Launching careers early — Biotech Partners’ high school program drives diversity in talent pipeline

Ahniesty Fite, one of more than 300 Biotech Partners students from four high schools around the Bay Area, says working at Bayer has helped her on the path to becoming a doctor.

L to r: Jason Yamagata, Ahniesty Fite and Lauren Rawlins. Photo: Kelly Sullivan

This story is brought to you by Bayer Berkeley.

When 17-year-old Ahniesty Fite started her internship at Bayer in June, she didn’t know what to expect. The experience was going to be virtual, and the high school senior had a lot on her plate — she was already working at a fast-food place on top of the new internship.

What Fite found was a supportive mentor — one who had been through the same internship program herself — and lessons in professional communication, independence and responsibility.

“We don’t have a lot of Black doctors. I want to become a doctor to encourage other Black women and men to be doctors and see more Black faces in the medical field,” said Fite, who plans to use the internship as a launching point for a medical career. “The internship built more of a responsibility for myself. I learned to be independent. I gained communication skills.”

“The internship built more of a responsibility for myself. I learned to be independent. I gained communication skills.” — Ahniesty Fite

Fite is one of more than 300 Biotech Partners students from four high schools around the Bay Area. Of those nearly 70 students intern with life science companies each summer. Established in 1993, Biotech Partners grew out of a partnership between City of Berkeley and Bayer, a major biotech employer in West Berkeley, which manufactures advanced medicines to treat hemophilia and develops new treatments for other health challenges. The program prepares underserved high school students to enter post-secondary education with the ultimate goal of helping to build a more diverse biotech workforce. Since the early 1990s, Biotech Partners has expanded to engage other science-driven organizations such as Agenus, BioMarin, Alameda County Public Health, Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Libby Laboratories and Ripple Foods, among others.

“We really are working on diversifying the STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Math] career pipeline,” said Wyn Skeels, the Career Technical Education program coordinator at Berkeley High School. Skeels partners with Bayer to make these internships a success for Berkeley students each year. “We want to interrupt disparities in what students from what backgrounds are majoring in STEM in college and provide opportunities for these students to explore STEM careers early enough to be well prepared for that.”

Fite’s summer mentor at Bayer, Lauren Rawlins, is herself a Biotech Partners alum. Rawlins completed her Biotech Partners internship at Bayer in 2003 and has worked with the company ever since. Rawlins is now an Associate Director of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients.

“Lauren’s story was an inspiration to me,” Fite said. “I looked at her like myself — you’re from Berkeley like me, I did an internship just like you.”

“The skillset that I have…started with that internship. I look at my experience and do for students what people did for me.” — Lauren Rawlins

Looking back on her own experience Rawlins reflected, “The skillset that I have currently started with that internship. The program taught me the value of working hard. I look at my experience and do for students what people did for me.”

To prepare for the internships, students go through a year of academic training in a high school biotech class. The curriculum is designed to excite students about science generally, while equipping them with skills required in a variety of entry-level biotech positions. Students practice activities in microbial cell culture, molecular biology and biochemistry. Biotech Partners students also build competencies in good laboratory practices, computer software and workplace communication. Typically, paid summer internships build on these skills in industry work environments.

“The interns are not job shadowing. These young people actually roll up their sleeves and get involved in lab work or research,” said Lynda Gayden, executive director of Biotech Partners.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted Bayer summer interns to their home environments, in front of their computer screens. Still, industry mentors rose to the challenge and adapted job descriptions to meet work from home requirements.

“We tried to give students a high-level understanding of a day in the life at Bayer,” said Jason Yamagata, the director of cell culture pharmaceuticals at Bayer, who mentored several students this summer, including Fite. “We gave students assignments and had them attend certain meetings to give them a snapshot of the business side.”

One of those meetings took place during the period when there were local and nation-wide uprisings in response to police killings of unarmed Black Americans. Bayer leaders at all levels of the organization facilitated conversations about the uprisings and the experiences of African Americans during this challenging period. Fite attended one of these sessions and, even as a young intern, raised her voice on this painful topic.

