Biotech’s next frontier: Arizona’s high schools

July 14, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: David Miller, Arizona Capitol Times] — DNA fingerprinting. Uncovering genetic diseases. These are common elements of the most popular shows on television, the “CSI” stable of cop dramas pitting fabulous lab techs against seemingly unsolvable crimes. Such technologies capture the imagination of millions each week, tuning in to watch the sleuths battle villains using gadgets that TV sleuth Joe Friday never dreamed about.

In Arizona classrooms, teachers are using such techniques to spark the imaginations of young students, as part of a groundbreaking project that aims to boost the state’s biotech industry by reaching potential workers at the ground level — the high school science class.

Dr. Nadja Anderson, head of the BIOTECH Project in Tucson, leads the program, which started in 1996 and is slated to reach more than 10,000 students this year, in schools and science classes across the state. The project is designed to help create a new and improved biotechnology workforce, a slew of future scientists versed not only in textbook teachings, but also in the laboratory workings of genetics and research. “With the hands-on aspect of this, kids are automatically engaged,” says Anderson, noting that the current slate of popular TV dramas helps create an initial interest that can be stoked with exciting and innovative practices. “‘CSI’ has made my job so easy.”

Biotechnology, as noted on television, is commonly used to identify criminals, diagnose diseases and determine paternity. But in these and a variety of other areas, the field is shifting at an exponential rate, powered by technological refinement, curiosity and skyrocketing demand.

Arizona, working to become a leader in the industry, is in critical need of a workforce familiar with the intricacies of biotechnology, from the manipulation of food and high-resistant crops to the treatment of ailments.

Bringing latest tech to high school classrooms

One way to ignite scientific interest in young people is by bringing the latest technologies to the teachers and students, and by allowing them to be on the cutting edge before ever stepping into a college classroom. Also, Anderson and her colleagues at BIOTECH want students to realize that scientific research may not have the flash and glamour of the “CSI” lab, but it’s certainly a fascinating career field. “In order to have students become more competitive in science, something like this is very necessary,” she says.

Margaret Wilch, a biology and research instructor at Tucson High Magnet School, located near the University of Arizona, says her students have been embracing hands-on biotechnological research for years, as part of the school’s association with the BIOTECH Project. “The students are very excited about it,” she says, emphasizing that her laboratory classes are the furthest thing from rote, didactic learning — a standard in too many high school science classes. “Lots of kids’ imaginations are captured by molecular biology and genetics.”

Many students, she says, plan on careers in fields such as medicine or pharmacy, often after they’ve experienced genetic manipulation in the high school lab. A typical experiment at Tucson High Magnet School, for example, involves inserting particular genes into bacteria and checking for expression. Wilch calls the BIOTECH method of extending research to young people a groundbreaking way of impacting the future workforce. “It’s a fabulous program,” she says.

Arizona emerging a leader

Taken as a whole, Arizona’s biopharmaceutical industry can’t compare with the nation’s biotech giants — the Boston, San Francisco and San Diego centers, for example. But Arizona is making impressive gains in the industry, according to Bob Eaton, CEO of the Arizona BioIndustry Association, a not-for-profit organization promoting the growth of the state’s bioscience companies. “Arizona is poised to move into the second tier of bioscience states or regions,” says Eaton, who also serves as president of the association. “It’s certainly not of the scope of a Massachusetts or California. But Arizona is moving into a group that includes states like Washington, in the Seattle region, Maryland, Florida, Texas and several others.”

To continue that movement, the state needs to continue investing in a workforce versed in research techniques and opportunities, he says. That includes younger workers emerging from the universities, but also more seasoned experts. “You can establish all the education programs you want, but you’re never going to graduate someone with 10 years of experience,” says Eaton.

Nina Ossanna, director of business development with the BIO5 Institute, an organization affiliated with the University of Arizona and bringing together scientists from multiple disciplines, is one of those experts who initially left the state because of a dearth of opportunity. “I graduated from the University of Arizona with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and left Arizona because there were no jobs here,” she says. She returned seven years ago and found the landscape changing dramatically, with a variety of players working under common goals.

“A lot has been done in the years since I’ve been back,” Ossanna says. “But there has not only been one cheerleader — the state has really pulled together.”

Support has come from the Legislature, the universities and the business and development communities. These groups promote the inherent strengths of the state, including Tucson’s vibrant optics industry and Phoenix’ semiconductor and aerospace foundations, as they try to lure more biotech companies. But it’s just a start to host an Intel within the community, she says. A forward-looking biotech region must also foment bonds between smaller firms and industry giants, and motivate all to move in a common direction.

California, she notes, is making great strides with stem-cell research, while Texas is looking to spend $2 billion to $3 billion to battle cancer. But Arizona also is acting with vision, by sharing ideas and promoting the theme of a more disciplined and cooperative approach, Ossanna says. “With a lot of companies, the new technologies are multidisciplinary and collaborative. That’s a strength as a whole that the state has, which doesn’t exist in other places.”

In terms of promoting a more healthy workforce, organizations such as BIO5 and programs like the BIOTECH Project are aiming to impact the next generation of scientists at traditional locales such as the universities, as well as secondary schools boasting teens ripe for real-life experience.

Hooking youngsters on science

“That’s our mission — to make sure the workforce is prepared and to interest young people in science,” says Deborah Daun, director of communications with the BIO5 Institute. “It’s a critical need. Even if young people don’t want to become scientists, they need to become science literate.” This mirrors Anderson’s assertion that some high-school students working with BIOTECH will end up applying their skills at research facilities across Arizona, instead of other high-tech centers around the country. Others will strengthen their reasoning abilities for whichever fields they enter.

Biotechnology, of course, continues to impact society and the economy at an increasing pace, whether the subject is bio- engineered food, new and enhanced medication or fuel derived from alternative sources. It’s also fast becoming an indelible part of society and culture – – something that was much less true even a decade ago. “One thing that people got from the O.J. Simpson trial was that the study of DNA was boring,” says Anderson. “But it’s not boring. It’s actually fun and exciting. And that’s my main goal — to help young people realize that this is important, but it’s also fun.”