Brave New Science

By Rhea R. Borja — September 17, 2003 9 min read
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Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Biotechnology has caught on at the precollegiate level.

Minuteman Regional High School student Russell Young, peering intently through plastic safety goggles, pinched off shreds of cow heart, liver, skeletal muscle, and kidney with a pair of stainless steel forceps. With painstaking care, he dropped the samples into different test tubes.

After separating the samples’ liquids and solids in a machine called a centrifuge, which spun the muscles and organs at a speed of up to 1,000 revolutions per minute, Young boiled the amber liquid and poured it into a receptacle that electrically separates molecules. The end result looked like an especially viscous, blue-tinged Jell-O.

The 17-year-old student wasn’t concocting a new, albeit dubious-looking, dessert. He was conducting a scientific procedure that created protein “fingerprints” of the bovine tissues. Young’s aim: figuring out whether the proteins in the various tissues were identical or different.

This isn’t your typical high school science class. While many students focus on learning the cell cycle and dissecting frogs, Minuteman High’s biotechnology students learn how to replicate DNA molecules or grow and harvest animal cells, which can be used for medical research.

Biotechnology, which pairs fields such as technology and engineering with biology to manipulate DNA and create or change living organisms, has caught on at the precollegiate level. The 760-student Minuteman High, here in suburban Boston, is among an increasing number of schools nationwide that have started biotechnology programs, built high-tech labs, and trained science teachers in this emerging field, say experts such as Kathy Frame. She is the education programs director at the Biotechnology Institute, a nonprofit research and education group based in Arlington, Va.

“Every state is focusing on biotech to some degree,” Frame says. “There seems to be a burgeoning number of biotech academies, even going down into the lower grades.”

Biotechnology academies and programs dot the West Coast, in places such as Seattle, San Diego, and Silicon Valley, where biotech is big. Now, precollegiate biotech programs on the East Coast, where the biotech industry has taken off in places such as Boston and North Carolina’s Research Triangle, are also emerging.

Middle schools and high schools in Miami and Baltimore have recently started such programs, and 40-foot roving “biobuses” bring biotechnology to thousands of students in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Biotechnology companies have emphasized the field's growing demand for skilled workers and have introduced biotech to schools through student-outreach programs.

The industry itself has largely powered the trend. Spurred by giants such as San Francisco-based Genentech Inc. and Biogen Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., biotechnology companies have emphasized the field’s growing demand for skilled workers and have introduced biotech to schools through student-outreach programs, teacher training, grants, and high-end equipment.

The Genentech Foundation for Biomedical Sciences, for example, awarded 19 grants in April totaling $1 million for student science programs in the San Francisco Bay area.

Minuteman High has also benefited from outside aid. The school has a fully equipped, $200,000 biotech laboratory and “clean room,” a workroom that has a controlled level of airborne microbes, courtesy of local biotech companies, and a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The trend has been spurred in part by high-profile scientific advances covered by the news media. For instance, the recent success of the Human Genome Project, which mapped the human genetic code, opened up the prospect of a new era in medicine and made the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Indeed, biotechnology has become something of a media obsession, with stories on controversial subjects such as stem-cell research, gene-therapy drugs, and genetically modified crops showing up regularly in the news.

"[The interest in] biotech is growing exponentially,” Frame says. “It’s everywhere.”

Bucolic Lexington on the outskirts of Boston, with its statue of a Revolutionary War soldier in the tiny town square, belies the area’s image as a scientific haven. But almost 300 biotechnology companies have opened shop in greater Boston, and the 8-year-old biotechnology academy at Minuteman Regional High School is the oldest on the East Coast.

This rigorous, four-year program has 60 students, who balance courses in bioethics, genetics, and Total Quality Management with honors courses in math, chemistry, and physics, and extensive laboratory work.

Their traditional academic courses also give a nod toward biotechnology. In one English class, for example, students read the early-19th-century novel Frankenstein. The cautionary tale about a man- made human addresses the bioethical issue of “playing God,” an accusation lodged by biotech critics against makers of cloned animals and genetically modified foods.

“We try to find things that grab kids’ imaginations and see how they can apply in real life,” says Mary Jane Kurtz, the biotechnology director at Minuteman High.

Students don’t just get an hour or so of laboratory work a week, but days. Their coursework is divided into one week of traditional academic courses, then one week of biotechnology courses. The students are also trained in job-related skills, such as communication.

Seniors are required to do independent research, ranging from designing glow-in-the-dark carrots to conducting a college-level computer analyses of DNA function. By senior year, they’re doing scientific work that is several levels above what seniors do at traditional high schools, says Nancy Amara, a Minuteman biology teacher.

