With help from a CALS scientist, students from one of the most underserved counties in the state will operate a biotech company right out of their high-school lab.
For students at Bertie Early College High School (BECHS) who want to be scientists, that dream could become reality before they even graduate.
Dr. Matt Koci of the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Prestage Department of Poultry Science has teamed with BECHS science teacher Bruce Boller to develop a model biotech company that will be run by the school’s students. The company will produce research-quality recombinant proteins – proteins made from a foreign gene and introduced into bacteria using biotechnology – to support active agricultural research projects at NC State and other North Carolina universities.
Over the next several years, Koci, associate professor of mucosal immunology, along with Rizwana Ali, Prestage research specialist; Lucas Vann, senior scientist at NC State’s Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center; and Dr. Amy Orders, assistant director of environmental health and public safety at NC State, will work with Boller to teach BECHS students how to use bacteria to produce recombinant protein.
“Working in their laboratory at BECHS, as well as attending summer short courses at NC State, the students will go through all the steps of initial process development, process scale-up, production and validation,” Koci said.
In other words, students from one of the most underserved (limited resource) counties in the state will operate a biotech company right out of their high-school lab.
On top of that, Koci said, the students also will interact with various members of the state’s biotechnology industry who will help them develop resumes, as well as interviewing, networking and leadership skills. And they’ll attend national scientific meetings to network, broaden their exposure to science and explore research being done across the country.
“Once they have established the core competencies and a reliable expression process, they will then work, with the help of their mentors, to develop a business and marketing plan to find additional university research laboratories that will use their services,” Koci said. “Through this process, the students will learn entrepreneurship, accounting, management and other essential job skills.”
BECHS is no ordinary school. One of a handful of “early college” high schools in North Carolina, BECHS focuses on agriscience and biotechnology and provides students the opportunity to start earning college credits in their freshman year. Every student will earn an associate’s degree along with a high school diploma. Many will be the first in their families to attend college.
Boller, a veteran instructor who developed one of the nation’s first high-school biotechnology courses, recently earned a master’s degree in science education from NC State. He and Koci crossed paths a few years ago as part of that experience.
“I’ve been teaching in Bertie County for 26 years and working with NC State professors for most of that time,” Boller said. “I started teaching AP biology 20 years ago, and when I started investigating the subject matter, I got hooked up with the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s teacher workshops.”
For years, Boller attended the workshops every summer. The more he learned, the more knowledge his students gained. He also won grants that, over time, have helped equip a lab that could hold water with many of those on NC State’s campus.
It’s no surprise Boller was named the 2014 Outstanding 9-16 Teacher of the Year by the North Carolina Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center and the 2013-2014 Bertie County Schools Teacher of the Year.
“After those courses at the Biotech Center, I started teaching Biotech 1, which covers techniques, some genetics and chemistry,” Boller said. “Then I started Biotech 2 as a pure research course, and I spent the last two summers in Dr. Bob Rose’s lab cutting my teeth on structural biochemistry.
“I wanted to provide meaningful projects for my students, so I reached out to people I knew who have research labs. Matt was one of them, and he had this great idea, and here we are.”
Koci said that funding from the CALS Dean’s Enrichment grants and the Wynne Fund for Innovation kick-started the project.
So, how will the BECHS Biotechnology Company work?
The model is simple, Boller said.
“Our seniors will serve as mentors to junior apprentices, and then the following year, after the seniors graduate, the former apprentices will lead their own programs as seniors,” he said. “Our school has a fifth-year option so that students who graduate can come back for another year, take online classes and continue working with me.
“My ultimate goal would be to have students in my program for two or even three years so they can start out as the lab rat, and then become part of the management, and by the third year, they’re literally running the company.”
As part of their training, BECHS students will come to NC State for a week each summer for an intensive biotech “boot camp.”
During their visit in July 2014, the students’ packed schedule included everything from hands-on lab training to visits with biotech companies in the Research Triangle Park (RTP).
“Next summer we’re going to focus on how to scale up production, working with Lucas Vann at BTEC, as well as having the students meet with colleagues in RTP to help them develop career skills, like resume writing and interviewing,” Koci said.
“Bruce has a fully equipped lab where students learn the fundamentals of molecular biology, biotechnology and research,” he added. “But it’s difficult for most of these students to connect abstract independent laboratory modules back to their daily lives or more importantly to the jobs and careers they see in their community. We’re trying to change that.”
The overall goal of this project is to develop an innovative biotechnology teaching model that can be used to give students authentic learning experiences that touch on multiple aspects of the biology, chemistry, physics, economics and guidance elements of the North Carolina Essential and Common Core Standards, according to Koci.
“This will help the students link these concepts through higher-order thinking, and more importantly, link biotechnology and science to their daily lives and possible careers,” he said. “We hope that this program ultimately will lead to increased numbers of students from Bertie and other counties who pursue careers in science.”
Koci and Boller also said they hope to replicate this project at other high schools throughout the state.
“Right now, it’s just baby steps,” Boller said. “But we hope to grow this big enough to create satellite labs and provide teacher workshops. We really want to help other schools be able to offer this awesome opportunity to their students.”