post-doctorates. And some of them don't have women getting hired. So we have plenty of graduate students and we have plenty of post-docs; we just don't hire them.

So there are different solutions needed for different problems. We're setting up mentoring programs. We're working on pay equity, which is a problem for women in all areas, but especially in academia.

Why does it turn out this way? Nobody thinks it's over prejudice anymore. There are comfort levels and all kinds of issues that come into it, and the way you access different people and kind of the models that you have in the back of your mind. It's a very complicated problem and we just try to do what we can to give people the skills to be successful and keep track of them as they move through the system.

One of the things that has come out in studies done in other places is that women academics tend to start out equal in terms of pay and perks, but over periods of time, they both advance, but the rate of advancement changes. This woman here [Virginia Valan] has written a book, and her thesis says men accumulate small advantages while women accumulate small disadvantages over time, and men are slightly overvalued ,while women are slightly undervalued at each step. It's as good an explanation as any other. Nobody really knows.

It's changing. This is a grant to make sure it happens; especially now at UCI, it's important because we're growing right now. And we have the space to grow more.

How did Newport-Mesa become one of the three school districts involved?

It was because we were already working there. This outreach that we started was started by [my husband], Dave [Gardiner], and I, and then we adopted the program into the school, and I have a couple of really excellent people running it now.

What we argued was that Newport-Mesa is an interesting example because it's a bimodal district, and so if you can't fix a bimodal district, then forget it. It's kind of an interesting exercise.

This is part of the "No child left behind" push. What happens in the federal government -- when they have a program that they want to promote, they send out Requests for Proposal. The same the year before with the other one. Sometimes, those things are good to get in on because you don't know how long they're going to last and if you're in on the ground floor. So both of those things came along at the right time for us. I hadn't even thought about getting a grant for it, but when it appeared, I thought "Oh, we could use that."

And then the outreach one, of course, we were already doing a lot, so that was a natural. Actually, one of the reasons we were successful, I think, was because we do have the structure already set up. We also already have all of the faculty. Sometimes what happens is, given all of the priorities you have, outreach doesn't come very high on the list for a lot of people. If you have committed administrators, then it helps. You don't need everyone to be involved, but if you have a few dedicated people, it goes a long way.

Another important thing we've done that I think is an important part of the outreach, especially where kids don't have high aspirations to go to college, is we've used undergraduates here as mentors. In the science fair project, we used undergraduate mentors. So these junior high and high school students get a role model, to see what it's like to be an undergraduate. So, for a lot of them, it may be the first time they've seen a college student.

So that's the part of it that's hard to quantitate, because role models are known to be important to people. When you're figuring out where you're going in life, if you don't see anybody ahead of you who looks like you, you don't think you're going there.

When did all these partnerships with the district begin?

I think we're in our third year.

How soon will the teacher part of the project begin?

We're going to start discussing it pretty soon with the acting chair of the education department. Within the year, we'll determine what's going to happen. Now, we're figuring out what can do and what we can't do and what our highest priorities are.

In the past at UCI, you've studied the regeneration of limbs in salamanders. Has that study ended yet, and what have you discovered?

Being dean is a pretty busy job. The lab is going well because David and I work together, so basically he's running the lab right now. We've made a fair amount of progress over the years. We're not there yet, but with all of the work being done on stem cells, it's all coming together.

Our goal is to see an emphasis on regenerative medicine. So using what we can learn from these animals that regenerate, and combining it with what people are learning about stem cells, we'll figure out ways to improve natural healing. So that's the ultimate goal and I think it'll happen. I'm convinced of it now.

How far out is that?

People always want to know that. I'll be retired. I think we're seeing stuff already. The stem cell stuff is very exciting. The way we think of regeneration is animals that regenerate have learned how to make stem cells on the spot in the right place on demand in response to injury. That's basically what happens when you injure one of these animals. They form a little bud and it's basically stem cells that are going to make the part.

People are learning a lot about how to make stem cells change into one thing or another. They start out being able to do everything, but when you treat them in culture, you can make them into nerve cells or muscle cells. The one thing people are trying very hard to make is pancreas cells, insulin-making cells, to treat diabetes. That will be probably one of the first things or easiest things to treat.

A lot of people also have great hopes for the use of stem cells for spinal cord injuries. That's a complex thing. If all you need is a chemical that a cell produces that can be put to any part of the body, you could put pancreas cells in your arm and it would work. But you can't do that for the spinal cord. You have get everything hooked up the right way. If you were to use stem cells, getting them to make neurons is the first step, but getting them to connect to the right place is going to be more of a challenge.

And that's where our work with regeneration comes in, because what we're looking at is how the whole thing get integrated. One of the things we've been able to conclude from recent studies looking at the molecules is the regeneration process has two parts to it -- an early part and a late part. The early part is not like anything else. It's totally unique. It's specific to regeneration, and the late part is just like limb development. It's as if you reactivate the process that you already know how to do.

The point of that is we already know how to make legs. Our genes know how to make them because they made them in the first place. What we're missing is that little unique thing in the front, that little sequence of events that leads to the generation of these stem cells. So we only have to engineer a little bit of it. In order for that to happen in humans, we have to figure out how these animals are doing it. And we are getting closer.

We're in a position now, with recent technology, to be able to look at all of the genes that are expressed in regeneration in a way that we couldn't look before. So David and his students are busy making big libraries of genes that contain everything expressed in regeneration. Then he can determine what genes are turned on during the process to begin to see what the triggers are. If you can figure out what triggers regeneration, maybe you can reach a point where it can go on its own. That's what we're aiming for.

What brought that study about?

I've been involved in it my whole career. When I was a student, I thought regeneration was incredible that animals could make perfect replacements. They're not crummy. It really does get back to the original developmental process just in the same way an embryo produces. Under normal circumstances, it makes the perfect leg and its fits. The tricky part are those steps up front. Salamanders are the only vertebrate that can generate these stem cells from adult tissues.
If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at latimes.com/archives. For information about reprinting this article, go to www.lats.com/rights.
==============================
"Those who seek to predict the future... might first look to the past. The past is a mirror -- and those who ignore its sometimes dark reflection, are doomed to repeat it... Will it be those seeking redemption who shall decide the future... or will those driven only by greed and envy shape our destiny? Even a hundred years later, the outcome is still very much in doubt. .." Outer Limits(Heart's Desire)