One student conducted a study that was similar to ones the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has undertaken.

“They’re working at a scientific level I didn’t hit until I was a junior or senior in college,” she says. “They come out of here working with equipment they wouldn’t normally use until graduate school.”

She spoke of a former Minuteman student now studying for his doctorate who, as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, wasn’t allowed to use a gas chromatograph, a tool that separates chemical mixtures, which he had already used at Minuteman High.

“He was outraged,” Amara says, laughing.

The machine broke and the student fixed it. “They let him use it after that,” Amara says. “That’s the beauty of this program. The kids who want to do science get to do science. And a lot of it is original science.”

One student, for example, conducted a three-month study on the effect of herbs such as gingko biloba and St. John’s Wort on the growth of mouse cells. Such a study is similar to ones that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would conduct on a drug before its approval, says biotech director Kurtz.

“It’s actually a useful thing to do,” she says.

Almost all of the school’s biotechnology students enter college, school officials say. That’s far higher than the 60 percent of all Minuteman students who enter college or other higher education institutions.

But teachers and administrators emphasize that students don’t have to be future Einsteins to be in the biotechnology program.

What matters, Kurtz says, “is that they’re interested in science and technology.”

Biotechnology’s sister program, the less intensive biomanufacturing-technology academy within the school, trains students in technical laboratory techniques. Many students in that program go directly to work after graduation as lab assistants, quality-control inspectors, and manufacturing assistants, among other positions.

Students in both biotechnology and biomanufacturing can get college credit at local Middlesex Community College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. And both programs also offer job-shadowing and internship opportunities with companies such as Biogen and Cambridge, Mass.-based Genzyme Corp.

Kelsey Byers, for instance, interned at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Now a freshman majoring in biology and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she studied bioinformatics, a field that uses computers to analyze and predict the structure of biomolecules.

She hopes her background in biotechnology will help her launch a career in medical research.

“I had wanted to be a veterinarian,” says Byers, a confident 17-year-old with long, brown hair. “But I hated the sight of blood.”

The genesis of Minuteman High’s biotechnology academy was more than 10 years ago, during the last national recession. During the Persian Gulf War, unemployment statewide reached 9 percent in the first quarter of 1991, almost double the rate of the previous year, and higher than the national average.

But while businesses laid off workers and the national economy spiraled downward, Boston’s biotechnology industry gathered steam. And as companies progressed from research and development of a product to its manufacture, they needed to hire skilled workers.

“It was an obvious career path,” says Thomas Markham III, Minuteman’s director of community relations and development. “Just look[ing] at the Sunday paper, you could see the growth of job listings for that industry.”

So Minuteman High, then a more traditional vocational high school, started a one-year biotechnology program to train adults in the field. The program was so successful that school administrators considered offering a four-year program for high school students.

The school gathered a task force of biotech-industry representatives, scientists, educators, vocational education experts, and even a state politician to figure out the skills prospective biotech employees needed and how they would attain them.

“The industry was thrilled that we actually asked them what they wanted,” says biology teacher Amara, who took a six-month sabbatical to work on the project. “A lot of times, [schools] start programs without input from business.”

Training and expertise are critical in biotechnology, as any mistake in the workplace can be costly, time-consuming and potentially harmful to employees’ or customers’ health. If biotech employees aren’t careful, even a slight deviation from standard operating procedures in making a biomedical drug could “mean that a whole batch of [it] can be declared invalid,” Amara says.

‘Where else can you work with genetic material.’

Minuteman High opened its four-year biotechnology academy in 1995. Over the years, the school has proven itself, says Fernando Quezada, the director of the Waltham, Mass.-based Biotechnology Center of Excellence Corporation, a nonprofit group that helps government agencies and universities in biotech development.

“Minuteman was a pioneer,” he says. “They took some risks, but they got buy-in from the industry and assistance from government agencies.

“Once you take the initiative, you get a lot of people coming on board to help you succeed. That’s what happened at Minuteman.”

Down the school’s labyrinthine halls and back in the biotechnology lab, the nine juniors continue their protein-fingerprinting project. Biotechnology Director Kurtz, in a white lab coat, strolls around the laboratory, monitoring them closely.

The whir of the centrifuge provides a pleasant background hum, and the students seem engrossed in their work. Some of them make mistakes, and have to start over, but they do so usually without complaint.

Then they take off their rubber gloves and type their laboratory reports on the five computers in the classroom. Their school day has ended, but some linger in the lab.

Russell Young is one of them. He has taken off his lab coat and safety goggles. But he pauses to take another look at his project.

“This is more hands-on,” he says. “Where else can you work with genetic material?”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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