Creating the next generation of biofab scientists and innovators

BioTrek is a student-led, design-thinking program developed to encourage high schoolers to consider a career in the biotech industry

How do you create the next generation of biomanufacturing scientists? Get teenagers interested early. That’s exactly what a program for New Hampshire high schoolers has been up to. What started as a small pilot program now has expanded to more schools in the state and to Massachusetts.

BioTrek is a student-led, design-thinking approach program developed by BioFabUSA to engage students with advanced technologies, familiarize them with the principals of entrepreneurship, and expose them to the education and career pathways that lead into the advanced biomanufacturing sector.

BioFabUSA itself is a public-private partnership between the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the nonprofit Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI). It was established to lead the charge in largescale manufacturing of engineered tissues and regenerative medicine research.

ARMI’s ultimate mission is to encourage innovations that can protect against health security threats and enhance daily medical care. They are both based in Manchester, New Hampshire, considered a pioneering hub for biotechnology.

Their Futures are Squarely in Students’ Hands

After a successful pilot at one school in early 2021, BioTrek kicked off at six high schools across the state this academic year.

“With great admiration for current slate of programs, most biology classes are geared to traditional dissection labs, whereas the careers that we have in life sciences and biotech are different types of experiences,” explains David Rogers, ARMI’s chief development officer.

“We tapped into a latent demand for project based-learning (PBL) in life sciences. BioTrek struck a chord by exposing students to what companies are hiring for right here and that resonated with a lot of people.”

The program consists of four-to-six week sessions and compliments the schools’ biology curriculum.

Students are placed into teams and go through the process of starting a biofabrication company. Their goal is to build a product to help treat a serious chronic disease. They research tissue-engineered medical projects, and learn about different biofabrication techniques, stem cells, growth media, and next-gen manufacturing concepts.

Once they have their product, they also build a business plan and learn about the financial literacy behind how a company can work. It culminates in a capstone project in which the student team present to a panel of “investors” – veterans from the biotech industry and process development scientists – asking them to invest in their idea. Think Shark Tank!

Meet the Anatomy Dream Team

A trio from the Academy of Science and Design – Violet (Jo) Fletcher, Harrison Neff, and Katie DelSignore – participated in the BioTrek program through their anatomy and physiology class.

While Fletcher’s family history is connected to the solution their team developed, she says that’s not how they landed on the PermaValve, a permanent replacement for the pulmonary valve. “We were mainly thinking about the millions of people around the world who die each year from pulmonary valve dysfunction,” says Fletcher.

“Around 90% of the population experiences pulmonary valve dysfunction at some point in their lives, and while it isn’t always life-threatening, these defects can limit their quality of life. All of this, in combination with the lack of permanent cures for pulmonary valve defects, made the issue stand out to us,” she adds.

During their research, the team – which called itself the Anatomy Dream Team – discovered the need for a permanent, cost-efficient solution and a less risky alternative to valve transplants from human donors, animal valves, and artificial valves. They also sought to reduce the need for follow-up surgeries and procedures.

Fletcher, Neff, and DelSignore’s solution won the competition for their cohort.

(Pictured L to R) Violet (Jo) Fletcher, Harrison Neff, Katie DelSignore
Thinking About the Future Career Path in a New Way

“This program already has had a huge difference on myself and also for my team members,” says DelSignore. “We all feel that we really got something out of it that we wouldn’t have otherwise. For me, I think this program will change the way I view my future career path, it helped me recognize that I actually love handling business and finance-related tasks, as well as manufacturing and design, two things I never really thought I’d be interested in.”

“I was attracted to the idea of BioTrek because it gave me the opportunity to explore the cardiovascular system by myself instead of learning about it through lectures,” Neff says. “BioTrek also introduced me to the business aspect of health sciences, which is far more complicated than I previously thought. My favorite part about BioTrek was being able to work together with two of my closest friends and compete with my peers to come up with real-world solutions that could potentially save millions of lives.

BioTrek has them hooked as they look forward to college. Neff is considering studying biology, DelSignore is interested in diagnostic technology, and Fletcher wants to pursue a career in bioethics and medical law.

(Photo: BioTrek)
The Potential Impact on the Biotech Industry
David Rogers, chief development officer, ARMI

To date, more than 300 students in New Hampshire have participated in the BioTrek program. It will soon expand to high schools in Massachusetts.

Rogers hopes that early comprehensive exposure to the industry will plant the seed for students who may not have previously considered a career in biofabrication. He adds that whether or not the PermaValve or other innovations come to market are dependent on their academic and post-collegiate careers.

“If any of them pursue a career in biofab or advanced manufacturing at a graduate level or technology, any of those would be wonderful for us,” Rogers says.

“Every industry is competing for talent and it’s hard to compete if you’re not showing up. If people don’t know about your industry, they don’t even know that’s an option available to them. By presenting options, we’re creating whole group of students pursuing this career and solving our workforce problems.”

Barbara Hopkins, project manager, University of New Hampshire

A self-professed “scientist at heart,” Barbara Hopkins has been one of the evaluators in the pitch process.

She is a project manager for the University of New Hampshire’s Leitzel Center and says watching students experience contemporary science in real-time can help develop their critical thinking skills and confidence.

She says, “Students need to be engaged in the big ideas, problem solving, working in collaborative teams, using data, and other means to validate what they think and come to know. They will make the world a better place.”