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Biohackathon L.A. Helps Youth Shape the Future

Patricia Cooper CBF
by
California Biotechnology Foundation
Mar 12, 2013

From the second Mr. John Choi’s high school biology class stepped off their school bus and into a conference room turned laboratory, they became scientists. 

“My students entered an amazing gateway into the world of science and it opened their eyes to the possibilities that are available to them,” said Mr. Choi. 

Many students – like those in Mr. Choi’s class – crave inspiration and outlets to explore what their futures may have in store. When asked about career interests, the majority of students surprisingly mentioned professions that would enable them to improve health. In some instances, their drive to enter the health industry was connected to a family member with a chronic health issue. 

While these students, and so many like them, think about a variety of career and academic paths, they don’t often see the connection between what learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can have on their futures. There are many workforce development and education programs available to help students across California prepare for jobs that will follow the changing global economy. The problem is that students don’t have the resources to learn about what opportunities are available and don’t fully understand the impact of STEM education. 

The California Endowment, the California Biotechnology Foundation, Lybba, and Wondros posed a solution: Biohackathon L.A. 2013, an immersive workshop to inspire students about the health and career benefits of STEM education and the life sciences.

“The Biohackathon is a real game-changer for the students, who have insatiable curiosities,” said Mr. Choi. 

Inspired by traditional hackathons – a term coined by computer programmers and software developers – the event was collaborative, educational and interactive. A conference room at The Endowment’s L.A. office was taken over by pipettes, microcentrifuge tubes, DNA sample swabs and safety glasses. Led by LA Biohackers, the experience was tailored specifically for the students with the help of L.A.’s Promise Manual Arts High School in South L.A. The hands-on do-it-yourself experience let students test themselves for the hereditary "bitter taste" gene. Their genotypes were projected onto a wall, interpreted, and printed out to take home.

 “Hands-on experimenting and genuine inquiry is a really effective way to learn practical science,” said Romie Littrell, founder of LA Biohackers and curator at The Tech Museum of Innovation. “We were lucky to have all the necessary resources and instructors to do this with a full classroom. Each student had different instincts to approach and perform the experiment and, by working together and seeing all the different outcomes -failures and all - I think they got a better grasp of the scientific process.”

In addition to the science experiment, recent graduates from programs sponsored by the life science industry shared with students the many opportunities in the life sciences and the cross-application of such knowledge. Leaders from business and education painted the broader landscape of STEM education and pathways to help achieve career possibilities.  

“The California life science community supports several initiatives that create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and inspire future leaders to help save lives and promote sustainability,” said Kristie Grover, executive director of BIOCOM Institute. “Together with industry, our state’s learning Institutions, regional associations, and community programs are partnering to offer free resources that serve as a catalyst for increased growth and quality of life in California.” 

“I was in your shoes once. I know the feeling of wanting to do great things, but now I know how to make it happen,” said Elvia Hernandez, a recent graduate who is beginning her career in life sciences. “My STEM background and workforce development program changed my life.” 

Hernandez’s encouraging words resonated with the students. 

Marlena Jackson, research assistant at a life science company and founder of NexGeneGirls, a science enrichment program for girls, asked students to think about the Biohackathon in terms of personal benefits and community health.

 “The event was an incredible experience for my students and will definitely remain in their minds as they pursue a path in STEM. Having so many guest speakers and resources for internship information and STEM careers in general was a wonderful opportunity. Indeed, the networking potential was nothing short of marvelous,” said Mr. Choi. “The collaboration and unity of the scientific community is always a marvelous facet of science.”

The students were challenged to continue investing in STEM education – a path that will give them the tools to transform their future and improve their communities. 

B. Kathlyn Mead, David Fore and Jesse Dylan also contributed to this blog.