Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Exploring new frontiers

Vaca High offers biotech course

By David Henson/Staff Writer

Lately it seems all economic roads in Vacaville lead to the entrances of big biotech companies like Genentech. Those roads, civic leaders hope, will be lined with green, if not gold. Similarly, city leaders cheer with unabashed enthusiasm biotech companies who expand their economic influence in Vacaville, hoping the city will become a hub for an industry boom.

Even Vacaville High School is doing its part to tap the market through its new biotechnology vocational program and perhaps give companies one more reason - an educated, enthusiastic young work force - to call Vacaville home.

After the program was delayed somewhat by modernization

projects at Vacaville High, some 30 students are finally decoding the up-and-coming world of biotechnology, delving into DNA and genetic manipulation.

"My goal is that by the time my students get out of here, they can work in any biotech lab," said Yen Verhoeven, the program's petite, but animated instructor.

During a lab this week, Ver-hoeven guided students through an experiment in genetic engineering. Through a process called "heat-shocking," students forced E. coli bacteria cells to incorporate bioluminescent DNA from jellyfish.

If the novice lab technicians were successful, their samples would glow in the dark.

"This is the very start of the genetically-modified products we use every day," Verhoeven said.

The in-class lab assignment was a scaled-down version of genetic-modification experiments students observed last week at the University of California, Davis. From those types of experiments come disease-resistant vegetables and other enhanced products.

When Verhoeven's students finish the class, she said, they will have learned not only the basic techniques needed to work in biotech labs, but also the theories behind them.

That experience puts them ahead of many seeking to break into the competitive and potentially lucrative job market.

"A lot of these students have skills a college undergrad doesn't have," said Verhoeven, who worked in a biotech lab for three years before becoming a teacher. "A lot of the techniques they are learning are things I did in the field every day."

Students like Nathan Golwitzer, 17, said he hoped the class will translate into a biotech job after graduation.

"Genentech is right there. It's convenient and something interesting,"

Golwitzer, a senior, said.

Other students had not made up their mind about post-secondary careers or education, but were equally enthusiastic about the biotechnology class.

"We do a lot of labs and it's more hands-on," said senior Jacob Smith, 17, when asked why he enjoyed the class. "We learn more about medicine and how to make it."

The program is part of the Solano County Office of Education's regional occupation program and includes the potential for students to earn internships. In addition, it operates off a $50,000 grant from Genentech and is in its second year.

However, the biotech program was hampered during the 2003-04 school year by ongoing modernization projects at Vacaville High. Instead of hands-on labs, students were forced to watch computer simulations.

Now, students conduct labs three or four days a week, research college-level journal articles and develop their skills as would-be lab techs.

"By the time they get out of here, they will have plenty of stuff to put on their resumes," Verhoeven said.

David Henson can be reached at

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