By Dr. Afifa Sabir

Summer Academy gives Biotech Experience to High School Students

Over the past nine years, nearly 320 high school students have come to the campus of Utah State University as part of a week-long Biotechnology Summer Academy (BSA). The program focuses on fostering connections between students and faculty through experiential learning of the life sciences.

Since its start in 2001, BSA has introduced students to the nature and excitement of science by creating strong connections between students and mentors to build a solid platform for success in a life science major. Students spend most of their time working with a team on an actual biotechnology research project in the laboratory of a faculty mentor.

During the week students also learn of new developments, tools, and methods in the field of biotechnology. At a symposium held at the end of the week, students share their findings with an audience of their peers, mentors, and parents. Evenings are reserved for relaxation and fun with cookouts, swimming, bowling, and miniature golf activities that allow students to share events of the day, and recharge after a full day in the lab.

This year, students' first day included a trip to the Great Salt Lake to search for Archaea, a single cell organism identifiable by its pink color, along with faculty mentors Giovanni Rompato and Jacob Parnell from USU's Center for Integrated BioSystems (CIB). Students brought the samples they had gathered back to the lab and sequenced, cloned, and extracted DNA, with the hope of finding some "new" undiscovered bacteria.

One student, Sydney VanDyke of Price, Utah, described her experience by saying "in school we learn from books, but here you see it [science] by doing experiments." Another student, Nic Smith of Idaho Falls, Idaho, said he liked the "experience of working hands-on in the lab" and says that it is unique from his other summer programs. He is attending USU this fall.

Ownership is what Morgan Henrie of Pleasant View, Utah says she likes best. She says she "takes credit for the results since you actually see it happen." Each of the students worked in small groups throughout the week and presented their results on the final day of the program.

The CIB hosts the program in its core laboratory facility. Faculty mentors for BSA are from ten departments and four colleges at USU including Agriculture, Engineering, Natural Resources, and Science. They represent some of the best researchers and educators on campus, and many are internationally renowned in their discipline.

The program is led by Dr. Afifa Sabir, CIB education coordinator and a lecturer in the Department of Agricultural Systems Technology and Education at USU. Monitoring interests and industry trends, BSA is tailored to provide the best experience for recruiting students in Utah into life sciences including science, engineering, and biotechnology. Four years ago, Sabir added an Advanced BSA to allow a select group of students to return to the program a second year and focus more in-depth on research with faculty mentors.

The program's success shows in follow-up assessments. More than half of participants are female or from ethnic groups underrepresented in science and engineering disciplines. Nearly half declare majors in life science and engineering, and more than a third pursue degrees in education. The program broadens students' interests, encourages study of life sciences, and influences biotechnology workforce diversity in Utah.

The program also attracts high caliber students to USU. The USU admissions office says that over 100 students BSA students have applied, ninety-eight students are currently enrolled, and almost half receive funding in the form of scholarships.

The program attributes its success to having productive partnerships and industry support. The organizations listed below have supported BSA with sponsorship ranging from donating supplies to providing free services to contributing funds.

  • Governor's Office of Economic Development for Utah
  • George S. and Dolores Doree Eccles Foundation
  • Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc.
  • NPS Pharmaceuticals
  • Prolexys Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
  • Spendlove Research Foundation
  • Northern Utah Area Health Education Center

Related links:

USU Center for Integrated BioSystems

Science Advisor, Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development

Contact: Dr. Afifa Sabir, 435-797-3504