Julie Harness studied many things – architecture, graphic design, marketing and psychology – before she found her niche in stem cell biology.

“Stem cells are the basic building blocks of the body,” says the doctoral student. “So in many ways I have returned to my architectural roots.”

President of the UC Irvine chapter of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research, Harness helps peers build futures in the stem cell field by connecting them with faculty mentors, potential employers and people with illnesses that stem cell therapies may one day cure.

“Students may not know people or patients in the field, or they’re intimidated by them,” Harness says. “It’s very important to connect with people who can help you find your way through this academic jungle.”

The group – which also hosts public lectures and student networking events – is open to anyone with an interest in stem cell biology. Founded by two graduate students in 2006, the UCI chapter is about 250 strong, and includes students, postdoctoral researchers, industry professionals and members of the general public.

Harness believes UCI undergraduates studying stem cells have an important edge: They can work on projects that are scientifically important – and golden for their resumes. She works in the laboratory of Hans Keirstead, who developed a human embryonic stem cell therapy for spinal cord injuries that will become the first ever tested in humans. The FDA’s approval of the therapy for clinical trials was worldwide news in January.

“It is inspiring to see a researcher’s love of this field manifest beyond her scientific reports,” says Keirstead, co-director of the UCI Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center and an affiliate of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, which seeks new treatments for spinal cord injuries. “Julie leads the student society with an ease and efficiency that reflects her leadership potential in the stem cell field, and the forum for exchanging ideas, education and interaction with academic and industry leaders is a valuable resource for students.”

One of Harness’ many research projects is developing stem cells that are specific to a patient, which could lead to treatments for Huntington’s disease and other disorders.

“I see so much potential in this field,” she says. “I hope that one day cellular transplants will reverse illness, or even catch it before it starts.”