PhD student Kimberley Babos featured in ISSCR Member Spotlight

Kimberley Babos (Photo courtesy of ISSCR)
Kimberley Babos (Photo courtesy of ISSCR)

Kimberley Nicole Babos, a PhD candidate and Ichida Lab member at USC, recently gave an interview to the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) for a Member Spotlight.

What is the current focus of your research?

The Ichida Lab at USC studies amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a devastating neurological disease with no effective cure. We harness the power of direct lineage reprogramming to generate induced motor neurons from patient samples. With these patient-derived induced motor neurons, we can study disease phenotypes “in a dish” and pursue patient-specific therapeutic treatments. However, this system is extremely inefficient, and the cells generated are often a mixed culture of fibroblasts and neurons.

My project focuses on identifying roadblocks to efficient induced motor neuron production. What started as a side project during my rotation three years ago is now the crux of my PhD thesis and has yielded mounds of exciting results. I guess it’s not all a fluke after all! We have found a unique and robust method with which to improve conversion efficiency that also enhances properties of the induced motor neurons generated. Importantly, our data indicate that these induced motor neurons are mature, distinct and clinically relevant cells that accurately model neurological diseases in vitro.

What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?

I was a gymnast for almost 15 years and suffered numerous injuries. The most devastating, and shocking to most people, is that I fractured my C4 vertebrae by accidentally doing a front flip on my head. It should have been career ending, right? Wrong!

For some reason, I couldn’t give up gymnastics, and a few months later I was competing again. I competed for another two years and “retired” on top as a state champion on uneven bars.

What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?

Growing up, I always wanted to be a medical doctor, not a scientist doctor — an important distinction for a 12 year old. It might be no surprise then, that after years of countless visits to orthopedic surgeons, I was inspired to become a doctor helping gymnasts with their injuries. So I enrolled as a biology major at Arizona State University, passed my science courses and took the dreaded MCAT at the end of college. Truthfully, I failed, epically and miserably, and I was devastated.

That same summer, though, as fate would have it, I received a prestigious internship as a Helios Scholar at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen). TGen was a fabulous institute to begin a science career. The facilities are beautiful, the technologies cutting-edge, and the staff and faculty went out of their way to train us as productive young scientists. I worked in the lab of Dr. Jonathan Keats studying multiple myeloma, where I focused on characterizing one of the most commonly mutated genes in the disease. I spent the next eight weeks learning to pipette — muscle memory starts somewhere, right? — clone plasmids and culture cells.

Then at the end-of-summer Helios Scholars Symposium, it clicked: science was fun, I was good at what I did and I did not want my internship to end. I suddenly realized that this was what I was meant to do, cliché as that sounds. So in the span of about two months, I took the GRE, submitted graduate school applications and, four years later, here I am, a PhD candidate at USC!

I honestly had no idea what field I wanted to study in graduate school. Thankfully, the PIBBS program at USC allows students to rotate in several labs their first year, Dr. Justin Ichida’s lab being one of them. When I joined the lab, I worked on in vivo reprogramming, seeking to generate induced motor neurons in the limbs of mice for neurological regeneration purposes. Given my personal connection to and experience with spinal cord injury, this project was obviously made for and spoke volumes to me.

I am so thankful Justin saw potential in and took a chance on me by giving me the opportunity to work for him. I’m thrilled and honored to be part of the ever evolving stem cell field, where my ideas contribute to its growth and, hopefully, the advancement of medicine. To think that we can make neural cells from skin cells still blows my mind and makes me excited for what is still to come!

How do you spend your free time?

I really am blessed to have time to do the things I love. With summer temperatures hovering at around 110°F in Phoenix, our family always beat the heat by escaping to San Diego while I was growing up. Now living in LA, I often take the quick 1.5-hour drive down to San Diego for a day or two to recharge, lay at the beach and ride bikes around Mission Bay and Pacific Beach. On the other end of the temperature spectrum, though, I love snow skiing. From the time I could walk, I learned to ski in the beautiful Wasatch Mountains of Park City, Utah. Boy, am I spoiled with all that fresh powder every year!

I also love to travel, a gene inherited from my father. My dad is always planning his next three trip itineraries in his head, and we joke that he is our personal Rick Steves tour guide. I’ve been fortunate to visit Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Europe several times, most recently for the ISSCR Annual Meeting in Stockholm last summer. Some of my favorite cities are those “paths less traveled” like Krakow, Poland; Budapest, Hungary; and Barcelona, Spain.

I love to grocery shop, cook, play board games and sightsee with my wonderful fiancé here in LA. My other “hobby” when not in lab is actually wedding planning, too. My sister is getting married in San Diego this June, and it has been so much fun spoiling her as her maid of honor. Simultaneously, I am planning our wedding for April 2017, so wedding bells are quite literally booming in my family’s house right now!

What do you like most about living and working where you do?

Working at USC is a unique environment to pursue translational research because of the ease and accessibility with which we can work with LA County Hospital, USC Keck Hospital and other leading universities in LA and nearby San Diego. It makes you feel like the work you’re putting in at the bench now can really come full circle to patients at the bedside in the future.

Los Angeles is a dream city, and I love its diversity. I love that living in LA has expanded my food palette, and that I’ve seen sights like the Griffith Observatory and Getty Villa.

The weather in LA is also incredible: hiking near the Hollywood sign, picnicking in the park, and going to the beach in February all seem “normal.” It’s hard not to love a place like Los Angeles where it’s sunny with a chance of happiness 99 percent of the year.

What do you gain from your membership with the ISSCR?

My favorite benefit of being an ISSCR member is attending the Annual Meeting. Whether giving a lightning-fast Poster Teaser or presenting at one of the Poster Sessions, I’ve thought more critically about my research project in conversations with “outsiders” posing stimulating questions and ideas. These conversations keep me on my toes and allow me to critically-evaluate the current state of my project as well as what future directions are necessary.

Beyond the scientific aspect of the Annual Meeting, the networking opportunities are unparalleled, especially for young investigators and trainees. Where else can you interact with journal editors, industry professionals and world-renowned stem cell leaders in scientific and social settings than at the Annual Meeting? I have personally developed great relationships with attendees at these meetings that have fostered collaborations and friendships, both of which will be invaluable for my personal and professional development.

Mentioned in this article: Justin Ichida, PhD