Biotech in Action Encourages High School Students to Invent a Better Future - The Labster Podcast, Episode 20
April [00:00:04] Hey, everyone. I'm April and you're listening to the Labster Podcast. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, we thank you for empowering the next generation of scientists at Labster. Our mission is to support you as you prepare students to change the world.
April [00:00:21] Our host is Dr. SJ Boulton, an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's Virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college and university. In this episode, we're joined by three of the people involved with the groundbreaking Biotech in Action program, a free online learning program for high school students that offers them access to cutting edge technology, immersive scientific experiences and mentoring.
April [00:00:51] Biotech in Action is a collaboration between the Biogen company and the nonprofit Lemelson MIT program that encourages students of all backgrounds to develop interest, confidence and capabilities in science, technology, engineering and math. And we at Labster are very proud to provide the science simulations for Biotech in Action Kool here to tell us all about the Biotech in Action program are two of its faculty members near Gibson of the Lemelson MIT program. Alex Cameron of the Biogen Community Lab. And Dr. Stephanie Couch, the executive director of the Lemelson MIT program. Sowmmiya Alex and Stephanie. We'd like to give you all a warm welcome to the podcast.
Nia [00:01:37] Hello, everyone. I am so excited to be here. My name is Nia Gipson and I am with the Lemelson MIT program.
Alex [00:01:46] Hi, everyone. My name is Alex Cameron and I am the community lab coordinator in Biogen's Community Lab.
Stephanie [00:01:55] And I'm Stephanie Couch, the executive director of the Lemelson MIT program and part of the team that put together the program we'll be talking about today.
SJ [00:02:04] I'm so excited that everybody is here. This is so wonderful. And listen to your introductions. That was wonderful to all of it. I do have a first question. I know, Alex, you worked for Biogen, don't you? How did you become part of that Biogen community lab and also a faculty member in Biotech in Action?
Alex [00:02:24] Yeah. So Biogen, we have a Community Lab. We have a pretty long history, actually. So the Community Lab was originally founded in 2002, so it's been around for about 20 years and really are our space up until Biotech in Action was really bringing students into biology, and that's what we we really focused on. That's what we excelled at bringing students into Biogen, showing them what a lab looked like, letting them touch equipment, letting them see what what was happening in Biogen firsthand.
Alex [00:02:54] And actually, we have a really robust group of employees that love volunteering in the community lab. They love coming and talking to the students and showing them what they do. And that's actually how I got started and right around the time I started, Covid hit. So we really had to get together as a Community Lab team and rethink. You know what that looked like, what engaging with students in our communities looked like because we could no longer bring them in. We couldn't show them employees, we couldn't show them equipment.
Alex [00:03:21] And that is when we actually reached out and through some contacts, found the Lemelson MIT group and they had a history of, you know, reaching students across the country and across the world and doing things virtually. And we thought, that's what we need to do. So that's kind of how the collaboration was born. That was like the seeds of Biotech in Action, which is what we you know together came up with. And, you know, we knew that we could do something, but we weren't sure what that would look like. And Biotech in Action is kind of what ended up happening. And we took that expertize of how to get employees connected with students, how to get students, to see what it's like to work at a biotech company and took that virtual.
Nia [00:04:00] One of the things that we are doing with the Lemelson MIT Biogen collaboration program is really helping students to start defining some of those problem spaces that they may not be familiar with. So the Biotech in Action program is really focused on neurodegenerative diseases, which is something that I think a lot of high school students have heard of, but maybe haven't spent that much time actually doing a really deep dove into. And so the way that the program is set up is first, we tell students about a neurodegenerative disease, and this year we focus on Alzheimer's disease, which is a really terrible and prevalent disease that more and more students are coming in contact with over the course of their life. And then we challenge them to do research on their own neurodegenerative disease and really identify opportunities where invention could happen.
SJ [00:05:02] That's amazing. How do they? That's really strong, that's a lot to put on a kid. It sounds like a lot to put on a kid, but obviously they're very successful here. So I'm really curious, how do they go about finding out about neurodegenerative diseases? It's quite a high level topic. Is it something they've got in their lives or is it something that you encourage them to explore? How do you do that?
Nia [00:05:22] I think it's where the strength of this program really lies is that there are a lot of students who are genuinely very interested in this topic already, or they wouldn't apply for the program. And so our program is running in the summer when students are on vacation and they could be anywhere else. It's also on the weekends during the school year when they could be doing other things. So the types of students that are choosing to do this program are also ones that are just really interested in this topic as well.
