Friday, March 10, 2006

Birth of the Biotech Boosters

Many years ago, long before my kids were high school age, I joined the steering committee of a brand-new biotech program that was starting at a local high school. A local company (Immunex) had pushed the Seattle school district to start the program and provided start-up funding. There was a brand new lab, additional money from another local company (Zymogenetics) and a strong feeling of energy and optimism for the future.

In the early days, funding was good. Immunex and Zymogenetics helped provide funding, and a grant from the Stewart Foundation gave teachers time for curriculum development and working on the program.

But corporate sponsorship can be a fickle thing. One of the major supporting companies, Immunex, was sold to Amgen and we all learned that Amgen was a different sort of company. Former Immunexers tried to maintain local outreach programs but many of the outreach activities were still lost. Former Immunex employees do continue to volunteer in the community, and Amgen still funds some community activities, but unfortunately, much of the support for high school programs has gone. Corporate sponsorship disappeared along with former student internships.

This left the biotech program in a quandry. Biotechnology is a laboratory science and science labs require consumable supplies, like enzymes and agarose and buffers. These aren't items that can be picked up at the local grocery store and they're expensive. If students are going to learn how to clone genes and work with DNA, they have to have equipment and supplies.

Our steering committee was composed of people with scientific backgrounds and little experience in fund-raising. Writing grants was a possibility but it's easier to get money to start something new than money to maintain a program.

About the same time, my oldest daughter started high school and I gained a new appreciation for the reality of funding anything at the high school level. In her first year, she joined both the soccer team and the biotech program. Instantly, we were bombarded with fees and funding requests. There were $50 activity fees for participating in sports, donation requests from the sports boosters starting at $150, yearbook fees, picture fees, all kinds of fees. Here a fee, there a fee, everywhere a new fee. Still, when you contrast these fees with the cost of $20,000 a year for a private school, public education at a good school is a great bargain. Our school district has serious money troubles, so none of the fee requests were really too surprising.

The surprise was the lab fee for the biotech program. The program asked for a lab fee of $8. As a parent, we had paid more than that for individual elementary school field trips. This was a shock! If I estimated that there were about 180 kids total in the program, the lab fees would bring in less than $1500. This wouldn't even cover the costs for a couple of field trips, much less allow the school to replace broken glassware, pay for supplies, fix broken pipettors (that cost $200 each), or purchase any new equipment. Our community college program had cost about $8000 per year for supplies and we had ten times fewer students than the number in the high school program. It was clear that the lab fees weren't going to be enough.

We realized it was time to learn from the sports boosters and make our own appeal to the biotech parents. We wrote a letter requesting their help and followed it with phone calls to all the parents. Not only were the parents supportive, they were surprised to learn that the biotech program needed funds and their help. In response the parents started the biotech booster group.

Since that time, the biotech boosters have helped out in many ways, including:
  • Donating funds
  • Finding mentors for students
  • Helping to find internships for students
  • Finding scientists and biotech professionals to judge student talks
The Biotech Booster help has been very worthwhile. We still can't take adequate funding for granted, but now, at least, there's a way to ask for help. A yahoo e-mail group keeps parents more informed about happenings at the school and gives teachers a more convenient way to transmit information. Communication between parents, steering committee members, and teachers has increased. Parents know more about the different milestones that occur in the program and can find out what their kids are going to encounter. Events like the Biotech Expo, the bioethics presentations for scientists, field trips to SBRI, mentor events, and applications for internships, are no longer mysterious things that happen under parental radar.

All too often, I think, parents become less and less involved once elementary school is over. Having a booster group has helped open a door and made it possible for parents to become more active in supporting their child's academic education. It gives parents a way to show that academics are valued at least as much as the extracurricular activities like football or band.


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