Biotech Academy students get hands-on education

Biotech Academy students look for clues.

The woman had been missing for six months, with no clue to her whereabouts. Now police had found her car, and it was covered with what looked like blood splatters, blood trails, and a bullet hole.

William Clark and Evanney Salisi went to work analyzing the clues. They looked at the pattern of the blood spatters and examined the ballistics of a bullet casing found at the woman’s work place. They did a DNA profile of the blood found in the car and compared it to the DNA of the woman’s parents and boyfriend. Finally, Clark and Salisi testified about the science behind their investigation. Even though the evidence was circumstantial, the jury reached a unanimous decision: the boyfriend killed his girlfriend.

While the facts of this case are real, it wasn’t tried in a real court or even examined by real police detectives. Instead, this CSI-like case was part of the summer curriculum of 28 East Bay students.

They are part of Biotech Academy, a private-public partnership that exposes disadvantaged high school students to the biotechnology industry. In the past 17 years, more than 1,500 students from Berkeley High, Oakland Technical High School and other schools have learned about the biotechnology industry by taking hands-on, college preparatory science classes in their last two years of high school and working the summer in between at a Bay Area biotech, green tech, or health care company. This year students held paid internships at Bayer HealthCare, Kaiser Permanente, The Biotech Academy, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley Genomics Sequencing and Stem Cell Labs, Libby Laboratories, Tethys Bioscience, and others.


The idea is to nurture a love of science in kids who may not have thought of making a career in the industry, according to Deborah Bellush, the executive director of Biotech Partners, which runs the program.  Biotech Academy also makes sure kids succeed in high school and are ready for college by providing mentors, career counseling, mock interviews, financial planning lessons, and even money for work clothes, if necessary, said Bellush. The program has had a 100% high school graduation rate the last six years, she said.  Statewide, the graduation rate is 71 percent.

“You learn life long lessons you would not be taught anywhere else,” said Salisi, who is about to enter her senior year at Berkeley High.

Bayer HealthCare began the program in 1992. It wanted to expand its Berkeley campus and in exchange, the city asked the company to create a program that would appeal to low-income students.  The program has expanded considerably in recent years and is now funded by foundations, individuals, and numerous other businesses. The budget for 2010 was $400,000, down from $650,000 the year before, said Bellush.

Salisi spent six weeks this summer in the pathology department at Kaiser Permanente, watching dissections, tissue analysis, and even an autopsy.

“I thought I would faint but I was really interested and I looked at everything that came out of the person’s body,” she said.


Her internship was augmented by seminars throughout the summer, and the CSI-type case was taught in late July. The idea was to show students how science can be used every day, said Mark Okuda, an educational consultant who taught the seminars. He presented the missing woman’s case to the students and used his own car to plant the “clues” that they would have to investigate.

For some families, the Biotech Academy has been transformative. Elvia Hernandez is the fourth member of her family to go through the program at Berkeley High and she expects another cousin will follow. Her parents came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1980s and now all their children are either working in the biotech industry or are in training to work in the field.

Hernandez, 18, graduated from BHS in June and immediately enrolled in the Bioscience Career Institute, a one year training program taught at Berkeley City College and at other Peralta College campuses. She has also started a year-long job in the Manufacturing Sciences Department at Bayer HealthCare.

Two of her older siblings went through the program and worked at Bayer for more than 10 years, said Hernandez.

Biotech Academy will hold an award and graduation ceremony tonight at Oakland Technical High School. The students will present reports on their summer internships. This year’s high school graduates will also be honored.


“This summer’s interns have excelled in their science-focused, real-life work experiences,” said Bellush. “By unifying the resources of private industry and educational institutions, Biotech Partners is enhancing science literacy and training tomorrow’s scientists.”

Photo courtesy of Biotech Partners