Bringing Biotech Out of the Textbooks and Into the Real World in Rhode Island

Julie Pankowicz’s students engaging in an ABE activity

Julie Pankowicz started teaching high school biology right out of undergraduate school when she turned 22 years old. “It was very scary, but exciting,” she says. More than 2 decades later, she has completely transformed the biotech program at Coventry High School in Rhode Island, bringing biotechnology to hundreds of students each year through the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE).

“My curriculum has become centered on using the ABE equipment and labs,” Pankowicz says. “It allows me to challenge my students in ways I couldn’t without the ABE program.” When the ABE curriculum was first introduced at Coventry High School in 2009, biotechnology was a brand new subject. Pankowicz raised her hand to volunteer to implement the program and to write the curriculum for 2 semester-long biotech classes. She went through every biotech class she could take and every workshop offered by ABE to become an expert in the classroom.

Her first year, Pankowicz had only 9 students in a 1-semester class, and now she has about 200 a year using the ABE equipment. Pankowicz also allows her science department colleagues to bring their students into her lab so she can share the labs with as many Coventry students as possible. 

In addition to the ABE courses, Pankowicz teaches biomedical and forensic sciences classes and participates in a wide range of community nights, career fairs, and other opportunities that give students and the community the chance to interact with the biotech equipment and subject matter. “It’s more than just the equipment,” she says. “It’s really this family of teachers and resources that enables students to go into so many different directions.”

Coventry is a large high school with about 1,600 students; many graduating students are the first in their families to go to a 4-year college. Among her biotech students over the years, Pankowicz has many student success stories—students who have gone on to college to pursue degrees in the medical sciences, such as a registered nurse now working with HIV patients; students who have gone onto biomedical engineering; and even students who have gone on to work at Amgen in Rhode Island.

Pankowicz has also helped direct many of her ABE students to the biotech program at the University of Rhode Island (URI), including David Mellon, who is finishing his last year at URI and looking to attend grad school or work in a biotech company thereafter. “Ms. Pankowicz has undoubtedly been the single most influential teacher of my high school experience,” Mellon says. “From her helping me explore biotechnology in the classroom to showing me the biotech track at URI, I am grateful she was there to help me decide where to go next.”

Mellon says that performing actual ABE labs was useful when he got to college, but he credits the micropipetting work the most. “Practice with micropipettes in high school helped me immensely in college labs and during my internship at Beech Tree Labs, Inc.,” he says.

Pankowicz beams with pride talking about her former students. “They are talented and skilled and often stay in Rhode Island,” she says. “At URI, they find that those students who came out of the ABE curriculum have the easiest transition and do the best in the lab.”

Her favorite part of teaching biotechnology is seeing the students’ excitement and enthusiasm. “Those ‘aha moments,’ when they learn about cells at the microscopic level or learn about a new career path, is so rewarding,” Pankowicz says. It’s important, she says, for them to see how biotechnology is relevant in their own lives, from genetic testing and DNA fingerprinting in the courtroom to new treatments in diabetes and cancer to its role in studying ecology and evolution.

Indeed, Mellon says that the ABE courses opened his eyes to widespread impacts of biotechnology in everyday life: “The classes showed us biotechnology not only in the context of drug development and research but also in other fields such as forensics and agriculture.”