State public health laboratory, Henrico County Schools launch pilot program to promote life science career

More than 50 Henrico County high school students and teachers joined scientists from Virginia’s public health and environmental laboratory Wednesday to kick off an innovative program that brings together private and government scientists and experts, business and nonprofit leaders, and public schools to explore ways to create a pipeline of talent to fuel Virginia’s growing life science industry.

The Life Sciences Virginia pilot program, conceived by the Virginia Bioscience Foundation and funded in part by GO Virginia, pairs scientists from the Department of General Services’ Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) with students from the Varina Center for Environmental Studies and Sustainability. The program is designed to create meaningful learning experiences for the students to stimulate an interest in public health and the life science industry, including public and private research and development, medical laboratories, manufacturing of pharmaceutical and biotechnology products, medical devices, and distribution of healthcare products.
“Virginia’s life science industry needs greater talent to succeed and grow,” said Jim Powers, Chairman of the Virginia Bioscience Foundation and former CEO of HemoShear Therapeutics. “We are thrilled to have Varina High School and the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services participate in a pilot program to learn how industry scientists can engage with students to build interest in life science careers. We know this sort of meaningful engagement with scientists at an early age can impact the paths and careers our young students choose later in life.”

High school freshmen and sophomores toured the public health laboratory Wednesday, stopping for demonstrations in methods including molecular detection of genetic material, water microbiology, water chemistry, and newborn screening while learning more about the laboratory and the scientists who do the work. During lunch, students heard scientists discuss their career choices, followed by a question-and-answer session.

Throughout the school year, students will benefit from classroom studies designed collaboratively by teachers and DCLS scientists, hands-on activities both inside the lab and with scientists who will visit the school, and active engagement with business and scientific leaders.

“The needs of the public health laboratory are changing. Its success depends on the attraction, recruitment and retention of people in lab-based STEM careers,” said Dr. Denise Toney, Director of DCLS. “Our hope is that the intentional engagement of high school students will help to nurture the next generation of public health scientists.”

“Empowering our students with hands-on experiences and career exploration opportunities in the field of life sciences is key to unlocking a future of boundless possibilities for them,” said Varina High School Principal Cherita Sears. “They can begin to see themselves as the scientists, healers and innovators of tomorrow. Their excitement and curiosity underscore the transformative impact of life-ready learning.”

The ultimate goal is to use lessons learned from the pilot to establish a sustainable statewide program pairing industry and government scientists with both high school and middle school students, particularly in under-represented areas, to encourage them to focus on life science studies and careers. The DCLS-Henrico County Public Schools partnership is one of two pilot projects; the other is between LifeNet Health, a global leader in regenerative medicine and life sciences, and Landstown High School in Virginia Beach.

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