Getting Teens Hooked on STEM

By Aliyah Kovner 

It’s 1 p.m. on a sunny afternoon in July – smack dab in the middle of summer break – and a perfect 75 degrees outside; but Jonathan Park is laser-focused. Though he could be strolling down a beach, or at home browsing social media, this 16-year-old is bent over a lab bench, intently pipetting reagents to run an Amplex Red Assay.

Park, a soon-to-be junior at Dublin High School, is part of the 2019 cohort of the Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology (iCLEM) summer intensive, hosted and run by the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in Emeryville. First launched in 2008, iCLEM immerses local Bay Area students in the biological sciences – and gives them a taste of day-to-day life as a scientist – through an eight-week-long blended curriculum of instruction, hands-on basic laboratory skill training, and in-depth tours of working labs within JBEI, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (which manages JBEI), and local biotech companies. The students, who receive a stipend so that they may attend the program in place of a summer job, utilize their newfound knowledge by conducting independent research projects and presenting their findings at the end of the program.

“I didn’t really know what to expect, I thought maybe we would just come in and do some experiments here and there,” said Park, while on a break from the lab. He explained that he hadn’t been drawn to science until last year’s honors chemistry class challenged him in a way that got his attention. “I was like, okay, this is really interesting, I need to try this out. And iCLEM was there at just the right time. Being here has really shattered my idea of biology, chemistry and physics being these separate things – I’ve learned that they’re all just an integrated science that researchers use to do all these cool things, like making biofuels and actually saving the environment.”

Jonathan Park pipetting reagents at JBEI, in Emeryville, CA.

Jonathan Park pipetting reagents at JBEI.

The experience at iCLEM has motivated Park, who previously planned to study music, to pursue a double major with biochemistry when he attends college in 2021. If he follows through with his ambitions, Park will be in good company. According to Lauchlin Cruickshanks, iCLEM’s educational program administrator, 95% of past participants have gone on to continue their education at two or four-year colleges and universities, and 80% majored in science or engineering. Given that the program specifically recruits teens who face socioeconomic hurdles to higher education, this impressive attendance rate is a point of pride among the scientists and educators who make iCLEM happen.

Hoping to spread their prodigiously successful model beyond the confines of JBEI, a group of former and current scientific advisors have shared the iCLEM curriculum in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education.

“There are so many different curricula to teach basic microbiology and biochemistry already in journals, but I think one of the attractive things about this approach, and the reason it resonates with kids, is that we talk about science through the lens of sustainability,” said Jesus Barajas, the first author of the paper and a former scientific advisor for iCLEM. “Our overall goal is to teach these concepts by having students learn how to produce biofuels and bioproducts in a sustainable fashion. This is more meaningful, because if we want to think of them as the next generation of scientists, we don’t just want to train them to tackle the problems of today and tomorrow, but also for them to really understand the problems.”

The iCLEM 2019 cohort.

From the outset, iCLEM has been dedicated to nurturing budding scientists who would not otherwise have access to a college preparation scientific internship. Nearly all students are from low-income families, and many are also English language learners and/or the first generation to attend college. Clem Fortman and James Carothers, the program’s founders, came up with the premise for iCLEM during a conversation about what was lacking in STEM education. At the time, they were both postdoctoral researchers at JBEI and the Synthetic Biology Research Center (Synberc), a collaborating institution located in the same building.

“We talked about how a lot of the existing programs acted as a leg up for folks who already had a leg up. And it turned out that James and I shared the experience of having to work summers and weekends when we were teenagers,” said Fortman, who served as iCLEM’s scientific director for the first four years and is currently director of operations for the lab of Jay Keasling, JBEI’s CEO. “We didn’t have the resources or opportunities to go into the types of school camps and other stuff that can help get kids onto the STEM career track – something that is still the reality of life for many people, especially in the Bay Area.”

As the duo continued discussing the unmet needs in science education, Fortman excitedly realized that much of the fundamental laboratory work supporting JBEI and Synberc’s biofuels research, i.e., the tasks typically done by undergraduate students, could be used as a real-world foundation for teaching basic microbiology and biochemistry. With that conversation, the concept for iCLEM was born. Fortman and Carothers soon pitched their idea to Keasling, drawing upon their own career journeys as they emphasized that providing “opportunities to those who don’t have an easy pipeline into science” means small class sizes, providing financial assistance, and offering college preparation support. Their proposal was approved on the spot. 

Zoe Siman-Tov. (Credit: Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab)

“I had some really high expectations for iCLEM and [it has] surpassed them all. I love this program. It’s the highlight of my summer,” said participant Zoe Siman-Tov. “The things we got to do are things that you’d never be able to get to do in high school. And being able to do it myself has really cemented it in, and I’m very sure that I’d like to work in a lab.”

Over the next several years, iCLEM’s curriculum evolved organically, as the founding scientists and a rotating roster of advisors, enthusiastic mentors, and high-school teachers – who help lead the instruction-based portions of the program – refined and enriched their approach.