Stephanie [00:05:55] And I think part of the strength of the program is that we bring in our colleagues from Biogen, which I think Alex can really speak to, who demystify for our students how it is that a company like Biogen would go about developing therapeutics. And so they're they're understanding how that whole process works and getting excited about that. And then they also hear from a patient or a caregiver. And so they get in touch with the human elements of these neurological disorders and then we bear around which ones we would like them to do their own research around and come up with their own solutions to those that are in the realm of the kinds of things that Biogen works on. In that way, when the students are at work in the program, they can come to the experts that we've assembled together for input on the work that they're doing in the program.
SJ [00:07:04] And as I understand it, you've now taught several cohorts in the Biotech in Action program. And I was wondering, looking back, what's surprised you the most about that experience?
Alex [00:07:15] Well, for me, I think I think the way that the students engaged virtually was kind of my biggest surprise because, you know, prior to that, I'd only seen students in person and I got to watch them put on lab coats and put on goggles and hold a pipette and see that smile on their face. And that was my biggest fear was, is that going to come across, you know, our students going to care about this if they're not actually seeing it, if they're not touching it, or are they actually going to care? And the very first session that we did in summer of 2020, that fear was immediately eradicated and has been ever since. The students are so passionate and they're so engaged, they ask so many great questions. They really want to learn and they want to be involved. So that surprised me. You know, I thought, Well, how are we going to get these students excited? And turns out that that was the easiest part of the job. They do that themselves. So that surprised me. But in the best way,
SJ [00:08:09] I mean, you know, it's really easy to forget. Science is cool. I amazing. I mean, it gives us a lot of sustaining energy at Labster to take a step back every now and again in between coding and setting up workflows and looking and going to know what, we're building something really cool. Science is cool.
Alex [00:08:28] We'd love to tell the students, like when we start and we're introducing them. So we use Labster in Biotech in Action and we'll tell the students this is kind of like a video game meets science and it's going to be really cool. And it's always exciting to watch the students say they love Labster, and it's a great way for us to show them, you know what science looks like virtually. And like I said, their excitement has never waned, so we are super excited to have use Labster. It was a, it was an awesome thing that we found that when we started making this program
Stephanie [00:08:55] And you're right, they connected around the science because science is cool. But we were studying the students during the first summer and doing a lot of ethnographic research studies. And what the students were telling us was how sad they were to see it end because they made such great friendships with people that they'd never known before. That didn't live in their backyard and they were really sad and they'd passed information to stay in touch just like you would at a regular face-to-face camp. And so we also made the people connections. As you're saying, we built the community online and a supportive culture for these students. And this just stood in stark contrast to what I was reading in a lot of people's experiences trying to teach online. So it was really a stark contrast for me of some of what I read. Online learning can be really exciting and fun if you have the right collection of activities and really great instructors like Alex, Nia, and our other folks.
Nia [00:10:02] I just wanted to add a couple of things to what Stephanie and Alex were just saying, that really speaks to how powerful the online virtual learning community can be in a way that really surprised me. So this past summer, and even right now, as we're going through our fall iteration, we have students that are not just in Massachusetts, not just in North Carolina, but all over the United States and all over the world participating. And that has been both a challenge because some of these students are getting up really early or staying up super late in order to participate in the program, but also has provided a whole wealth of insight to some of our conversations that I think that just American students wouldn't have been able to really dive into some questions about equity and access to technologies, access to funding, access to resources, and how do we think about making sure that any technologies are drugs that we develop are distributed equitably around the world? And I think that that's only something that you get with a international program, and we wouldn't have been able to do that if all of our students had to be domestically in person, for sure.
SJ [00:11:33] Yeah, reaching across different communities is something that I recognize is completely fallible and really present in the Biotech in Action program. If I remember right, you actually had a lot of students from low income households and groups that are historically quite underrepresented in science. And if I remember correctly from Stephanie's talk, those were actually the students that potentially received the greatest impact of the program. Is that right?
