Meditations of an oncology geek

Biotechnology as the Auto Shop of the 21st Century?

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23 November 2014

A few weeks back I found out about the following:
1) My old high school is trying to raise funds for upgraded biotechnology labs
2) The La Jolla Community Foundation was to host a kickoff fundraiser for the event at LJHS
3) Craig Venter was going to speak at the fundraiser

Simply put, I was pretty excited to attend. Once there I had the pleasure of meeting current teachers, parents, and curious community members in the mixer before moving into the main auditorium to see a fantastic presentation by Timothy Scott of Pharmatek, and the somewhat surreal experience of seeing Craig Venter interviewed by basketball hall of famer Bill Walton.

Venter started off the night with the quip “the last time was at a high school and met the principal, it was not on the best of terms.” After a few laughs and anecdotes, he and Walton slowly moved to discuss a vision for the future of biotechnology and medicine, the cornerstone of which will be individuals who have hands-on experience with with the fundamentals of biotechnology. And here’s the kicker: that this education can happen in high school.

Equally important to hands-on technological experience is practicing science as problem solving as opposed to the current high school science educational model dominated by rote memorization.

While a few of the speakers portrayed a sentiment that we might produce the next Craig Venter through this project, a more subtle, and to me more practical vision emerged: the La Jolla High School Biological Science and Technology Center is also meant to teach marketable, vocational skills. A portrait emerged of what could be the “auto shop” style classes of the 21st century: Biotechnology.

At Epic Sciences I work in a highly dynamic, collaborative environment with those in business development, quality assurance, competitive intelligence, assay development, product development, and project coordination. Working at a small biotech company has especially driven the point home that there are many career paths and areas of expertise within biotech, but a common thread woven into all of them is the fundamental understanding of the biology and the technology. Most that work at my company have some hands-on experience in the lab. In fact, we value this so much that we have a hands-on training program in the lab at Epic that every new employee, from intern to VP, has to pass.

So, Could biotechnology be the auto shop of the 21st century?

Auto shop taught hands-on skills working with machinery, offering both the practical knowledge to work on one’s automobile, but also the type of primer for a career working in mechanistic industry. Auto shop was a course that offered vocational skills that might be especially valuable to one looking to go directly into the workforce from high school; the norm in generations past when ample jobs existed in that industry.

Large-scale mechanistic industry has been on the decline in the U.S. for more than a generation, outsourced overseas and replaced by other industries. The biotech industry, in contrast, is rapidly growing here in the U.S. and especially San Diego County. Biotechnology can be used to tackle many of the issues of our time, from medicine to energy to climate preservation. Craig Venter went so far as to argue that biotechnology is essential for our survival as a species.

Taking a step back, the possibility of having marketable, vocational skills taught at the high school level is especially attractive to my generation: the tandem increase in tuition rates and decrease in degree worth has made the college route more tenuous than generations past.

College route or not, I would argue that hands-on training in biotechnology and the practice of problem-solving science at the high school level is a very good investment of student time, and our public and private resources. The potential windfalls are great for both the individual and the whole.

Biotechnology Innovation as Positive Cultural Phenomena?

At this point in my blog post I realize that I might be in danger of rambling on about spurring jobs and development and helping produce a more scientifically literate generation. Perhaps we might even be able to start “dreaming of tomorrow” again as posited by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who has eloquently spoken about the cultural value of optimism and progress that science and technology impart:

Meanwhile, however, that entire era galvanized the nation. Forget the war driver, it galvanized us all to dream about tomorrow. To think about the homes of tomorrow. The cities of tomorrow. The food of tomorrow. Everything was future world – future land.

The World’s Fair? – all of this was focused on enabling people to make tomorrow come. That was a – that was a cultural mindset the space program brought upon us. And we reaped the benefits of economic growth because you had people wanting to become scientists and engineers – who are the people who enable tomorrow to exist today.

And even if you’re not a scientist or technologist, you will value that activity. And that, in the 21st Century, are the foundation of tomorrow’s economies and without it, we might as well just slide back to the cave because that’s where we’re heading right now – broke.

(skip to 1:07 in the embedded video below for the above quote)

I encourage you, dear reader, to watch the first two minutes of this video and perhaps insert “biotechnology” in place of “space exploration”; many of the same messages hold true:

Perhaps the applications of biotechnology could be a source of optimism that we need as a culture? Could we start a trend here? I certainly hope so. The dreamer in me sees basic biotechnology labs in high schools everywhere, a generation from now a greatly expanded biotechnology industry producing wonderful medical advances and living much more harmoniously with our planet.

Alas, a goal without a plan is fantasy. While these visions are admittedly grandiose, the common thread is transforming the basics of science education and biotechnology training at the high school level. The La Jolla Community Foundation is embarking on an ambitious fundraising campaign to do this at La Jolla High School. While LJHS is located in a posh neighborhood, roughly 40% of the student body is bussed in daily from other (less posh) regions of San Diego County. The geographic proximity of LJHS to the heart of the biotech industry lends potential internships and collaborations. After this bioscience center is established, the lessons from implementation can be translated to other high schools in the region, and beyond. I am following this with great interest.


Written by Ryon

November 23rd, 2014 at 11:37 am

Posted in Science Blog

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