Vinay Bhatt remembers learning how to use a pipette to precisely measure laboratory liquids the summer after his freshman year at Nipmuc High School in Upton. During a hands-on research experience offered by the Kendall Square biotech Biogen (BIIB) Inc., he worked with sophisticated scientific equipment while conducting experiments he wouldn’t have had the chance to do in his school.
Bhatt credits the weeklong program, known as Community Lab, with sparking his interest in a research career. His accurate pipette work and other lab skills would eventually lead him to work in an undergraduate biology lab and, more than five years after his first experience, to return to Biogen as a researcher. He now works to develop the company’s bioassays and laboratory robotics.
“I wouldn’t say I was too excited to do [the program] at first,” Bhatt said. “But my perception changed pretty dramatically by the end of that week.”
Launched in 2002, the Community Lab has provided educational programs for more than 25,000 students from Cambridge, Somerville, Boston, and beyond, said lab director Tracy Callahan. The lab has run at capacity for several years, with teachers vying to reserve spots for their students as soon as the next year’s schedule is released. The company doesn’t track how many of the students have pursued scientific careers like Bhatt, but it opened a similar lab in North Carolina last fall.
Other companies have followed suit in their own efforts to interest students in science careers.
In 2014, Vertex (VRTX) Pharmaceuticals Inc. launched a Learning Lab at its Fan Pier headquarters, named after Thomas M. Menino, the former Boston mayor.
Novartis (NVS) AG plans to open a similar facility, capable of accommodating classes of up to 24 students, at its Kendall Square research headquarters later this year. The company is training 10 researchers to lead the labs, named The CELL@Novartis, under the direction of the former head of the company’s employee education program.
These industry giants may compete for business and talent in Boston. But Callahan said the expansion of educational programs has been a cooperative effort. Directors from the different labs have met, toured each other’s facilities, and discussed curriculums. The overarching goal benefits everyone, she said.
“We’re interested in reaching out to the pockets of students that might not get exposure to this,” Callahan said. Even around Cambridge, home to Harvard, MIT, and dozens of biotech companies, there are still students who don’t really understand the world of science, she said.
Biogen runs single-day sessions for middle and high school students during the academic year. Over the summer, it offers several one-week programs and a two-week advanced program. About 3,000 students attend each year, including all eighth-graders in Cambridge’s public schools and every eighth- and ninth-grader in Somerville’s public schools.
At a recent advanced session, students were evaluating four strains of E. coli bacteria. The strains, developed at MIT and Biogen, had an unusual property: They smelled like bananas at a particular stage in their life cycle. Students had to use this information to infer how well the cells were growing.
One student removed an orange cap from a small tube of clear liquid. The banana aroma was immediately detectable. Her group laughed as they took turns smelling different tubes.
Next, they inserted the small tubes of yellowish liquid into a computerized device known as a spectrophotometer, which allowed them to measure the bacteria concentration.
“I have nothing like this at my school,” said Ryan Driscoll, a rising junior at Reading Memorial High School.
The students used the same equipment as Biogen researchers. They ate lunch with Biogen employees, and their lab coats bore the Biogen logo. The whole process creates a sense of realism students say they don’t feel in a traditional classroom setting.
“I knew I wanted to go into science, but I didn’t know what area,” said Katie Kohlsaat, a rising senior at Norwood High School. “The lab helped me figure that out.”
At the nearby Community Charter School of Cambridge, Halley Zummo, development and external relations coordinator, said teachers know it’s challenging to provide true scientific experiences without proper science facilities. Lab lessons require classrooms with sinks, work stations, and fume hoods for chemicals. Walking through the school, she noted the lack of these basic necessities in all but one of the science classrooms.
The school relies on community partners to provide students with expanded learning opportunities. Still, Heather Haines, a science teacher at the school, said it’s sometimes hard to foster relationships. Haines said it can be hard to fit the Community Labs program into the curriculum, which is dictated by state standards.
Biogen bases its lessons, in part, on its current research. Students diagnose mock patients, identify mutated genes, and run quality-control tests on drugs. Callahan said teachers most often use the lab to reinforce concepts covered in the classroom. In the end, the goal is for students to better understand the basic science in the context of real-world problems.
Bhatt, the Biogen researcher, said he never misses the students’ annual poster sessions. In the years since he attended, the caliber of work has skyrocketed, he said, with middle school students performing bacterial assays and high school students taking on complex genetic experiments.
Bhatt designs robots that help automate repetitive lab processes, freeing scientists to spend their time in more productive ways. He works just feet away from his brother, Soham, another Community Lab graduate.
Some of Bhatt’s robots can even use a pipette.