ARLINGTON, Va. - Anyone who has attended an annual Biotechnology Industry Organization convention probably has heard talk about hefty monetary prizes awarded to high school students who demonstrate an understanding of biotechnology through science research projects.
Each year students across the nation are invited to compete in that prestigious science competition organized by the Biotechnology Institute, an Arlington-based educational group spun out of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in 1998.
The competition, called the Aventis International BioGENEius Challenge, is one of several programs the institute uses to encourage young people to take an interest in biotechnology and its potential for solving human health, food and environmental problems.
At the convention in June, the 2004 BioGENEius prize was awarded to Shamsher Singh Samra, an 18-year-old student from Clovis West High School in Fresno, Calif., for his project "Characterization of Mus81/Mms4's Role in Homologous DNA Repair During S-Phase Mitotic Cellular Division." Samra's prize was $7,500.
BIO has been awarding such prizes since its beginning in 1993. It wasn't until 2001 that BIO turned the project over to the Biotechnology Institute, which aims to provide a bridge between the industry and education, Paul Hanle, the organization's president, told BioWorld Today.
The nonprofit institute has a $2 million annual budget and slots for eight employees. It is supported through sponsor companies, federal grants, foundation grants and donations from individuals and organizations.
Currently, the institute is running a campaign to raise $10 million (the total collected is about $7 million). Past supporters include Alkermes Inc., Biogen Idec Inc. and Genzyme Corp., all of Cambridge, Mass.; Amgen Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif.; Gilead Sciences Inc., of Foster City, Calif.; Ligand Pharmaceuticals Inc., of San Diego; Protein Design Labs Inc., of Fremont, Calif.; and Pfizer Inc., of New York.
Beyond financial support, Hanle said many industry professionals volunteer their time to the institute as advisers, mentors or board members. "The people involved in this really believe that the future of biotechnology is based on establishing a solid foundation in education," he said.
Indeed, another way the institute reaches young people is through its bi-annual (spring and fall) magazine called "Your World." Each issue provides an in-depth look at a specific biotechnology topic, combined with support materials and exercises for students and teachers. The publication targets students in grades seven through 12.
At the junior high and high school levels, the institute has built a network of about 6,000 teachers - mostly biology teachers - who are interested in biotechnology. Of the entire pool, about 1,000 are selected to be trained as "teacher leaders," meaning they educate other teachers and communicate with the institute about trends in education.
For the high school graduate looking to enter community college, the institute and Gilead Sciences are working in California to create a dialogue between the industry, community colleges and state government to develop training programs for students interested in life sciences.
The effort is aimed at training high school graduates to become lab technicians or first-level scientists so they can get good-paying jobs with a two-year degree.
And for students in their last years of college or graduate school, Amgen sponsors the institute's minority and indigenous fellows program.
That yearlong program pairs young researchers and faculty from underrepresented populations at universities and colleges with industry mentors who introduce them to careers in biotechnology. At the institute's two-day conference (just prior to BIO's conference), mentors and fellows attend sessions on new and emerging technologies and participate in a career fair and job skills and interview workshop.
For more information about the Biotechnology Institute, visit the organization's website at www.biotechinstitute.org.