Schrepfer and Ransohoff Sisters Prove an Award-Winning Team in the Stanford CT Lab

August 25, 2008

When Bay Area natives Katie Ransohoff, 19, and her sister Julia Ransohoff, 17, realized that their far-reaching scientific aspirations were limited by the high school opportunities offered, they took it upon themselves to fill the gap by turning to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital (LPCH) and the Cardiothoracic Transplantation Laboratory (CT Lab) at the Stanford School of Medicine to further their educational goals.

In 2005, Katie, then a high school sophomore at Castilleja High School and curious about the scientific mechanisms behind health and disease, contacted Dr. Robert C. Robbins, professor and chairman of cardiothoracic surgery and then-director of the CT Lab, asking whether she could learn from him and the work of his lab. Dr. Robbins put Katie in touch with Dr. Clifford Chin, associate professor of pediatric cardiology and co-director of pediatric heart transplant services at LPCH. Katie shadowed Dr. Chin in the clinic and in the echo lab, attended rounds and clinics, and assisted with exercise physiology research. Here Katie learned about cardiac anatomy and physiology as well as the basics of imaging. Katie later introduced her sister, Julia, to Dr. Chin, resulting in Julia shadowing him in 2007 and 2008. After Katie began working in the CT Lab, Julia collaborated on an exercise physiology study with Dr. Chin. Katie has worked in the CT Lab every summer since 2006, including during her senior year of high school as part of her Independent Study program. Through her Independent Study work, Katie entered the Junior Science and Humanities Competition and placed sixth in the Western Regional Division with her project on the use of bioluminescent imaging to compare survival kinetics of different adult stem cells transplanted into the heart.

Julia, fascinated by her experience with Dr. Chin in clinical cardiology, applied to the Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research (SIMR) Program through the Center for Clinical Immunology, which placed her in the CT Lab with Katie and working with Dr. Sonja Schrepfer, instructor and recipient of the 2007 Rudolf Pichlmayr Prize awarded for outstanding achievement in the transplant field. Dr. Schrepfer has been the recipient of an impressive fourteen prestigious awards and honors over the past six years.

When Julia applied to the SIMR Program and was placed in the CT Lab with Dr. Schrepfer, Katie was excited to both continue her education in the CT Lab and mentor Julia along with Dr. Schrepfer. During the summer of 2008, Katie, Julia, and Dr. Schrepfer focused on “The Gender Divide” project, investigating whether or not there exist biologically relevant sex differences in mesenchymal stem cells. The trio proved to be a dynamic and efficient team, completing the project from conception to results in a matter of weeks.

Dr. Schrepfer speaks highly of Katie and Julia’s talents.

"Julia and Katie are extraordinary students with energy and creativity. They are caring, open-minded, extremely hard-working, very smart, and very committed. They have a strong interest in the sciences, and their technical ability in the lab is superb. It was a pleasure and honor mentoring and teaching them, and I am looking forward to working with both in the future.”

Katie and Julia are equally appreciative of Dr. Schrepfer’s guidance.

“Dr. Sonja Schrepfer has served as an extraordinary mentor, furnishing us with the skills and scientific mindset to pose and answer relevant questions in the fields of transplant immunology and stem cell biology.”

Award-Winning Teamwork

Katie and Julia’s work has not only broadened the depth and breadth of their knowledge and experience, but their time and effort alongside Dr. Schrepfer have also merited awards.

Julia received the SIMR Program’s Jessica Lynn Saal Fellowship, awarded for exemplary performance and achievement in the summer program. This award also secures Julia a position in the SIMR Program again next summer. She has already made plans to return to the CT Lab to work with Katie and Dr. Schrepfer.

In May 2008, Dr. Schrepfer received the Foundation for Women’s Wellness Rachel Tawil Award, awarded to support research on cardiovascular disease in women, for her work on “The Gender Divide” project.

Plans for the Future

At the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute Retreat in September 2008, Katie will present the trio’s work, entitled, “The Gender Divide: Does Donor Gender Matter for Mesenchymal Stem Cell Transplantation?” at the Young Investigator poster session. She returns to Harvard College this fall, where she is currently a pre-med sophomore planning a concentration in the social and cognitive neuroscience track within psychology, and is planning to return to the CT Lab in summer of 2009 to pursue follow-up studies.

This fall, Julia will begin her senior year at Menlo-Atherton High School and will continue to work in the CT Lab during the school year. Julia is currently applying to college and is interested both in science and public policy; she is particularly interested in surgery and biomedical research.

Dr. Schrepfer will continue to investigate the immunobiology of adult and embryonic stem cells. There are still many hurdles to translating stem cell therapy from bench to bedside, and the immunology aspect is critical. Dr. Schrepfer is also investigating various aspects of solid organ transplantation (heart and lung), such as individual and local immunosuppression and the importance of different T cell subsets (Th1, Th17, Th2). She also plans to expand her research group and continue pursuing exciting translational research in an innovative environment with amazing collaborators (from Stanford and abroad) as well as mentoring motivated students like Katie and Julia.

Outside the Lab

Katie and Julia are also active peer health educators. They were awarded grants from Youth Venture (a branch of Bill Drayton’s, Ashoka), Bread for the Journey, the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, to create a bullying prevention module (Bullies: Who, What, and Why) and a healthy relationships module (The ABCs of Healthy Relationships: Awareness, Balance, and Choices) for Sutter Health. In 2003, they cofounded a social venture and philanthropic sports-service club, Running for a Reason, to raise funds and awareness of the value of hospice care for children.

(left to right) Katie Ransohoff, Julia Ransohoff, and Dr. Sonja Schrepfer

(left to right) Julia, Katie, and Dr. Schrepfer working in the CT Lab

Stem cells are isolated and tranfered into a cell culture dish to expand the cells and purify them. 

(left to right) Dr. Schrepfer and Julia at at the SIMR poster session where Julia received the Jessica Saal Fellowship