Kearns high school senior Nicholas Campbell is tall and thin with a friendly demeanor. He worked on a project for Eschelon Bioscience for the last four months, thanks to a novel internship program called InnovaBio. He and 30 additional students presented their research at a meeting, for a chance to win up to $1500 in scholarship money.
“We are working on sphingomyelin phosphodiesterase 1. It’s a human protein that is only expressed in our brain cells,” says Campbell.
Through the internship program, high school students are working directly with biotechnology companies and conducting scientific experiments using materials such as DNA and human proteins. Approximately sixteen high schools throughout the Salt Lake valley offer biotech classes. As a junior a student takes an introductory class provided by the high school. And the next year - as a senior - they can sign up for InnovaBio. Campbell says the program is full of surprises and that’s what he likes about it.
“Every day is a new experiment a new problem that we have to get over and finding new ways of manipulating DNA and just thinking outside the box and this has been the most fun I’ve had in school.”
Tami Goetz, the state science advisor started the program at Salt Lake Community College. “The InnovaBio project, the idea for this began several years back probably in 2003, when we began to see our high school biotechnology programs grow by leaps and bounds. I mean they were doubling each year. So we had a good problem, we had a lot of kids that loved this hands-on science in the biotech program and wanted to do more of it, but there was no next step, we didn’t have that next step for them.”
Goetz says Biotech companies were reluctant to take untrained high school students as interns. So she decided to form her own non-profit organization to train the students and contract with the companies. The companies pay InnovaBio to work on specific projects and students do the work in a new building at the Salt Lake Community College’s Jordan campus. They get one-on-one training from full time InnovaBio employees and use state of the art equipment, often better than what the companies have. Instruments such as a sequencer to determine the primary structure of DNA and robots that can be used to set up large experiments that would take a single person hours to complete. Goetz says students who finish the program are well prepared for future jobs in the growing biotech industry.
“If you had asked me back in 2004 if high school biotech students would get jobs I would have told you absolutely not. Companies will not hire these kids with just one year of lab experience no matter how good it is, but InnovaBio changed that.”
In the last couple of years, most students are choosing to continue their biotech education in college. University of Utah student Sidney Trung finished the program last year. “It was so great getting a lot of experience in the lab and now that I work in a lab up at the University of Utah I already have all of this experience. It actually helped me get a scholarship up there because I mentioned that I had two years of lab experience already and yeah they really liked it,” says Trung.
InnovaBio was the first internship program of its type, now other organizations in the US and in other countries are using it as a model for developing their own programs.
For more information about the program, visit the InnovaBio website.
This story originally aired 6/29/09