Dr. Chander Arora, who runs the biotechnology program at LAMC (left), interacts with visiting lab techs during the 2023 Amgen Biotech Experience Program Meeting at Los Angeles Mission College on Sept. 29. Photo by Maria Luisa Torres (SFVS/el Sol)

In the classroom of science teacher Selma Duran at San Fernando High School, her students get excited about conducting a variety of intriguing hands-on lab experiments to answer questions like “Which dog ate my homework?” – which teaches students how to use DNA samples to identify the guilty culprit – and even learning how to begin the process of cloning a gene.

According to Duran, these unique learning opportunities give her students “the confidence and vision [to know] they have a place at the table” in the sometimes intimidating realm of science – a testament to Duran’s knowledge and dedication, but also thanks in part to an educational biotechnology program that she calls a “game-changer” for teachers and students alike.

Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE), an educational arm of the international biotech company Amgen, provides free training, access to lab equipment and other resources for teachers like Duran, who are introducing their students to the world of biotech. ABE services are available worldwide via 27 program sites in 16 countries, including locally through ABE of Greater Los Angeles (ABE-LA), which operates out of Los Angeles Mission College (LAMC) in Sylmar.

LAMC recently hosted the 2023 ABE Program Meeting, which brought together over two dozen ABE laboratory technicians from across the country and abroad – including five U.S. states and nine foreign countries, from as near as Mexico to as far as Australia and South Africa. During the three-day gathering, participants received in-lab training and exchanged best methods and practices, information they will take home to share with teachers in their own communities.

“We are honored to host the Amgen Biotech Experience at Los Angeles Mission College,” said LAMC President Armida Ornelas, Ph.D. “This is a cutting-edge symposium that has brought partners from [many] different countries to collectively bring our [biotech] program to the next level.”

Dr. Chander Arora, who runs the biotechnology program at LAMC and serves as the liaison for ABE-LA at the college, said the ABE meeting was held to provide an immersive learning experience and ripple effect so the lab techs “can go back home to their respective [cities and] countries and train their teachers, who then train the students.”

“What could be a better opportunity than that?” she said. “[Not all] high school teachers know how to infiltrate biotech into the classroom. [ABE] has a very strict curriculum, and they provide all the supplies. They tell them how they can do it in a very efficient and effective way in their science curriculum. This way they’re at least exposed to biotech, and not intimidated by it.”

The ABE program loans biotech kits and supplemental supplies to participating schools. The complete kits – which are worth about $30,000 each – include research-grade lab equipment, chemicals and multimedia resources to conduct biotech lab experiments in the classroom. 

Duran was first introduced to ABE-LA during the summer of 2012, when she attended a one-week series of training sessions; she has remained involved in the program ever since, including taking part in follow-up training to stay up to date on the latest developments.

“After that week, I knew I had to bring their curriculum to the classroom,” she explained. “It has taught [my students] that being a scientist requires more than intelligence – it also requires experience, motivation, engagement and passion. … The experience [they gain] … can be incredibly valuable and extends far beyond what my students may initially imagine.”

For some, that may mean aiming their career ambitions in new, unexpected directions, she said.

“By helping students utilize the tools of the biotech industry, they can aspire to become professionals in the field,” said Duran.

Among the participants at this year’s ABE meeting was Mitsy Natareno, a graduate of San Fernando High, a current LAMC student, and lab tech for ABE-LA at LAMC. Natareno helps train teachers in how to present biotech lessons to their students at schools across northeastern LA, including San Fernando High, Arleta High School, Sylmar Biotech Health Academy, Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima and others. 

Natareno said she finds it extremely gratifying to serve as a bridge between teachers and students and hopes her involvement will help spark a passion for learning about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics in general, or about the biotech industry in particular, among the students in the classrooms she supports. 

“Had I been exposed to [science] at this level a lot sooner, when I was much younger, it would have made the process more clear, and the path a lot more direct for me to determine whether I would want to pursue a scientific career,” said Natareno, who explained that her limited exposure to basic science lessons in elementary school and even during middle school was “just boring.”

“There was nothing exciting about it, but getting the chance to learn about it differently … can make all the difference,” she said.

Dr. Arora said she hopes ABE will inspire students to want to learn more about (or even consider careers in) biotechnology, which she describes as combining evolving technologies with living organisms and biological processes to develop a variety of products, such as insulin, vaccines or even brewing beer. 

“The bottom line is helping individual [teachers] create classrooms that are full of enthusiasm,” said Dr. Arora, adding that she envisions it as an “ecosystem” of learning that begins in the schools, motivates students to seek professional careers, and ultimately helps their families.

“Changing one person’s life changes their entire family’s life,” she said. “From local to regional to global – that is the approach … so people are not afraid of biotech. And [through ABE], we had this global opportunity to bring all of these people together [to learn] more techniques.”

ABE-LA is managed by the LA Promise Fund and has been expanded to include a total of six regional distribution centers. It currently serves teachers and students at middle schools and high schools in LA, Ventura, Orange, Kern, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. To date, global ABE sites – which are funded by the Amgen Foundation and the Education Development Center – have helped support biotech education for more than 970,000 students around the world.