Most weekday mornings, you will see a yellow school bus parked in front of Biogen’s main entrance in Research Triangle Park (RTP). Middle and high school students file through the front doors alongside Biogen employees beginning their workday. The students make their way to Biogen’s Community Lab. Once inside they are transformed into scientists; they don white lab coats and safety glasses to work on real-world problems that Biogen scientists and engineers are working on daily.
In 1995, Biogen broke ground on an RTP site for manufacturing biologic drugs. This was at a time when “biomanufacturing” was largely an unknown term in the Triangle. Twenty-four years later, Biogen is one of the largest biotech companies in North Carolina with over 1,400 employees across two RTP campuses.
Biogen is a global biopharmaceutical company focused on discovering, developing, and delivering worldwide innovative therapies for people living with serious neurological and neurodegenerative diseases. Biogen has the leading portfolio of medicines to treat multiple sclerosis, has introduced the first and only approved treatment for spinal muscular atrophy, and is focused on advancing neuroscience research programs in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, MS and neuroimmunology, movement disorders, neuromuscular disorders, acute neurology, neurocognitive disorders, pain, and ophthalmology. Biogen also manufactures and commercializes biosimilars of advanced biologics.
Not only is Biogen a scientific leader, we are an industry leader in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. The Community Lab is the signature example of Biogen’s long-standing commitment to STEM education. In 2002, at Biogen’s world headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first Community Lab opened its doors. This dedicated teaching lab is the longest-running, hands-on corporate science lab in the nation, serving as the model for a growing number of similar initiatives in the biotech community.
Building off the success of our Cambridge program, in 2014 Biogen opened the 1,866 square-foot Community Lab at our North Carolina manufacturing facility. The Community Lab’s mission is to excite more young people about science and inspire the next generation of STEM leaders. Together the Community Labs have served over 50,500 students since 2002.
Students often dream about what their future will hold. Will they grow up to be a lawyer, doctor, basketball player or newscaster? However, their dreams are limited by their experiences and knowledge. We believe that science is for everyone, but not everyone has the opportunity to be exposed to real-world science and quality STEM education.
The goal of Biogen’s premier science education programs is to increase access for those not exposed to science in their everyday life. We focus on serving students from low-income households and groups historically underrepresented in the sciences. All Community Lab programs are free. We offer single-day lab sessions for middle and high school students during the academic year, rigorous one-week summer programs, and teacher professional development. The Community Labs are currently running at capacity; every fall when the schedule opens teachers vie for available dates and our summer programs consistently have waitlists with over 200 students.
The curriculum taught in the Community Lab was developed in partnership with teachers to reflect the North Carolina essential science standards and involved employees in identifying areas in Biogen’s business that align with the grade-specific standards. For example, seventh grade students may act as technical development scientists to determine the optimal growing conditions for cells or eighth grade students may test the purity of a mock medicine using reversed phase liquid chromatography. During these experiences, students get a chance to authentically see how the topics that they are learning in their classroom are applied to real-world problems at Biogen in ways that school classrooms cannot.
It is important for students to see themselves being successful in science; in the Community Labs students dress like our scientists in white lab coats with the Biogen logo. We entrust them with the same high-tech equipment that our scientists and engineers use. These sophisticated pieces of equipment are not accessible to most students within their schools. It is challenging for teachers to provide authentic science experiences without the proper facilities. That is why the Community Lab is so important.
Career pathways and workforce development
Even though Research Triangle Park is one of the largest research parks in the world, there are swaths of North Carolina residents that do not know about the many opportunities that exist in their own state. Not only are we providing students with engaging STEM learning opportunities, we are exposing them to future workforce pathways.
We know that students who have access and exposure to STEM fields earlier are far more likely to pursue STEM careers. According to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, North Carolina is home to over 700 bioscience companies employing over 63,000 people plus an additional 2,200 companies supporting this thriving industry. The average salary for a bioscience job in North Carolina is $93,000. Students and their teachers are generally unaware that these rewarding and fulfilling career paths even exist.
During the Community Lab programs, students meet and interact with biotech professionals from a variety of fields who share their unique career paths and, we hope, inspire students to choose a STEM path. After bringing a class through the Community Lab, one high school teacher remarked, “As a teacher, I was so impressed by how well the activities we did lined up with our curriculum. Plus, they got information on careers and the fact that there is a biotechnology company literally right up the road from where they live.”
To-date at least five Community Lab students have become Biogen employees, along with others pursuing science or careers in the biotech industry. We are committed to inspiring the next generation of the world’s leading scientific minds.
The value of STEM education
Quality STEM education is a priority for Biogen and for North Carolina. There is evidence that quality hands-on science helps students develop problem-solving skills, creativity and independence. The Community Lab programs are intentionally designed to reflect the way young people learn about the world around them through discovery and personal experience.
Quality hands-on science has a dynamic impact on all students by increasing their scientific literacy and allowing them to contemplate career opportunities in the biotech industry. Many students may not have access to quality science programs due to cost or other hurdles. For the last 17 years, the Community Labs have provided free programming to help ease some of the inequality in science education that underserved communities experience.
Caring deeply. Working fearlessly. Changing lives.™ This isn’t just a corporate philosophy, it’s an extension of who Biogen is as a company and how we support the communities where we live and work.
This perspective is part of our Biogen series. Follow along at https://www.ednc.org/category/biogen/.