Providence high school students lead biotech lessons at URI through Amgen Biotechnology Experience

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – May 11, 2015 – Perla Castillo says she’s “very into science” and enjoys “teaching people new stuff,” so she had the best of both worlds on Friday when she and three peers at Juanita Sanchez High School led a biotechnology workshop for her classmates at the University of Rhode Island’s Providence Biotechnology Center.

A junior at Juanita Sanchez, Castillo explained the process the students had to follow to conduct a laboratory experiment, and she gave encouraging advice throughout the two-hour activity.

“It’s fun to be the teacher and teach my classmates,” said Castillo, who is considering careers in biotechnology and political science. “I like the feeling of knowing stuff first and then teaching it to them.”

The workshop was part of the Amgen Biotechnology Experience, a three-week curriculum funded by the Amgen Foundation and coordinated at the URI Providence campus. More than 50 high school science teachers – including Benjamin Gormley at Juanita Sanchez High School — have been trained to deliver the lessons, and they use one of five teaching kits that include $25,000 worth of laboratory equipment.

The lesson taught by Castillo and her friends Alex Gomez, Caroline Holguin and Ivania Sarit was a special opportunity they sought to become more involved in the Amgen program. The four girls received extra training at URI under the mentorship of David Vito, who coordinates the program and prepared the students to deliver the lesson.

The Amgen Foundation recently renewed funding to URI to continue offering the biotechnology program through 2017. Since the program was launched in 2007, the company has provided $800,000 to the University, enabling URI to present the program to more than 4,000 students in 40 schools in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

“It was inspiring to watch the students conducting hands-on science experiments with their peers,” said Jennifer Bianco, senior manager of global communications at Amgen. “There was great energy and passion in their interaction and presentations, as well as a sense of pride in understanding the science, and being able to share the excitement of scientific discovery with others—which is exactly what we hope to accomplish through the Amgen Biotech Experience.”

Greg Paquette, director of biotechnology and medical laboratory programs in the URI Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, said the University has been committed to assisting the growth of the biotechnology industry in Rhode Island for the last 10 years.

“We quickly realized, though, that it was crucial to start getting students interested in biotechnology in middle and high school, so the Amgen program has helped us do that,” he said. “And it’s satisfying to see that we’ve already had a number of students who started with the Amgen program, enrolled in our undergraduate Biotechnology Manufacturing Program, and have been hired by local biotech companies.

“All of these efforts are an important part of workforce development and economic development in Rhode Island,” he added.

The Providence Biotechnology Center is a collaboration between the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences and the College of Continuing Education. It offers biotechnology programs for grades kindergarten through 12, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and industry professional development.

Pictured above: Juanita Sanchez High School junior Perla Castillo (right) provides guidance to classmates Sorielisa De La Cruz and Yasiry Munoz during a biotechnology workshop at the URI Providence Biotechnology Center. (URI photo by Todd McLeish)