Mentoring students from local elementary schools in South San Francisco gives Sean Johnston hope for the future.

Last year I had the honor of working with a group of brilliant young researchers who were doing experiments to study the elasticity of different materials. The experiments were the best kind – simple but very informative. The researchers shaped the materials into small spheres (that is, bouncing balls) and then dropped each of them onto a table to see which was the bounciest. By now you’re probably wondering, so I should clarify that the young researchers were elementary school students from South San Francisco, and that I was there as a mentor for a program we call Gene Academy, an after-school program that takes place at Genentech each week during the school year.

For the students, the experiments were an opportunity to be creative and have fun bouncing balls on the tables of our company cafeteria. For me, it was another opportunity to see the power of STEM education unfold in real time. Without even realizing it, the students were learning how the scientific method of testing and observation can help answer questions about the world around them.

The third grader I was co-mentoring was quiet and reserved at the beginning of the school year. But as with so many of the students in Gene Academy, over the following weeks and months I watched him develop more self-confidence, and willingness to speak up and ask questions. That day of the elasticity experiments was a great example.

We’d been following the instructions for the experiments when he suddenly asked, What if we try making the balls larger? And instead of dropping them onto the table, what if we go stand in the middle of the cafeteria and drop them from higher up, onto the floor? In that moment, I saw the spark of enthusiastic curiosity and desire to learn that we strive to nurture through Gene Academy. So we moved to the center of the room and he started dropping balls onto the floor, standing on a chair to drop them from higher heights. Other students joined him to do the same rogue experiments and soon balls were bouncing and flying everywhere. He was thrilled. I was, too, because in that moment I got to watch a once-timid third-grader enthusiastically grasp one of the core tenets of science: that discovery and innovation start by asking “what if?”.

Sean Johnston handing out diplomas at Gene Academy graduation, May 2017.

A Different Kind of Pipeline

Why is this important? At Genentech, we talk often about our pipeline – the research projects and clinical trials underway that will be the source of the medicines of the future. But who will our future scientists be? Genentech’s STEM education programs – Gene Academy, Helix Cup and Science Garage, collectively known as Futurelab – represent an investment in the future of science. I’m confident that the efforts we make with these students now – the skills we impart, the curiosity we stoke – will be repaid down the road when some number of them enter the workforce as qualified scientists, engineers, and physicians.

And of course STEM literacy isn't just beneficial to jobs in those disciplines. The analytical skills that come with a STEM education benefit a broad array of fields – and for that matter an informed democracy. If that day of ball-bouncing and similar lessons lead today’s students to have a greater appreciation of evidence-based inquiry and reasoning later in life, we’ll all be better for it.

The other reason I'm devoted to Genentech’s STEM education programs is that the students we partner with are our neighbors, and many face significant challenges in their lives. I was reminded of that one evening when I attended a ceremony for graduating seniors at South City High School. I was there to award one young woman a substantial college scholarship from Genentech, really an incredible honor. It was a special moment, seeing her years of commitment to her school work recognized like this. As I congratulated her, I thought of how proud her parents must be to witness this wonderful event. I asked to meet them, so I could congratulate them too, but she told me they hadn't been able to attend – they were both working.

From Intern to Mentor

Not many people know this, but I began my career at Genentech as a law student intern in the patent law group within Genentech’s legal department. When I arrived, I knew practically nothing about patent law. The attorneys here could have just left me alone, let me sink or swim on my own. But they wanted me to succeed, and they took the time to show me how. They saw potential in me, however raw, and were willing to invest their own energy to help cultivate it. In a word, they were mentors. And without their dedication and generosity, I doubt that I’d be typing these words today. It's my privilege now to pass that baton, that dedication to the potential of others, to the next generation.

And I’m not alone. There are over 1,300 Genentech employees (almost ten percent of the company) involved in our STEM education programs from almost every area of the company – including research, manufacturing, regulatory affairs, corporate relations, finance, and yes, the legal department. That number still impresses me, but it’s not surprising. All of us here care about making a difference. So with these programs, which in addition to creating a unique camaraderie among employees, also provides an opportunity to help young people find excitement in STEM education, it’s no wonder so many people sign up, and why more people sign up every year.

We’re Not Done Yet

Despite all the remarkable progress made thus far in our STEM education programs, we’re not done. A few years ago, my colleagues and I who serve on the board of directors of the Genentech Foundation were presented with a new idea: why don’t we build a biotech lab and classroom for high school students in South San Francisco? I loved the idea and looked around the room and saw a lot of heads nodding. Of course we should do this. It was the perfect next step to what started as Gene Academy with 24 students nearly a decade ago. What better way to help young people learn more about life as a scientist than to enable them to be scientists? We worked closely with the local government and school district, and I’m proud to say that in August 2017 we opened the Science Garage, starting with 118 high school students taking two different biotech science classes in that state-of-the-art facility. Of course, many more students will benefit from the Science Garage in the years ahead.

To me, all of this work is a must. As Genentech has grown up over the last 40+ years, it's done so directly across the highway from a community that can use our help to realize its full potential. To not cultivate our relationship with South San Francisco – to not honor it – would be a tragedy. Are there other equally deserving communities out there? Absolutely. But South San Francisco is ours.

I hope you’ll take the time to learn more about our STEM education programs, to learn why, now more than ever, we believe that the Future of Science Is Here.