Raymundo Sanchez, a past student in the 2015 cohort, notes that iCLEM’s behind-the-scenes instructional model helped guide him toward his current interest in biological anthropology. He will soon begin his senior year at UC Santa Barbara as a double-major in the field, alongside Chicano/a studies. “I really love my majors and feel like they blend perfectly what I strive to do in the future, which is help out underrepresented communities by helping them gain better access to healthcare and education,” said Sanchez. “But I would have not even thought of all the different careers that are possible within STEM if it wasn’t for my internships, which were hard to find and only a handful of them were out there for underrepresented individuals. For STEM fields to become more diverse, I think it would be helpful to have more experiences, like iCLEM, that bring awareness and exposure to the many possibilities out there.”

Now that the details of iCLEM are widely available, Fortman and the rest of the team are optimistic that other programs with the same core tenets will indeed develop, and that more teens than could ever fit at the JBEI lab benches will soon be able to participate.

Looking back, the group regards the many hours of volunteered time spent developing the curriculum and building iCLEM into the experience it is today as a necessary contribution toward the long-overdue, large-scale shift that is happening throughout the education framework. “I believe that the STEM fields are trying to be more inclusive than they were,” said Fortman. “But there needs to be educational equality much earlier than when we’re intervening, starting at day one.”

iCLEM is currently funded by JBEI, which is supported by the DOE Office of Science; the Amgen Foundation, administered through UC Berkeley; and the Heising-Simons Fund.

JBEI participates at 2019 East Bay STEM Career Awareness Day

East Bay STEM Career Awareness Day took place on May 16 in Emeryville. At this annual event, local businesses and organizations collaborated to provide activities that provided insight into potential careers in STEM to 200 students from schools in Berkeley, Emeryville, Richmond, and Oakland. The event was hosted by the Institute for STEM Education at California State University, East Bay in partnership with Bayer, Wareham Development, the East Bay EDA, the City of Emeryville, and the City of Berkeley. We thank the JBEI volunteers  that participated at this event: Deepika Awasthi, Irina Silva, Nicole Ing, Peter Otoupal, and Tina Wang.

Director of the CA Governor’s Office of Business Visits JBEI

Panorea Avdis, Director of Governor Brown’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz), visited the Biosciences Area’s Emery Station Operations Center on September 6 to learn more about the biosciences and bioeconomy related initiatives. GO-Biz was created to serve as California’s single point of contact for economic development and job creation efforts and is an important one-stop shop for companies that want to take advantage of California incentives.

During the visit Director Avdis, who was accompanied by Deputy Director and CA Small Business Advocate, Jesse Torres, met with Mary Maxon, Biosciences Associate Lab Director, Blake Simmons, Division Director, Biological Systems and Engineering, Chief Science & Technology Officer and Vice President for Deconstruction, Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), and Todd Pray, Program Head, Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit (ABPDU). Avdis also toured the laboratories at JBEI and visited the ABPDU to learn more about how it can be a resource for young biosciences companies seeking to scale up operations.

JBEI promotes bioenergy at 2017 Solano Stroll

Organized by the cities of Albany and Berkeley in California, the Solano Avenue Stroll is the East Bay’s largest street festival with an estimated 250,000 participants visiting from all over the west coast. As per JBEI’s yearly tradition, its volunteers participate at the Stroll on September 10. In collaboration with Berkeley Lab, JBEI volunteers promoted JBEI’s mission and research, and answered the questions from many local residents who wanted to learn more about biofuels and bioproducts.

We thank our volunteers for taking time to volunteer at this event: Andria Rodrigues, Annabel Large, Jessica Trinh, Kosuke Iwai and Robin Herbert.



Biotech Partners Recognizes Irina Silva as Exceptional Mentoring Partner

On Wednesday, May 31, Biotech Partners honored Irina Silva, Communications and Outreach Manager for the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), for her outstanding support of their internship program. Biotech Partners is a non-profit with the mission of educating underserved youth in the Bay Area with personal, academic, and professional development experiences that increase participation in higher education and access to fulfilling science careers. Last year, Silva served as a mentor partner, organizing development activities and internship opportunities for 7 students at JBEI and the Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit (ABPDU). “We are opening the door to students who may not think of themselves as future scientists,” said Silva. “At the end of their internships, the students leave as confident individuals with solid lab and professional skills.”

(pictured, L to R: Shabir, Silva, and Johnson)

Silva, who has been involved with Biotech Partners for three years, was recognized as Exceptional Mentoring Partner. Skylar Johnson & Emara Shabir, a Berkeley High School student who interned at JBEI’s Fuels Synthesis Division last summer, presented the award at the Biotech Partners’ 5th Biennial Gala Celebration in Oakland . Since it was founded in 1993, Biotech Partners has provided this type of hands-on biotech experience for over 2500 students, and boast a 100% high school graduation rate for members of their Biotech Academy. “Many of our interns have gone on to pursue post-secondary studies, including local community colleges and UC system schools, “said Silva. “It has been very rewarding to see them mature and feel empowered to pursue their dreams.”

