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High-school students celebrated for work in the biotech industry

on August 18, 2011

Ever want to learn about the cellulolysis processes or why karyokinesis and cytokinesis happen in the fourth phase of cell division? Just ask one of the 22 students at Oakland Technical High School and Berkeley High School, who are finishing up their summer internships at biotech companies in the East Bay.

The interns are part of the Biotech Partners program, a non-profit that works with schools to help minority students gain science education and career training. The program starts by offering specialized curriculum to selected high school juniors and includes paid summer internships. Students may then continue to participate while in community college with another internship in the biotech industry.

“One of our goals is to make a more literate populace in the sciences, and we’re definitely doing that with these young people,” said Debbi Bellush, the executive director of Biotech Partners, who’s seen the program grow since it started in 1992.

On Monday night these 22 students—a third of them from Oakland Tech—stood dressed in white lab coats in the Tech girls’ gymnasium next to poster boards displaying graphs, reports and other artifacts from their experiences in an eight-week summer internship. They worked with companies like Bayer HealthCare, the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute and the UC Berkeley Genomics Sequencing Laboratory on projects spanning from investigating ways to produce biofuel to studying potential cures for cancer.

Courtney Sanders, 17, from Oakland Tech, worked in the research and development department at the pharmaceutical company Bayer HealthCare. During those eight weeks,  she helped to research a monoclonal antibody that attaches to a cancer cell, making the cancer more visible for the immune system to attack. Sanders said Biotech Partners is helping her pursue her dreams of being a pharmacist. “If I wasn’t doing this I’d be sitting at home watching TV,” she said. “I don’t have summer school. I’m too old for summer camp. There’s nothing else to really do if you think about. I could work in retail, but this is better.”

An additional 26 students who graduated last spring from high school and the Biotech Academy were also honored on Monday. Ahmed Akbar, 22, graduated from the program at Berkeley High in 2007 and is now a judge for the internship portion of the program, which rates the students’ presentation of their projects. He said he’s looking to see if they really understand what they did this summer. “Anybody can get thrown into a lab and you can be told what to do,” he said, “but I think the essence of the program is really understanding how your work relates to the world community.”

Akbar said he was a mediocre student before starting with Biotech Partners during his junior year of high school, but since then has excelled in academics. Now after internships at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Bayer HealthCare, he’s transferring from one of the Peralta community colleges to UC Berkeley this fall where he hopes to combine a business degree with a focus in science.

“It’s one of best educational experiences that I’ve ever participated in,” said Amy Hansen, a chemistry teacher at Berkeley High School who’s been teaching students in the biotech program since it started. “We take students who are unsure of what they want to be, not sure what the point of school is and we give them some serious science education.”

Hansen provides the students with instruction and encouragement throughout the year to prepare them for the summer internship. They’re required to maintain a C average in chemistry, otherwise they can’t participate in the internship. The summer internship, Hansen said, is where the students grow the most.

“They step into the real world; the real world of Bayer and Kaiser and other locations,” Hansen said “and they are different people at the end of the summer then when they entered the program. It’s heartwarming and thrilling to watch the transformation.”

Listen to the audio piece to hear more from the students.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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