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— Contributed by Mahsa Khatibeghdami, Program Site Director, ABE Greater Los Angeles Area

During the 2020–21 school year, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected the normal operations of the ABE Greater Los Angeles Area program, but it also created an opportunity for us to forge innovative ways to expand the reach and impact of biotech education. Mandatory closures in 100% of our partnering school districts required the switch to remote learning for the entire year. While distance learning requirements resulted in the suspension of traditional programming using classroom kits, we directed our attention to expanding the use of virtual resources, as well as expanding the means through which students were exposed to biotech concepts and industries.

Consequently, the ABE-LA team envisioned meeting these objectives through a virtual summit experience for students and educators. Our priority to stay connected with our teachers and students, combined with our mission to ensure student success now and in the future, resulted in a goal to develop a convening to maximize student access to ABE-LA resources and biotech education for as many students as possible during the pandemic through the virtual sphere.

This required pivoting our focus from looking at distance learning as a limitation to realizing its potential. We aimed to maximize diversity, equity, and inclusion among attendees by allowing students across the state of California to attend our summit regardless of current ABE-LA participation or proximity to the program site. We recognized that the Future Leaders of Biotech Summit would bridge traditional gaps in access, re-engage current and past ABE participants, introduce biotech to younger audiences in middle school, and promote the ABE program and biotech careers to an unprecedented number of students.

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On 16 April 2021, ABE-LA hosted the inaugural Future Leaders of Biotech Virtual Summit, attended by more than 6,500 students and educators simultaneously across. The 2-hour event was held in collaboration with ABE site directors in San Diego and San Francisco, and provided information about the numerous, diverse opportunities for careers in biotech, with the aim of developing robust career pathways that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Building off the success of the ABE program, the Summit further engaged students by introducing them to the real-life possibilities of bioscience and STEM careers. We hope to have inspired thousands of students to pursue further studies and careers in the field, building a more representative and inclusive generation of scientists.

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Toward this end, the virtual summit engaged more than a dozen industry experts and professionals in conversations about current research, academia, and professional career pathways, and represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students to extensively and intimately engage in the discussion of high-level STEM and biotech topics. The program incorporated elements that would appeal to our current ABE-LA participants as well as future potential participants in middle school. Interactive demonstrations on the role of biotech in criminal forensics created by site staff further reinforced biotech learning through an approachable lens without undercutting the sophistication of biotech concepts. Moderated panel conversations with industry professionals explored the applications of biotech in medicine, increasing gender and racial equity in the field, pursuing biotech in higher education, starting a biotech company, and more. In addition, prominent local and state leaders, including California Secretary of State Shirley Webber and Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, spoke to the need for more students to pursue biotech and STEM fields while imparting words of wisdom to thousands of potential future scientists.

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Following the summit, we received countless messages from students and educators expressing gratitude, excitement, and enthusiasm for the event and for the potential for further engagement with biotech. We are optimistic that the Summit represents the first of many future efforts to increase the development and implementation of practices and initiatives that create opportunities for students to learn more about and engage with biotech, with a critical focus on reaching traditionally underserved and underrepresented students.

View the entirety of this online summit, and then visit the ABE-LA Youtube channel for other great content.

If your ABE program site is interested in developing and planning a similar biotech summit, you can contact me at mahsak@lapromisefund.org.

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