CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology

Creating Fundamental Building Blocks to Student Learning and Success in Biotechnology



​​DNA damage happens continuously in living cells and much of it is unavoidable. In human beings, failure to repair DNA damage results in genetic mutations and can lead to cancer. As an example, more than 90 percent of melanoma skin cancers are due to skin cell damage from ultraviolet radiation from exposure to sunlight. The Centers for Disease Control reports that rates are increasing for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. In 1982, there were 11.2 cases per 100,000 people; in 2011, that rate increased to 22.7 cases. At this point, scientists and physicians know the cause of most skin cancers and recommend preventative measures, but we still need effective therapies to treat the disease.

To help understand the key molecules and pathways that direct DNA repair, Dr. Paula Fischhaber’s group at California State University, Northridge focuses on proteins found in baker’s yeast (S. cerevisiae). Compared with human cells, yeast cells provide a simple model system for study, but they contain most of the DNA repair mechanisms found in more complicated systems. The group uses microscopy, genetics and other biochemical methods to understand how cells choose the most appropriate DNA repair pathway to avoid burdensome levels of mutations that could otherwise give rise to cancer.

The fundamental studies’ importance has been underscored by continual grant support, starting in 2007, from the National Institutes of Health to Dr. Fischhaber’s group. Over the years, the NIH funding not only led to nine publications from the 54 undergraduate and 18 master’s students trained in the lab, but also a notable source of successful students who moved on to graduate school and biotechnology jobs. Coming full circle, Dr. Armen Mardiros, Fischhaber’s first master’s student, was invited back to the 31st Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium as a featured speaker; he’s now the director of translational oncology at Allogene in south San Francisco. Several Fischhaber group members have been CSUPERB Award finalists and two students—Justin Karlin and Fred Fregoso— won the Don Eden Graduate Student Research Award in 2010 and 2019, respectively. Dr. Karlin is now practicing as a physician in Los Angeles; Fregoso is in the molecular biochemistry and biophysics doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fischhaber has been involved in CSUPERB governance since arriving at CSUN, serving as a Faculty Consensus Group member, and she was elected in 2018 to serve as the deputy chair. Fischhaber recognized that, even with federal grant funding, she was unable to offer apprenticeship-style research experiences to all interested students. She’s taken a leadership role advocating and advancing course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) within the CSUPERB community. Piloted in 2018, the CSUPERB CUREs network now involves more than 91 faculty members from 22 campuses in workshops, webinars and an online community. CUREs offers course-based discovery research experiences and experiential learning which, if well-executed, can result in student engagement, learning outcomes and skill-building similar to research apprenticeships. The CSUPERB CUREs network, led by Fischhaber, hopes to see CSU faculty, administrators, departments and campuses design effective ways to incorporate experiential learning for all STEM students across the curriculum. She explains: “Hands-on research experiences provide the deep mentoring that is vitally important to STEM students’ personal growth and professional development. The CSU should build on programs and infrastructure that will enable increased faculty mentorship, such as those promoted by CSUPERB.”