Meet the Next Wave of Scientists Who Are Taking Over Biotech

This article was originally published here
September 8, 2016
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

Genentech (RHHBY) broke ground on its Science Garage on August 30, a 6,900-square-foot biotechnology laboratory and classroom on the grounds of South San Francisco High School. Science Garage is part of the company’s Futurelab, a long-term paid partnership with the South San Francisco school district that focuses on supporting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for students from essentially kindergarten through grade 12.

At the younger levels, Futurelabs offers the Gene Academy, which is an after-school mentoring program for 3rd through 5th grade students in the South San Francisco schools. Kristin Campbell Reed, Genentech’s director of Corporate and Employee Giving, told BioSpace, “All year long, kids get the same two mentors so they receive a tremendous amount of attention and time, homework support, and really fun hands-on science-type experiments that are designed to inspire curiosity, joy, excitement and fun.”

Gene Academy involves about 170 children each year.

The second anchor program for Futurelab is the Helix Cup, which is a science competition for middle school students. Each year more than 600 kids participate in problem-solving challenges, teamwork, resilience and communication. It culminates in a shock-and-awe type of finale on the Genentech campus, a very show-biz, razzle-dazzle Iron Chef-type of event.

Reed notes that unlike some science competitions, where a single person wins, the Helix Cup is set up as a series of team challenges “that is more focused on developing their softer skills—communication, resilience, try-and-try again. They’re facing a number of challenges and work their way to the top two or three teams, then they all come to Genentech and have a big event program. We try to create a day for these kids that they’ll never forget, that can be a kind of touchpoint, formative memory in their lives.”

And finally, there is Science Garage, which focuses on the high school level. Reed told BioSpace, “It’s not just the facility, but more importantly, it’s a concentrated space where we worked with the district to create, design, and get approval for a biotechnology curriculum that will satisfy laboratory science requirements for the University of California laboratory science system. And it’s to teach the biotech skills that people here at Genentech have, and to offer an additional laboratory science program that’s highly specialized and highly relevant in the area for these kids.”

Anchor programs offered for Futurelab

Although there is an emphasis on curriculum and content, there’s the Science Garage itself. In addition to the space, Genentech worked with the school system and instructors to identify the types of equipment that would be both cutting edge and appropriate. Some of that equipment include incubators, a biosafety cabinet, an orbital shaker/rotator, and a bench-top autoclave for sterilization. But moving into a higher end of biotech, it also includes a MaxyGene™ II thermal cycler to allow the students to learn polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques that are used to create as much DNA as needed for experiments.

In addition to equipment, the curriculum involves teaching a broad range of biotechnology techniques, including micropipetting, DNA isolation and gel analysis, rDNA technology and recombinant protein production, assay development, VIS spectrophotometry and gel electrophoresis. The students will be exposed to DNA analysis, synthesis, and DNA sequencing, protein analysis including gels, western blots, ELISA, and column chromatography, E. coli transformation, plant breeding, and UV spectrophotometry.

Reed says, “The emphasis again is the way this content is being taught. It’s closer to a mastery-based learning approach, where the students really have a chance to come back and try and try again and experiment until they have a successful experience. They’re given the opportunity to master a skill, rather than to just listen to a lecture and be given content.”

Futurelab represents an investment of more than $18 million in South San Francisco schools to date. Reed says, “We really looked at all the ways we could connect with support that existed in our local schools and all the resources we could bring to bear. So Futurelab includes money, obviously, but also a big, big component is around employee time. We have a huge emphasis on mentoring and volunteerism, connecting with students in a different number of programs. In the last two years Genentech has had about 50,000 hours of volunteering, with approximately 1,300 employees participating.”

But the Science Garage program is taught by teachers in the school system who were tapped to be the biotechnology program instructors. They underwent specialized training, and Genentech is involved in that training.

The new facility will be completed in the second half of 2017, ready in time for the kids to start using it when school starts in the fall of 2017.

Futurelab and Science Garage is all part of Genentech’s culture of giving, and seems consistent with the philosophy and culture of the company. “It’s aligned with our cultural values and business-related priorities,” Reed says. “We feel really strongly about fostering diversity in the sciences and the challenges facing not just industry, but all STEM in general. Working with our school district in our backyard is a way of being aligned with those values.”

It is, she suggests, an extension of the company’s philanthropic activities in the San Francisco area. “We’ve always given around the Bay Area, and a couple of years ago we stopped and took a look at whether we could do this in a way that is more impactful. And through that thought exercise, we really began the conversations with the South San Francisco school district. We’re not dabbling here! We’re making a big investment in an area of unmet need, and that’s really consistent with how we think about our business.”

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