JBEI’s Vy Ngo Awarded Grace Fimognari Memorial Prize

Vy Ngo, student assistant with JBEI’s Feedstocks Division was awarded the Grace Fimognari Memorial Prize during UC Berkeley’s Molecular & Cell Biology (MCB) 2017 Commencement. The Prize established in 1969 is awarded to outstanding graduating senior in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) emphasis of the MCB major. Ngo was mentored by Jenny Mortimer, JBEI’s Director of Plant Systems Biology, initially through Berkeley Lab’s Community College Internship (CCI) program in 2015 and then completed the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program in 2016. She continued to intern at JBEI as she transitioned to UC Berkeley.

Spring 2017 Undergraduate Poster Session Held at JBEI

From left: Undergraduates students Nikit Paterl and Linda Xu (Fuels Synthesis Division)

JBEI’s spring 2017 undergraduate poster session and celebration took place on May 5. The participant undergraduate students are currently enrolled at UC Berkeley and were given the opportunity to work in lab projects related to JBEI’s research program.

As part of their internship at JBEI they had to either present a poster or oral presentation during their first semester and once every subsequent year in order to receive an “A” grade in their research course.

This year 21 posters were presented and the students did a great job in making the link between their internship research goals and the industry’s challenges.

From left: Mentor Laure Leynaud-Kieffer with undergraduate Irene Kim (Deconstruction Division)

The poster session included a competition. Maya Ramamurthy (Deconstruction Division) won Best Poster Design and Yvette Tran (Fuels Synthesis Division) won Best Verbal Presentation.

To learn more about research experiences at JBEI visit this page.

From left: Maya Ramamurthy, Deconstruction Division, winner of Best Poster Design and Yvette Tran, Fuels Synthesis Division, winner of Best Verbal Presentation.




JBEI Participates at East Bay STEM Career Awareness Day

JBEI researchers and staff participated at the annual East Bay STEM Career Awareness Day on April 27, 2017, at Wareham Development’s Aquatic Park Center in West Berkeley, home to Berkeley Lab’s Biosciences Operations @ Berkeley and several Area research groups.

The event is led by Cal State University East Bay’s Institute for STEM Education in partnership with local businesses and organizations, and is aimed at providing insight into potential STEM careers and educational opportunities in the region. Three hundred high school students from Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland and Richmond engaged in activities around this year’s theme:, “What problem(s) are you trying to solve?” Students had the opportunity to network with a variety of STEM professionals during tours, a working lunch and exhibitor tabling.

A team from JBEI that included Amin Zargar, Irina Silva, Jessica Trinh, Morgann Reilly, Timothy Lease and Veronica Benites, participated at the networking lunch. They worked with the students to map out their own career paths from high school aspirations to their current jobs and discussed what it means to be a professional.  During the exhibitor tabling the JBEI team showcased the institute’s advanced biofuels pipeline and shared career advice and internship resources.

Women’s History Month: Breaking Away from the Mold to Establish Your Own Success Path

Women’s History Month is an annual declared month, celebrated in March that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. This year we celebrate the work and achievements of JBEI research scientist, Ee-Been Goh. A talented molecular biologist, Ee-Been has made significant contributions to the development of new biofuels at JBEI in the area of metabolic pathway for diesel-range methyl ketones. In addition to her impressive technical achievements, Ee-Been is widely recognized at JBEI as being an exemplary mentor and contributor to JBEI’s education and outreach efforts, namely to the iCLEM program.

Who has inspired you? And why?
Scientifically, I will have to say my undergraduate advisor, Prof. (Emeritus) Julian E. Davies. Even though he was a highly renowned professor in the field of antibiotic resistance research, he took a chance on me – someone who did not have the best grades or have any research experience and gave me my first opportunity at independent research. It was Julian’s mentorship that really inspired me to pursue a career in scientific research. Julian’s enthusiasm and passion in science was evident because regardless of whether I presented him with negative or positive results, it was always interesting to him. He taught me that if we process the information properly, you could always learn something from your experiments regardless of the outcome – an outlook that we can always use in science or life!

At a personal level, it would be my grandmother. From sunrise to sunset, she would constantly be working, doing house chores, baking something delicious for us, or sewing new clothes for us and never spending much time idle. What amazes me the most is that she would often put together an ingenious device or apparatus to expedite her work. She never had an education but it never stopped her from being creative or industrious. She instilled a strong working habit in me and taught me to always look to improve things in our lives.

Ee-Been Goh works with summer intern Joshua Borrajo (Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

What was your most proud moment? And why?
My most proud moment would be getting accepted into the Ph.D. program at UC Davis because I was not the best student in primary and secondary school (i.e. elementary and junior high). I was doing so badly that teachers had to call my parents to let them know of my struggles in school and even had tutors to help me pass my classes. Many people did not expect that I would go far with my education, so graduating from college was considered a miracle by my family. I surprised them when I decided to seek more education after college. Sometimes we can get pigeon-holed by who we are and where we came from and it felt like a major accomplishment on my part to be able to break away from that mold and establish my own path to success.

What do you do to mentor others?
I like to have students intern with me in the lab and give them an opportunity to experience lab research. My main goal is to try to have them learn as much as they can during their internship and not just assist me with my own research. That way they can find out for themselves if they are truly passionate about science and not be influenced by any other factors. More importantly, I try to set a good example by making sure that my positive work habits and attitude inspires the people (and especially women) around me.