Héctor L Ayala-Del-Río recently received an unexpected thank you card: It was from a local high school science teacher, explaining that she was having a challenging time in her classroom, but how a recent event that Ayala-Del-Río and his team organized made all the difference. She had attended an Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE) teacher appreciation event at the Caguas Science Center, and the act of being recognized “made her feel that everything was worth it and that she should keep going,” says Ayala-Del-Río of the University of Puerto Rico-Humacao.
Participating in hands-on science labs like ABE in Puerto Rico is no easy task, especially over the last year -- a year that Ayala-Del-Río calls the most challenging in his 10 years directing the ABE Puerto Rico program. Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult for teachers on the island to get the equipment they need to undertake the advanced labs, but in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, it became monumentally more challenging. Power outages not only disrupted communications between participating high schools and the University of Puerto Rico-Humacao but also meant that key lab reagents could not stay cool enough for their use.
Despite these challenges, the ABE Puerto Rico program is still going strong and was a proud participant in the recent Bioscience Week of Puerto Rico, which celebrated biotechnology on the island. Local biotechnology companies, such as Amgen, Eli Lilly, AbbVie, and others, came together to help raise awareness of their contribution to the economy. “Even though they are competitors, the sector came together to educate the public on the importance of biotechnology, which is necessary to develop a prepared workforce,” he says.
It was during that week that ABE brought together their local teachers in appreciation of all their hard work. The event including speed mentoring, a session on problem-based learning, and lots of time to connect with other educators.
“Our goal was to recognize as many teachers as possible,” Ayala-Del-Río says. “ABE teachers go above and beyond and are often not recognized by their school systems, so we wanted to change that.”
Ayala-Del-Río always finds it rewarding to interact with ABE teachers. Having run professional development institutes over the last 10 years to train almost 550 teachers and almost 50,000 students in Puerto Rico, he sees their growth over time. “It’s so important to make them feel comfortable with lab skills in the classroom, so that they can transfer them to their students.”
In his own classes at the University of Puerto Rico-Humacao, Ayala-Del-Río sees the big difference that prior lab experience has on his students’ preparedness. “A challenge we encounter every year with new freshman is that many lack basic laboratory skills; they are brilliant but if they get a few more skills before reaching university, it makes their lives easier in the laboratories,” he explains. “If I am not showing them a pipette for the first time, it helps -- because students can review what they learned and improve their skills rather than learn the instruments for the first time.”
When Hector was young, he was fascinated by the potential of microbes to help with a variety of societal problems, such as environmental contamination. This passion took him first to the University of Puerto Rico-Humacao for undergraduate studies and then to Michigan State University for his Ph.D in microbiology.
“It was a whole new world -- we had more resources than we have here, and we had so many opportunities at our fingertips to conduct high-impact research,” he explains. Geography poses a major challenge, he says: For example, if he ran out of a reagent at Michigan State, he could easily get more the same day, but in Puerto Rico, getting the same reagent could take a week or two.
While he valued his time in Michigan, he ultimately wanted to return to Puerto Rico to give back. “I wanted to try to make things better here with what I learned there, not just science but everything I gained from being in a different environment,” he says. That experience now informs everything he does, from his microbiology research and teaching to his time leading the ABE program on the island.
Ayala-Del-Río was himself recognized at the teacher appreciation event in October for his tremendous contributions to the ABE Puerto Rico program. Amgen Foundation President Eduardo Cetlin recognized him for his more than 10 years of dedication to ABE. In addition, the Industry University Research Center awarded him the Faces of Bioscience on Puerto Rico award for his contributions to the biosciences on the island.