EDUCATION – Mira Costa Biotech program honors graduates
by Hibah Samad
Twelve seniors were honored for completing the unique Biotech elective course offered at Mira Costa High School. The students are the sixth cohort to successfully complete this challenging program.
The graduating class had a special ceremony hosted by their teachers, Ernesto Nodado and Rebecca Fox, both who have diverse backgrounds in the world of science. Nodado, who has been teaching science for the past 14 years, has been with the Biotech program since 2017. Ford has taught in Manhattan Beach for 25 years and also teaches an Astrophysics course at Costa. She said that the Biotech program aims at giving students real-world, hands-on lab experience that most students don’t encounter until they reach college.
“We want students to gain an advanced understanding of cell biology, microbiology, genetics, and genetic engineering to name a few,” said Ford.
Many schools offer Biotech as a one-year class. Costa’s class encompasses two-years of coursework along with a third year in an internship.
Nodado said the program keeps growing. This year there were 59 applicants, with only 18 students accepted to be part of it.
“I am very excited to see how much our program has changed and really reached as many of the Mira Costa students,” Nodado said. “The program not only expanded in its number of students and those who are interested in being part of it but most importantly, it has gained a reputation on campus as a program highly desired to be part of.”
Students are interviewed by the teachers and current students as part of the selection process, and are required to sign a commitment contract to ensure their dedication to completing the program. The immersive program began in 2015, with the intention of providing a unique learning opportunity, and exposing students to a wide range of laboratory skills and scientific concepts.
For graduating senior Jessica Lewin, the impact of this class extends far beyond the classroom.
“Biotech is the most influential class that I took in my entire high school career,” she said. “I was exposed to twelve of the most intelligent and driven people that I had ever met on a daily basis, and watching them work made me strive to be better too.”
Through research projects and hands-on labs, participants learn while shaping their personal career interests. This course prepares students for college-level classes by exposing participants to laboratory procedures and research techniques. The lab skills they acquire include solution preparation, microscopy, gel electrophoresis, PCR, and bacterial transformation.
Lewin said the opportunity of taking this class is one of a kind.
“Whether you want to be a scientist or not, you’ll be exposed to an environment that will without a doubt make you into a better student and person,” she said.
The three-year elective course starts with interested students applying for the course in the spring of their freshman year. The following graduates were recognized and had the opportunity to showcase their 3rd-year project to attendees, as well as where they are going to college: Benjamin Blum (UC Berkeley); Diya Dhawan (UCLA); Madison Grumley (USC); Dylan Iskandar (Stanford); Camille Jorenby (Purdue); Krishna Hrishikesh (Purdue); Jessica Lewin (Duke);Ava Reyes (UC Berkeley); Sophia Safa (UC Berkeley); Simran Sethi (Northeastern University); Jacob Tan (Stanford University); Ema Yakatan (University of Denver).
Ford said it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to the graduates, but it’s rewarding to see them flourish as their immersion in the pathway becomes evident throughout the years. Ford shared an impressive example where one student collaborated with their mentor at UCLA to co-author a peer-reviewed article.
As for Lewin, she wrote a paper about the identifying differential gene expression in non-cancerous and cancerous cells in the brain cancer called glioblastoma that is particularly resistant to chemotherapy. But despite her notable research, she said the best thing about the Biotech program are her fellow scientists.
“Whether it’s the other students in my grade, or the younger years, or Mr. Nodado and Ms. Ford, there’s not a single person in that classroom that hasn’t awed me with just how brilliant they are. I’m absolutely convinced that half the kids in my group are going to change the world, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have met them.”
Students have opportunities to collaborate and build connections with other students across grade levels through group labs, research projects, and monthly “Biotech Breakfasts.” Also, those in their second-year mentor students in their first year. During their final year, seniors are placed in an internship program in the field of STEM.
Nodado said the highlight of the program is seeing his students transform into young scientists. This year was a little bit different as 10th and 11th graders worked on independent research with an end goal of proposing a conclusion.
“I love seeing how the students enhance their lab skills but most importantly, get a better sense of understanding of how the scientific method works,” Nodado said. “They often encounter issues during labs but see how they respond to these problems.”
Lewin is heading to Duke University next fall, where she will begin her studies in cognitive neuroscience and a law focus.
“Thanks to Costa, I was able to start exploring the subjects that I love at fourteen, and because of that, I’ve never lost that sense of childlike curiosity and wonder in the lab and the classroom,” Lewin said. “Biotech genuinely changed my life, and I can’t express how much I appreciate it.” ER