A collaborative partnership between Pilgrim High School, biotech company Amgen (based in West Greenwich) and the University of Rhode Island (URI) is providing students interested in entering the booming biotechnical industry a pipeline towards successful careers.
During a demonstration on Friday at Pilgrim, students in Dr. Caroline Savery’s Biotech I class prepared a gel electrophoresis experiment from scratch, utilizing kits provided by Amgen through the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE).
The students worked dutifully despite interruptions from local media and a large gathering of interested policymakers, including Mayor Scott Avedisian, House Minority Leader and Republican candidate for Governor Rep. Patricia Morgan, Rep. Joseph Solomon Jr., City Council president Joseph Solomon, Ward 1 Councilman Richard Corley and Ward 7 Councilman Stephen McAllister. Chief Academic Officer for Warwick Public Schools, Sheryl Rabbitt, was also in attendance, in addition to Amgen employees.
Dr. Edward Bozzi, professor of biotechnology and chemistry at URI and a big advocate of the Amgen program with Warwick, delivered a welcome address where he referred to Warwick schools as a “breeding ground” for the skilled students who go on to major in scientific studies in college.
“Pilgrim High School has been a very strong supporter of both programs,” Bozzi said. “They’ve been involved with the Amgen Biotech Experience and they’ve also been sending us many good students into our undergraduate biotechnology program at the Providence campus.”
Pilgrim Principal Gerald Habershaw brought the partnership with Amgen, made possible through a three-year grant, with him from Warwick Veterans High School following that school’s consolidation into a junior high school (soon to be a middle school).
“It’s the new way of looking at education,” said Habershaw. “We try to connect them to the real world.”
For the experiment, students were tasked with mixing the gel, placing it into the electrophoresis machine and then pipetting a number of diluted buffers into the gel. They then had to make observations based on how the various liquids reacted to an electrical current being run through the gel.
Without needing instruction, students came into class and got right to work – donning safety goggles and gloves and pouring the liquid that would become their experimental gel. Students currently enrolled in Biotech II volunteered to help assist their classmates with the experiment as well.
“They’re extremely enthusiastic, they like working with their hands and they’re so proud of themselves when they’re done,” said Savery of the students working in the class.
Savery said she had upwards of 10 kids in her two classes interested in pursuing biotechnology as a career, and recently sent 10 kids to the Skills USA competition held at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, where they performed a similar experiment judged by professionals in the industry. They are currently awaiting the results of the competition.
Aside from making labs like the one seen on Friday possible through their supplying of materials, Savery said that the partnership with Amgen is beneficial because it shows students that they can perform tasks required of them in a professional environment, instilling confidence moving forward.
“It’s one of the hallmarks of beginning to understand what genetic engineering is about and is one of the skills that anybody going into the field of biotechnology has to learn,” Savery said of the gel electrophoresis experiment, adding that, “If they’re a student generally interested in science, they can see that they can actually carry out professional level experiments and they can be successful. So it gives them that spark that they can actually maybe have a career in science, when maybe they didn’t have that possibility.”
That spark can turn into a full-blown passion, as seen in students like Pilgrim senior Courtney Carr, who said, “What’s not to like?” in response to a question about what she enjoys about her biotech class, and about science in general. Carr has been accepted into Bryant University, where she said she’s interested in pursuing biotech as a major.
“It [science] helps us understand and explain the unexplained,” added one of Carr’s lab partners, senior Rebecca Cusick.
Once they finish high school, students may follow the pipeline to URI, where Bozzi said that students have endless opportunities to pursue internships in the field with professional stars in the industry, network with experts who come to provide guest lectures and set themselves up with competitive, lucrative careers before they even graduate.
“These kids are totally aware of the industry, they have contacts and lots of experience,” Bozzi said of URI’s biotech program. “And it changes lives.”
Through their partnership with the University of Rhode Island, ABE currently supports more than 50 science educators to bring the program to 25 high schools in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and southeastern Massachusetts. Over 19,000 students have participated in the ABE-RI program since 2007. Globally, ABE reaches more than 80,000 students and over 1,000 science teachers each year. To date, more than 600,000 students have participated in the program.