School science labs go pro

Amgen Foundation provides equipment

BIOTECH RULES—Camarillo High science teacher Joi Hiraishi, center, learns about the new equipment last year.

BIOTECH RULES—Camarillo High science teacher Joi Hiraishi, center, learns about the new equipment last year.

Local high school biology students are learning what it’s like to work in a professional lab.

The Thousand Oaks-based Amgen Foundation has upgraded school science labs with professional grade biotech equipment that allows students to enrich their education.

Jennifer van der Borgt, Amgen’s corporate affairs representative, said the Amgen Biotech Experience program introduces students to the “cutting-edge science” used in the industry.

The program allows students to insert a human gene into bacteria, which, in a particular lesson, helps them learn about insulin-dependent diabetes.

Scott Heimlich, vice president of the Amgen Foundation, said his group has been funding the program for about 25 years to “inspire the next generation of scientists.”

Heimlich said the program was designed by Amgen scientists and college professors, and was piloted at Newbury Park High School by teacher Hugh Nelson, who is now retired.

“What started in that one high school class . . . reached 72,000 students (last year through) Amgen in Ireland, England and the U.S.,” Heimlich said.

Students learn the fundamentals of biotechnology and how to use up-to-date lab equipment for advanced genetic engineering.

Teaching budding scientists

Winnie Litten, an Advanced Placement and honors biology teacher at Oak Park High School, said the program has provided a “unique journey” for students and teachers.

“You might just light a fire in a student that didn’t think they could do science before, and that kid could solve a problem that we desperately need an answer to,” Litten said. “That’s pretty powerful.”

She said the program has made her a better teacher.

Nancy Jobsz and Megan Swanson, science teachers at Calabasas High School, use the Amgen program for freshman honors biology and for honors physiology.

“Students in honors biology begin by digesting bacterial DNA that has had red fluorescent protein from a sea anemone inserted into it,” Jobsz said. “The digestion removes the protein from the DNA. Students then test the results using gel electrophoresis. Banding patterns show the DNA and the protein lining up in specific regions.”

Swanson said her physiology students pick up where the freshmen leave off, “using the transformed bacteria to purify a protein product, which mimics the production of insulin.”

“The ability to use equipment not available to most students until college and to create transgenic organisms using the same technology available to major biotech labs and companies is an exciting prospect for our students,” Swanson said. “In some students, this experience sparks an interest in studying science in college and helps them to understand how they might apply their academic knowledge in a future career. As a teacher, it is exciting to push my students out of their comfort zone and to see them master such challenging content and lab skills.”

Nikki Malhotra, an anatomy, research and physiology teacher at Thousand Oaks High School who has been involved with the program for many years, said some of her research students have used the biotech methods learned in class for science fair projects. The students choose a topic and must scientifically answer a question on a local or global problem or issue.

“The ABE program has also inspired many students to pursue an education or career in science or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” she said. “Several of my students with ABE experience are conducting undergraduate research in top labs across the country, and the best part is that these students are accepted into undergraduate labs during their freshman or sophomore years, which is a rare accomplishment as compared to their counterparts.”

Student views

Students at Calabasas High School shared their experience in the program with The Acorn.

Seta Aghababian, now a senior, participated in ABE in honors biology and honors physiology classes and said she was inspired by the work.

“Having the ability to work hands-on with laboratory-level technology and advanced experiments helped me develop my love for science,” Seta said. “The labs were comprehensive and explained the material in a way that was easy to understand for a student who was new to realm of biotech.”

Seta plans to study environmental science in college and said she knows that her “experience from the Amgen labs will prove to be incredibly valuable in my college education and beyond.”

Alana Hyman, also a senior at Calabasas High, said she was “super excited” when she found out that she would be using professional Amgen lab equipment in her freshman class.

“I couldn’t get over the fact that I was using materials from an actual professional lab. We got to work with different kinds of petri dishes and study what they are used for, combine different amounts of chemicals, (both) harmful and normal ones you can’t live without, to analyze our observation of the reaction, and learned about how they are using modern technology to improve disease cures and treatments.”

Alana plans to major in molecular biology, biotechnology or biomedical sciences in college.

“I loved the labs so much and how the materials work together that I was a teacher aide for Mrs. Jobsz during my sophomore year to help run the biotech lab program, and I used other class time to work on my (Girl Scouts) Gold Award, which was a research project on food allergies and how they use biomedical research to create treatments and cures for food allergies.”

Calabasas High School 10th-grade student Shiva Yagobian said the Amgen biotech lab was an interactive, hands-on experience that helped her understand what she read in textbooks.

“This experience stood out to me because it gave me a visual representation that helped me understand the curriculum better and in greater detail,” she said.

Van der Borgt said that during the 2014-15 school year, nearly 25,000 high school students in 144 Ventura County and Los Angeles-area schools “got hands-on with ABE labs.”

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