“I felt I wanted to talk about it. I felt it was unfortunate what happened to [George Floyd], but then again, things like this have been happening for years. The system isn’t right, it never has been, and it needs to change,” Fite said.

The conversation had a lasting impact on Fite and on some Bayer employees, who were impressed with Fite’s vulnerability and willingness to speak so passionately to a group of adults. At the end of the summer, Fite presented her internship experience to program leaders and stakeholders. Her presentation featured that team conversation about race as a highlight of her experience. Gayden was among those who watched Fite’s presentation — and it struck a chord with her.

“As a young African American female going into the health industry, it made her more comfortable to work in the institution, given the openness that the industry partners had in talking about these issues,” Gayden said. “I was impressed by the way she presented it and how it impacted her.”

“It was eye-opening. We didn’t expect the interns to speak up,” Rawlins said, “Ahniesty’s comments changed some colleagues’ perspectives in regard to how kids are dealing with systemic racism.”

“At Bayer we have a rich diversity and inclusion culture and we want to share that with our interns.” — Jason Yamagata

“At Bayer we have a rich diversity and inclusion culture and we want to share that with our interns,” Yamagata said. The biotech professionals at Bayer’s campus in Berkeley reflects a diverse population of people of color. The Bayer site in Berkeley shared its most current data on racial diversity which shows that the campus has a population that roughly breaks down as 40% Asian American, 32% White, 12% Hispanic, 9% Black/African American, 2% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander or Native American, with the remainder either being of more than one race or not sharing their racial identity. This sharply contrasts with the life sciences industry nationally which is predominantly white (78% in 2018 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Fite is one of scores of diverse students to gain hands-on STEM experiences at Bayer. The company seeks multiple channels to share their employees’ passion for science with the next generation. Each year Bayer hosts Berkeley High students who tour the company and participate in fun STEM activities. Bayer also supports the “Be a Scientist” program in Berkeley middle schools. That initiative connects young people with UC Berkeley STEM undergrads to shape a scientific research project together. This year, in the face of the pandemic, Bayer sponsored science kits for all fourth and fifth graders in Berkeley public schools through Community Resources for Science. The objective was to ensure that young people still get engaging STEM activities even during distance learning protocols.

“I wish we had more industry willing to jump in at this level. We want to make sure students have a clear pathway, wherever students want to go, and the support to get there,” Skeels said.

Through Biotech Partners, Bayer also supports students as they transition through high school, college and career. When they complete their internships and graduate from high school, some students continue their biotech training at local community colleges – and can qualify for a special year-round advanced internship at Bayer. Rawlins was one such student: she worked at Bayer, attended community college, and transferred to earn a four-year degree. Out of the 15 fellow Bayer interns in her summer high school internship, four are still with the company 19 years later. That is in addition to other Biotech Partners alumni working across the organization.

“We’re taking the raw potential of our young people and building upon their strengths to ready them for opportunities within the biotech sphere. It’s beautiful to see these students transform into young professionals and develop the confidence to return to the classroom with a focus on higher education and pursuing a STEM related career.” Gayden said.

As for Fite, “I want to work to support the health of Black mothers and their babies,” she says. She dreams of attending Howard University next year and preparing to give back to her community through a career in medicine.

This story is written and sponsored by Bayer Berkeley. Bayer is a global enterprise with core competencies in the life science fields of health care and nutrition. Its products and services are designed to benefit people by supporting efforts to overcome the major challenges presented by a growing and aging global population. At the same time, the Group aims to increase its earning power and create value through innovation and growth. Bayer is committed to the principles of sustainable development, and the Bayer brand stands for trust, reliability and quality throughout the world. In fiscal 2019, the Group employed around 104,000 people and had sales of 43.5 billion euros. Capital expenditures amounted to 2.9 billion euros, R&D expenses to 5.3 billion euros. For more information, go to www.bayer.com.