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August 29, 2006 > Support network for biotech students

Support network for biotech students

by Jessamyn Edra

"Hopefully, they get that little spark," says Joe Zermeño, "that feeling that 'I can do this.' " Zermeño is speaking about approximately 120 students at Newark Memorial, Kennedy, and James Logan high schools, who will embark on their first biotechnology course this fall, thanks to the Learning Alliance for Bioscience (LAB) project.


Dr. Ron Quinta, Dean of the Math, Science Engineering and Technology department, and Biotechnology at Ohlone College is the Principle Investigator (PI) or director of the LAB project. Zermeño, a biology instructor at Ohlone, is a co-PI and the LAB project coordinator.

The project is funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and began at the planning stages in August 2005. This school year will be the first full-year of the program and the culmination of many people's hard work.

Ideally, the LAB project works as follows: LAB personnel present the program to high-school freshmen and their parents. That spring, students are chosen and accepted into the LAB program. While the project is open to anyone, efforts are being made to actively recruit from groups traditionally underrepresented in advanced sciences, such as Latinos and African Americans.

As sophomores, students take their first biotech course as well as a study skills class. They will also be participants in a study hour program after school, which introduces them to college level tutors from Ohlone and other schools. These tutors will not only be there to answer questions, but Quinta hopes they will sit in on the high school biotech courses and become more like teacher's assistants. There will be a study hour four days a week.

Zermeño describes the tutors as "an academic big brother or big sister" who seeks to "show the students that there are opportunities open to them" and highlight "the importance of finishing your high school diploma and then moving on to college."

The LAB project also involves mentors within the biotech industry who will give tours, send speakers to the high school, and allow students to job shadow and even intern when they reach a certain level.

There is also a Summer Bridge program at Ohlone that allows high school students to put what they've learned to use. Allowing students to do laboratory work on a college campus makes higher education seem all the more concrete and accessible to students who may not have considered going to college before.

"A lot of it is visualizing," Quinta says, "being able to see yourself in that role." Getting students comfortable with both college and the biotech company environment is a key part of the project. This basic model of college level courses and community support continues until the students graduate from high school. Upon graduation, they will have earned up to 15 college credits. By this time, they will have already fulfilled one-third of the biotechnology certification program at Ohlone College. After high school, should the students decide to attend Ohlone, they are able to receive this biotech certificate after their first year at the community college. This certificate enables students to move into the job market as a research associate or an employee in biomanufacturing. They also have the option to continue their education at the university level as a transfer after two years at Ohlone.

"It's an intense program," states Quinta, "but with a lot of support." He continues by describing the project as a chance to "break down barriers between these different levels of education" and create fluid transitions from primary school to middle school to high school to community college to a college or university.

The LAB project is truly "a collaborative effort with high schools," says Zermeño. And at James Logan High School, one biology teacher is not only working with the LAB project, but expanding it.

Sue Hinojoza received a Specialized Secondary Program (SSP) Grant for $290,000 from the California Department of Education. With this grant, she plans to start a partner educational pathway at Logan called the Genetic Engineering and Medical Sciences (GEMS) academy, which is slated to be begin in 2007-08.

The first two biotechnology and biochemistry courses of the GEMS academy dovetail perfectly with the LAB project, according to Quinta. "Logan is developing a senior-level biotech program," he says that is separate from the LAB project but "somewhat similar to the courses at Ohlone."

While the LAB project is designed to ease the transition between high school and community college, Quinta says that students that graduate from the GEMS academy will most probably move forward from high school right to the university level.

Hinojoza describes the academy as having "three main pathways": one focusing on biotechnology and biochemistry that will culminate in student-run "independent research projects in the second semester," another emphasizing the medical sciences, and lastly one that Hinojoza predicts "will be very popular," forensic science.

Zermeño says about Hinojoza, "She's a real go-getter." Quinta says, "She's one of the most enthusiastic people I've met." Zermeño adds, "And I think students must be able to pick up on that enthusiasm."

Biotechnology, a fast-growing industry in the Bay Area, combines disciplines such as biology, chemistry, engineering and computer science. As Hinojoza says, "This is where science is headed."

While Hinojoza is in the planning stages for the GEMS academy, the first biotechnology course in conjunction with Ohlone's LAB project will take place this fall at Logan, and she is very excited.

She describes the class as "advanced" and "very lab-intensive." She lists some of the class assignments: "DNA fingerprinting" and "plant cloning." She also says that students will be able to transfer DNA from one organism to another using "recombinant DNA techniques."

Students will learn, for instance, "how molecular biology supports evolution," says Hinojoza enthusiastically. And depending on whether or not she receives a Toshiba grant she applied for, students may also be able to test their own DNA in order to trace their ancestry.

She comments that this cutting-edge education "opens a lot of doors," especially in the Bay Area. Hinojoza says that the GEMS academy will reach out to students who "don't find traditional sciences appealing."

Both the LAB project and the GEMS academy are exciting new opportunities in education that rely heavily on community support and partnerships. As Zermeño says, "The whole community can get involved."

To find out more about how you can help, please feel free to contact Sue Hinojoza at, Ron Quinta at, or Joe Zermeño at

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