Tinkering in the Science Garage

The first time I looked into a microscope, I was in tenth grade biology class. Seeing paramecium swimming in the pond water we collected inspired me to study science. When it came time for me to choose a career, I wanted to bring the excitement of the microscopic world to others by teaching science.

I was living in Los Angeles and had heard about the Science Garage that Genentech built at South San Francisco High School. Teaching here was the only job I applied for outside of Los Angeles, and when I flew up for the interview, saw the state-of-the-art lab, and talked to the students, I saw potential to mold the Science Garage to be one of the best biotechnology programs in the Bay Area. The program was attractive to me because it’s a unique chance to spark students’ interest in science and STEM education in a hands-on atmosphere. Partly because I came to the United States as an immigrant, and started with the disadvantage of having to learn English, educational equity is important to me. This job provided me with the opportunity to incorporate my teaching philosophy and to give these students, who are mainly low income and a 92% minority demographic, the opportunity to get excited about science, the way I was.

This is my second year teaching biotechnology at South San Francisco High School in the Science Garage, where my students have a chance to learn about biotechnology in a three-year pathway, conduct lab experiments, and even get college credit from Skyline College at the same time. Getting college credit for the class helps many of my students realize that college is possible–they’re already doing the work and have biotech courses under their belts–and that they can be the first in their families to go to college.

Beyond building the lab, Genentech has committed to bringing its people as volunteers to class as mentors. There’s definitely a “wow” factor for the students to work in such a sophisticated lab, but it’s not all about the funding and equipment–it’s about the human connection. Having a mentor inspires students and drives their passion. The mentors work as Teaching Assistants, sometimes working one-on-one with kids who are struggling, teaching them lab techniques or even helping with college essays; they make connections with students on how a lab technique applies in their daily jobs. They talk about their own career paths and the many varied ways they got to Genentech. Having that real-life application helps students bridge the gap between the classroom and their future.

The learning goes in every direction. The mentors give me expert tips to help with the gaps in my experience in the lab. The scientists learn, too—mainly how to be patient and how to communicate simply and without jargon. But I also think some of them see reflections of their younger selves in the students. When they’re first entering the classroom, they frequently want to give out the answer, but instead they learn to talk to the students, ask questions, and guide them until they have that “ah-hah” moment for themselves.

For some students, Science Garage helps them to go from thinking they can’t do science to thinking it’s fun, which puts a smile on my face. Others really take off, focusing on a STEM major. Some students even participate in scientific research in their third year of biotechnology class, examining an alternative acne treatment by using a virus isolated from their own face. We go to Genentech to use their electron microscope – a tool rarely available outside of industrial or commercial laboratories – to see what microorganisms are on their faces. This kind of real-world research has inspired some of my students to head to college to study medicine, pathology, and engineering.

The students who visit Genentech are inspired to see a science career in action, and some even aspire to work there someday. Half of my students are Hispanic, which is underrepresented in STEM jobs, and I truly believe that programs like Futurelab might help change that picture.

Science Garage has made an impact on students, not just in getting them interested in science and developing scientific literacy, but in pursuing a STEM education. The college essays I’ve read from students who’ve participated in Science Garage all mention some aspect of what they’ve learned from studying biotechnology. Some of my students are interested in going to college to study engineering, medicine, and bioinformatics. The Science Garage helped equip them with that mindset. We’re going to be seeing a lot more scientists, engineers and kids interested in technology coming out of South San Francisco High School in the very near future. That’s part of my legacy, which I’m especially proud of.