Students get hands-on research experience in stem cell lab

Students get hands-on research experience in stem cell lab
Professor Luis Villa-Diaz, left with his research students from left to right, Schuyler Werth, Joseph Bires, Hunter Sorensen, Matthew McClure, Genna Wilber, Cody Howe and Julia Czarnecki.

Many students work part time over the summer, but not many will be able to get the type of valuable career experience in their chosen fields like the seven undergraduate students and one doctoral student being trained by Oakland University’s Luis G. Villa-Diaz, assistant professor of biological sciences.

professor villa diaz and students

Villa-Diaz, who joined the faculty in January, has hired the students as research assistants in his stem cell lab. The students will be working with pluripotent stem cells, those that can turn from their primitive form into any type of cell in the human body. He uses both embryonic stem cells, grown from cells gathered about 20 years ago, and human induced pluripotent stem cells, created in the lab by reprogramming adult cells to express embryonic stem cell characteristics. 


His current investigations are assessing the impact of a protein called Integrin alpha-6. He wants to see how this protein mediates the interconnection between the stem cells and their microenvironment and how it affects the two main properties of stem cells: self-renewal and differentiation.


Stem cells remain an important field of research because they can be programmed for a wide range of uses, such as growing new cartilage and fighting diseases.


Villa-Diaz says that his current research will likely run for several years. That is why he requires his student assistants to commit to at least a year.


“There has to be that level of commitment on the part of my students, “ Villa-Diaz said. “That is what it takes to do research.”


The first step is underway. Villa-Diaz and his students are growing pluripotent stem cells and introducing them to a designed microenvironment. The cells will then be differentiated into different types of stem cells. Each one of his students will conduct the experiments required to obtain a particular stem cell type.


Most of the students working in the lab are on a pre-med track or have aspirations of becoming researchers. Six of the current undergraduate students are studying biology or biomedical sciences, and one is studying bioengineering. The doctoral student is working toward a Ph.D. in stem cell biology. Villa-Diaz hopes to add a master’s level student to his lab group this fall.


Villa-Diaz has been teaching at OU since January and in the last 12 years he was an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He studied Veterinarian Medicine at the Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico before earning his master’s degree from Lincoln University in New Zealand and his Ph.D. in biology of reproduction from Kobe University in Japan.

Professor Villa-Diaz making microenvironment