American businesses from chipmakers to hospitals say they need more employees with strong educations in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Federal data suggests this STEM-worker shortage is also slowing the applications of biomedical discoveries. This affects Pasadena, a hub for biotech, medicine, and STEM research.
One step toward increased STEM training in the Pasadena area is the Upward Bound Math/Science program managed by Pasadena City College (PCC) that serves 139 local high school students. As one of the program's key partners, Caltech provided four mentors this year to lead the bioengineering technology, or biotech, track in five weeks of summer academic enrichment on the PCC campus.
This year's mentors were Meera Prasad, Arjuna Subramanian, Alec Lourenço, and Shichen Liu, all graduate students in the research group of Matt Thomson, an assistant professor of computational biology and a Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator.
Prasad says that Thomson had been in contact with Caltech's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO) and pitched it to her to lead the Upward Bound course. She remembers him saying that designing and executing a course like this is a lot of work, but the opportunity to change someone's life is worth it. When Prasad talked to Subramanian, Lourenço, and Liu about it, they were excited to lead as well. The team created a curriculum for their days with the students.
"Meera, Alec, Shichen and Arjuna developed the course from the ground up because they have a deep passion for sharing the beauty and excitement of scientific research with curious young students." — Matt Thomson
"I believe that anyone can learn any concept with the right tools and support," Prasad says. "It is important to me for students who are underrepresented in STEM to see that they can do science too, and it is just like anything else."
Prasad notes she would have benefited from a STEM summer immersion program had one existed at her high school.
As a high school student, Lourenço participated in Caltech's Summer Research Connection program and its 2014 iGEM team. Among others, those early experiences exposed him to biotech. "I believe that gave me a goal to work toward early in life," he says. "Having a chance to inspire others at a similar stage with possible futures in synthetic biology is what led me to this program."
Liu also drew on personal experience in his choice to mentor. When he first arrived in the United States as an international undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve University, he focused on mechanical and aerospace engineering, only realizing the vast possibilities for interdisciplinary research at the end of his third year. "While the journey taught me a great deal, I also realized the value of early exposure to newer fields, which I hope to provide for these students. It's essential to bridge the knowledge gap for underrepresented students and expose them to potential options for their future undergraduate and even graduate careers," he says.
Prasad agrees. "Exposure is so important," she says. "I want students to see that this is a career available to them if they are interested."
The five-week summer program, which ran through August 4, 2023, assisted 55 local college-bound students who plan to pursue STEM careers. The U.S. Department of Education funds the broader Upward Bound program to increase the rate at which first-generation and low-income students complete high school, enroll in college, and earn a degree.
Students gain biotech skills
In addition to taking classes in college-prep fundamentals of math, science, English, and a foreign language, the students in Upward Bound Math/Science each chose a STEM career track to study one day per week. Eight chose biotech.
The four Caltech bioengineers taught classroom sessions at PCC focused on protein design and machine learning with a challenging coding component.
Lourenço only wishes he had more time with the students to encourage deeper, prolonged engagement with the material. "One of the challenges I personally faced was reinforcing to students that the classroom was a safe space where it was okay to be wrong and for things not to work," he says. "That's something that takes patience and persistence and naturally became easier as time went on."
The biotech students conceptualized and completed two experiments.
One team of four aimed to design blue proteins that could replace artificial food dyes. The other team aimed to design proteins that kill bacteria. The teams designed their new proteins on computers, ordered DNA to express the proteins, and used a PCC lab to test if the proteins worked as intended, building experimental skills with the help of the Caltech graduate students. At the end of the program, the participants analyzed their data and presented their findings.
Students and mentors benefit
"At first, I felt a little nervous, working with Caltech people who know what they are doing," says Daisy Esparza, a senior at Mountain View High School. "The Caltech instructors took time to explain and made us comfortable asking questions. STEM is hard, even for them as they do their own research. It was a great experience doing our own research. My advice to anyone is not to be afraid or doubt yourself. The instructors have been where we are. Don't feel any less than others because you don't understand at first."
Liu says he benefited from mentoring. "I have encountered challenges explaining scientific concepts to people outside of academia, and even to those in adjacent fields," he says. "This program presented an excellent opportunity for me to enhance my scientific communication skills."
By completing summer classes and leading their own research projects with Caltech mentors, the biotech-track students are taking steps to close the STEM worker shortage and positioning themselves for college and rewarding careers.
In addition to their research projects, the Upward Bound Math/Science students took part in an environmental science retreat at Yosemite National Park and toured college campuses including Stanford and UC Berkeley, as well as PCC's neighbor of 99 years—and the academic home to some of their mentors—Caltech.
The program is open to Pasadena students from Blair, Marshall Fundamental, and Pasadena high schools and John Muir High School Early College Magnet. Participants are also eligible to join from nearby Mountain View, El Monte, and South El Monte high schools.
Image, top of page: The eight high school students in the PCC Upward Bound Math/Science program's biotech track toured Caltech's campus. From left to right: Caltech mentors Arjuna Subramanian and Meera Prasad, students Gustavo Rodriguez, Josue Serna, Daisy Esperanza, and Carly Jaime, PCC mentor Anthony Mora, students Breanna Montoya, Margarita Mera, Jessica Castellanos, and Eva Alcaraz, and Caltech mentor Alec Lourenço. Photo: PCC