Nia [00:12:01] I would definitely agree with that. So I'm African-American myself, and one of the things that I really enjoyed is looking at the Zoom screens and seeing such a wealth of diversity within the students that we were teaching and the experiences that they were bringing to the table. And even though there were some students who were probably much more privileged or at higher socio economic status, we really tried to make this an equal experience for all of our students. And I think that we were able to give some of our students who maybe didn't have access to a biotech lab or to scientists or to actual scientific professionals giving them that insight into this world of biotechnology. I think that that was a really big benefit for those students, for sure.
Alex [00:12:53] Yeah. And I can I can jump in here just a little bit because so I'm actually the, I guess, the admissions committee for Biotech in Action me and an algorithm that I wrote a couple of years ago. And we say upfront when students apply for this program that we are going to give preference to low income students, to students historically underrepresented in science, that is in literally the mission statement of the community lab. So it's something we're really passionate about.
SJ [00:13:20] What do you think those key skill areas are that maybe, maybe you don't see a lot of in graduates or maybe skills that you think are ones developed traditionally? What are they and how is the program supporting the development of those key skills?
Nia [00:13:35] So I think that really the things that I think are most important for students to learn is about collaboration and communication. And how do I take a idea that is really, really complicated and complex? And how do I break that down into something that is achievable for me and my team and really realize that to the fullest extent? And so I do think that by its very nature of being a virtual program, we are really emphasizing that aspect of it and we are not actually dumbing our information down for our students. We have actual professionals who are really, really passionate about their job and what it is that they are doing every day in the lab, and they don't really dumb down their language for the students, and we tell the students that it's OK for them to be confused and to not know what's going on, but to really ask questions, be engaged and be participatory as best as they're able. So that then they get the most out of the program.
Nia [00:14:50] And I think that those are uncomfortable spaces for students to be in. They, particularly if they are really interested in science, they like to be right. They like to always have an answer, and it's uncomfortable for them to have to admit I didn't catch everything that that person just said, and we can go back and say, Well, they have a Ph.D. in this and have been working on it for 30 years. So that's OK. But you get something out of it and you've learned something more. And now you have the tools in order to learn more. Even beyond the confines of this program.
SJ [00:15:28] Sure thing and creating space for those uncomfortable feelings sometimes around it not being right or not turning out how I expected is such a valuable thing to start developing early. Alex, would you add anything to that about the skill, the key skills that you think are important in the development through the Biotech in Action program?
Alex [00:15:48] Yeah, I think we already touched on this a little bit, but you know, when we think about these programs that we do at Biogen, you know, selfishly, we hope that some of these students one day want to work with us, right? Like I and we have that happen. We actually have employees at Biogen that have been through our programs before. So from our perspective, a lot of times it is less about, you know, showing a student like a specific skill or saying, you know, you need to learn these skills and more. Just saying like this is possible for you to do right. Our end goal is that places like Biogen have this diversity of thinking, have this diversity of employees, and it starts with the students, right? It starts with the people that are interested in science. Those are the people that are going to become scientists. So a lot of it is really just this isn't that hard.
Alex [00:16:39] You know, we try to demystify what science is, what biotech is to really, you know, instill in the students that this is something you can do. This is something that people like you are already doing. That's one of the huge things when we're recruiting employees and people from MIT to speak to the students, we try to make sure that we get speakers and mentors that are of all different backgrounds, all different ethnicities to, you know, to show the students that look scientist doesn't look like a certain thing or only work on a certain thing. You know that there is this huge community within science that is is magical and wonderful because of its diversity. So I think that's like always my biggest goal when I go into teaching is like, can I let these students know that they can be scientists? You know, it doesn't have to be that they can only have, you know, this one set of skills or they only got it, even if they don't care about biotech, you know, if they come out thinking, I can do something in science that is completely feasible for me in my career and my future, then I think we've had a successful program.
Stephanie [00:17:39] Well, I just want to jump in here on this one. You know, communication skills are really important in the workplace. And one of the things that we tell the students is that the instructors are really there as their cultural guides, that they are now entering a professional workspace even though they are physically going inside the door of the community lab and that when they engage with these people from Biogen, they're making an impression. So we sort of set them up as to what might be expected. For example, turning on your camera and being engaging with the speakers and asking them questions. And so that's kind of coached as to how you communicate within this professional community.
