Bringing biotech to life for WVHS students

Biotech crash course at CCRI
Warwick Veterans High School biotech academy students work through a biotech process in the Community College of Rhode Island lab of Assistant Professor Scott Warila.

EPSCoR collaboration sets stage for experiential learning

Classroom lessons recently turned real in the hands of Warwick Veterans High School students during a biotechnology crash course at the Community College of Rhode Island.

Leveraging talent and resources, Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR, CCRI Assistant Professor Scott Warila, and Ken Kurkoski, WVHS Science Department head, provided 16 seniors and juniors a Hands-on Science Experience that follows the same procedures utilized in the biotech industry. The successful collaboration has produced the outreach event several times throughout the life of the RI EPSCoR grant.

Under Warila’s guidance in his Warwick campus lab, the group spent the morning participating in the upstream and downstream processes. The upstream process involves transformation, where green fluorescent protein (GFP) is inserted into a host cell, E. coli, and grown up in large quantities in cell cultures. This creates large numbers of cells that produce GFP, the target protein.

For the downstream process, where the product is harvested and purified, the students recover the GFP by breaking open the cells, known as lysis, and then separate the two using a centrifuge.

The experience gives students a chance to employ a purifying method called column chromatography, which strongly binds the product to a column filled with a special resin to attract only the GFP. The students visually track the GFP throughout the lab, gaining a greater understanding of each step in the process.

The hands-on nature of the experience is critical both for the educational value and providing a glimpse into biotech industry careers, according to Kurkoski. The group that particular day, he says, included juniors, who were studying the fundamentals of biotech, and seniors, who had progressed to applications in biotechnology and biomanufacturing.

Of the six graduating seniors participating in Warila’s crash course, two will study biotech at the University of Rhode Island Providence campus; one, genetics at the University of Vermont; one, biomedical sciences at Quinnipiac University; one, physical therapy at University of New England; and one, biotech at CCRI.

The Hands-on Science Experience also gave CCRI student Mike Gilson the chance to interact with the high school students and lend his skills as the biotech program lab tech.

Gilson, from Foster-Glocester, R.I., graduated from Ponaganset High School in 2004 and earned his bachelor’s in biology from from Rhode Island College in 2010. Having put himself through college towing cars, he moved to Colorado after graduating and continued in the field, but ultimately found himself unfulfilled.

Gilson moved back to the Ocean State and started at CCRI in 2015, with plans to pursue his master’s and a career in biomedical engineering.

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle