Amgen Foundation Program at UTM Introduces Local High School Students to Scientific Discovery
Based at UTM, Canada’s Amgen Biotech Experience Program provides teachers with equipment, supplies, curriculum, and professional development — and it’s helping inspire the next generation of scientists.
“This is where I work,” smiles Kristina Han, gesturing widely to a bright space in the William Davis Building filled with equipment and large, neatly stacked tote bins. Each tote has been carefully stocked with supplies, and the kits will soon be handed out to high school science teachers from across the GTA.
The distribution is part of the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE), an international program that provides secondary school teachers with equipment, resources, a curriculum, and professional development so they can conduct hands-on laboratory experiments in their classrooms.
“Hands-on experimentation isn't required in the Ontario high school curriculum, but it is in the criteria. The rubric calls for hands-on activities, so teachers need to go out and find something that meets that need,” Han says. “ABE does that.”
First established in 1990 in Thousand Oakes, California, ABE is funded by the Amgen Foundation — the philanthropic arm of one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies — which partners with experts to provide free science education to teachers and students. Their goal is to spark curiosity and instill scientific literacy in students early on.
“Our kids are making important decisions at very young ages,” explains Natasha Bond, who leads Corporate Affairs at Amgen Canada and first advocated for bringing the program to UTM. “Many schools don’t have access to this kind of equipment, and teachers aren’t always trained on how to deliver the components of a curriculum that are aligned with it.”
“We want to encourage students to understand the value of science and what it can do.”
By 2015, the ABE program had expanded to international sites and, in 2019, the Amgen Foundation’s science efforts were called out on the Forbes’ “Purpose At Work: 10 Brands Leading With Purpose in 2019” list. Today, ABE has 25 sites around the world and counting, available everywhere from Australia to Turkey, from Japan to the Netherlands. They’re on track to reach a total of one million students by 2023.
“Our kids are making important decisions at very young ages — and they need experience and guidance. Many schools don’t have access to this kind of equipment, and teachers aren’t always trained on how to deliver the components of the curriculum that are aligned with it.” — Natasha Bond, Corporate Affairs at Amgen Canada
The robust curriculum offers six labs that mimic experiments used in biotech labs across universities and in the research and development processes in pharmaceutical sectors. Teachers can choose to do all six labs, or a truncated version to meet the needs of the class, and the curriculum can take anywhere from one class to three weeks to execute. Through it, students gain confidence, learn about career opportunities in STEM fields, and enter university with lab experience.
“It’s a head start,” Han explains simply. “Students typically start working with these laboratory tools and equipment in the first and second year of their undergrad. But now they walk in and already know what a pipette is, or what the machines are supposed to do. They’re familiar with the principles. So now it’s more about remembering what they did.”
The very nature of the program dictates that it be housed in a research or teaching institute. Outreach, expertise, and state-of-the-art training facilities are all essential for ABE to thrive, and the Amgen Foundation partners with organizations where Amgen has a presence.
For Robert Argiropoulos, Executive Director at Amgen Canada and Amgen Foundation Ambassador for ABE in Canada, UTM was a natural choice for the Amgen Foundation.
“We’re a Mississauga based company, and we have a strong commitment to supporting activities and organizations in the communities where our staff live and work,” Argiropoulos explains. “U of T is always at the top of universities in Canada and we’re lucky that the Mississauga campus is right in our backyard. When seeking partners for STEM programming, ultimately the Amgen Foundation is looking for an organization that can achieve the most impact for teachers and students — and UTM was a great fit.”
“Kristina and the rest of the team at UTM are seasoned, energetic, and supportive. It's the perfect place to grasp the ABE program without feeling lost or intimidated.” — Shafin Devji, Teacher, Georges Vanier Secondary School
Amgen’s corporate arm has long had a strong relationship with the University of Toronto; it has a co-op partnership with UTM’s Masters of Biotech Program and provides placements for business students at the Amgen office. The Amgen Canada Inc. Smart Classroom is in the basement of UTM’s Maanjiwe nendamowinan building.
In 2019, the Amgen Foundation brought its Amgen Scholars Program to U of T — a ten-week undergraduate summer research program that supports students in developing skills that will serve them in graduate school and careers in science.*
ABE@UTM launched in November 2017 with full support from the Office of the Vice-Principal, Research, headed by then-Director Dr. Bryan Stewart. The program quickly picked up speed under the leadership of co-chairs Dr. Voula Kanelis from the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences and Biology’s Dr. Steven Chatfield. Han, who has fulsome experience in cloning, protein verification, and crystallography, was hired to run the space as the ABE@UTM Site Coordinator and soon took on the additional role of ABE Master Lab Technician. She helps to maintain protocol consistency across the 20+ global ABE sites, develop protocols for new curriculum, and provide implementation and troubleshooting support as needed.
Han’s days are now filled with planning training sessions, working with teachers to schedule their labs, and packing up kits so that every student has the equipment they need. Teachers who sign up for ABE take two days of mandatory training.
“We need everyone to be standardized,” she says. “We make sure they’re comfortable with the techniques covered in the lab so they can do the demonstrations with their students. We talk about pitfalls, pacing, what could go wrong, and safety precautions — along with how to book the kits, pickup, and timelines.”
“My students are seamlessly transitioning to lab work at the post-secondary level—many of them are already pursuing research assistant positions because they feel confident that they can operate in an environment that leverages skills and experience in biotechnology.” — Shafin Devji, Teacher, Georges Vanier Secondary School
Once they’ve completed their training, teachers schedule the blocks in which they’ll run their students’ labs; Han gets the kits ready and, at the allotted time, the teachers drive to UTM to pick up the kits and take them back to their schools.
For Bond, it’s just one of the reasons UTM is the perfect spot to host the program.
“The campus is amazingly situated,” she points out. “You can access the whole Golden Horseshoe. A teacher can come from as far away as Niagara Falls or Pickering within a few hours, pick up the equipment, and get back in time to deliver their class.”
After operating remotely for the last two years, the in-person training sessions returned this past August, bringing teachers to campus for two days of training and networking. Han co-taught the session with University of Toronto Schools teacher Dr. Maria Nino-Soto. She was pleased to see some familiar faces return to campus.
“Being able to conduct these labs means that I can make the connection for students between what I'm teaching theoretically, and what is capable in a practical lab setting. Students develop a deeper appreciation for the applications of biotechnology, and what it means to conduct biotechnology research.” — Amelia Wong, Teacher, Georges Vanier Secondary School
For Shafin Devji, a science teacher at Georges Vanier Secondary School who was among those to return, the sessions give him the opportunity to relearn skills and feel confident in how he delivers the material. Having taught the curriculum in his classroom for a few years now, he’s heard from enthusiastic students who have since gone onto study science in university — in fact, one now works alongside researchers in an Amgen lab in Kyoto.
“I wanted to give my students the chance to not just learn about biotech in books, but to actually experience it firsthand,” Devji explains. “It’s paid huge dividends for my students — the program has bridged the gap between the two worlds, and my students are seamlessly transitioning to lab work at the post-secondary level.
“Many of them are already pursuing research assistant positions because they feel confident that they can operate in an environment that leverages skills and experience in biotechnology.”
“Kristina and the rest of the team at UTM are seasoned, energetic, and supportive,” he adds. “It’s the perfect place to grasp the ABE program without feeling lost or intimidated.”
Amelia Wong agrees. She also teaches at Georges Vanier Secondary and signed up because she wants to expand the lab offerings at the school. This is her first year in the program.
“The majority of high schools simply don’t have the equipment, budget, and experienced staff needed to run biotech labs,” she says. “And without the training offered by ABE, even if I had access to the equipment, I wouldn’t have the confidence in my ability to conduct them myself.”
Wong also learned from fellow teachers during the sessions, who shared how they were assessing students and structuring their units. And as she worked through the labs, she found that the mistakes she was making helped show her where her own students might have difficulty.
“The labs can be intensive,” says Han. “But to be able to see students go from unsure to confident in three weeks really inspires teachers. For some students, it’s life changing.”
On the heels of consistently strong feedback, the ABE@UTM team is now working to reach even more students and teachers in Canada. Two years ago, they expanded to Ottawa, setting up a distribution site at Carleton University with a team led by Dr. Martha Mullally from the Department of Biology. Dr. Shelley Hepworth, a professor in the same department, is also part of the ABE@CAR team. She joined the group at the August training session.
“We’re on campus now, trying to recruit teachers and set up timelines,” Han says. “One of the things we’re aiming to do in Ottawa is to see how we can reach underserved and Indigenous communities, and to potentially expand to the Francophone communities in the future.” The pandemic highlighted the need for a strong focus on EDI, and it’s a clear priority for the Amgen Office, the Foundation, and each ABE site.
Han has also become part of the implementation support team, which helps to train staff and onboard new sites across the globe. “We’re currently working with North Carolina and Ohio,” says Han. “And it’s been amazing to see how flexible the program is to meet the needs of these vastly different places.”
But after two years operating remotely during the pandemic, Han knows teachers need support now more than ever.
“There came a lot of upheaval in the teaching profession, and we’re trying to recognize and support teachers in as many ways as we can,” she says. “We’re here when they’re ready, and we look forward to helping them put pipettes in their students’ hands and get them to that ‘aha!’ moment when they see glowing DNA bands and bacterial colonies.”
“We’re so excited to be part of their journey — and tomorrow is a brand-new day.”
Do you know a Canadian undergraduate student who is passionate about biomedical research? The Amgen Scholars Canada Program is now accepting applications for Summer 2023. This 10-week summer research program is fully funded by the Amgen Foundation. The program supports students in developing the skills necessary for graduate school and careers in science through a combination of hands-on research, participation in lab and professional development activities, and relationship building.