Stephanie [00:18:26] You know, I'm so proud of some of the carry on activities that have been generated by the experience. We had one young man who came to the first summer where we had the Parkinson's theme and his father actually was struggling with Parkinson's, so he had an idea for a glove. And he presented that at the culminating event in the program. And then he kept coming back to us for coaching. And he ended up entering the Massachusetts Invention Convention, and he won at that level and went on to compete in the national competition at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, with his invention. And now he's come back because now he's applying for work for a program at MIT. On his way as he's leaving high school. And so we're staying in touch.
Stephanie [00:19:25] Another one of our research scientists who spoke to the students, she's from Spain, and some of the program participants were also from Spain, and so many of the young girls reached out to her for coaching as they were deciding on their college applications and which degrees they wanted to pursue. So there are these kinds of things that are happening as the program matures, and they're very exciting to see as anecdotal examples of the difference this is making in the students' lives.
Nia [00:19:59] And just to follow up on what Stephanie has been saying, really, this is a program that has a very low floor, but a very high ceiling, and so students can really take the information and just absorb what they're being taught during the lessons from our fantastic speakers and learning through the Labster experiences. But they really also have the potential and a lot of the support to go even farther beyond just the confines of the program. And so there are definitely some students who really do take the information that we give them and run with it. And I think that that's some of the most exciting things to see. And you were talking a little bit earlier about, well, how do we keep these kids engaged and how do we make sure that they don't burn out? And I think that the way that we do that is by providing them with interesting and exciting projects and opportunities, not the same things that they're seeing in their classrooms. Not the same experiences, not the same worksheets or textbooks, but something that they truly can see how it applies to their lives or the lives of others for sure that will keep them engaged.
Alex [00:21:18] Like me, I would say, I think sometimes we get a kind of relationship with them. That's a little bit different than I think, like a historical student teacher relationship where they're not calling me Miss Cameron right there. They're calling me Alex, and I'm not Alex, the teacher to them. I'm like, Alex, this like person who works at Biogen. And I think that level that, you know, we can kind of work outside of the confines of the education system that they've been used to in be able to make them feel like they are, they're heard and that they are, you know, important and that we care about their futures and that that level of treating them like professionals, I think, is just something that is different and keeps them seeing, you know, a different side of education. Yeah, definitely.
Alex [00:22:02] And I will say just something that we haven't touched on that I think is kind of unique about this program specifically and something that we actually try to do in all of our programs with the community lab is show students, employees and people involved in biotech that aren't scientists. So we bring in people from H.R. or legal or accounting or, you know, people that aren't traditional, you know, working in the lab by the scientist and they get plenty of those, too. But we have found, you know, I've had students that have said to me afterwards or during the program, I'm interested in helping people with these diseases, but I just don't think science is right for me. I just don't think working at the bench is right for me.
Alex [00:22:43] So I think it's really helpful that we can show them that you can be involved in changing the world in a lot of different ways. And you know, maybe that means biotech, and maybe it doesn't. But even if it does, even if your passion is biotech and your passion is, you know, helping people with neurodegenerative diseases, you don't have to be a scientist to do that. You can take your interests and merge together your interests and your passion, and you can find a career that maybe involves science, but maybe doesn't. And I think that's something that really resonates well with, you know, not all the students, a lot of the students are like, I'm a scientist, I'm always going to be a scientist. I want to be a scientist.
SJ [00:23:19] Well, our time is coming to a close. Already, I can't believe that we have covered some real interesting and deep ground, and I've really enjoyed talking with you. And I just want to thank you all for sharing the thoughts that I have with myself in April today and with our wonderful audience. Do you have one last question before we wrap up the episode? And that is if you are speaking right now to a prospective Biotech in Action applicant or a high school science teacher who might be listening? What would you like to tell them?
Nia [00:23:48] I would say, take a chance. You might just learn something.
Alex [00:23:52] Yeah, I think that I would tell them to do it right to apply and apply. Even if things don't line up 100 percent with what they think they want to do or what they think their students might be interested in. Because, like I have mentioned, it's surprising how many students are unsure about the program when they start and our biggest fans by the time they end.
April [00:24:14] Well, that brings us to the end of our conversation with Dr. Stephanie Couch, Nia Gipson and Alex Cameron from the Biotech in Action program. If you know a student who has an interest in biotech or who just thinks "science is cool", this virtual program is open for applications, and it's free to register at https://www.lemelson.mit.edu/biotech-action. Thank you for listening. We invite you to send us your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like this episode, we hope you'll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast. Until next time, keep teaching, keep learning and stay safe.