The Pioneers of the Amgen Biotech Experience

Pioneers lay the roads for those who follow to walk on. ~ Unknown
Apr 9, 2015 11:30 AM ET

Though the Amgen Biotech Experience now reaches more than 60,000 students and hundreds of teachers each year, the program had humble beginnings. It all started with a group of scientists and teachers who had a passion for sharing their knowledge with students.

In 1989, molecular biologist Bruce Wallace, Scientific Executive Director Steve Elliot (now retired), and others at Amgen believed that the company could be instrumental in providing professional development to area high school teachers, toward a goal of improving science education for students. They put out a call for biology teachers interested in a summer intern program.

Intrigued, Hugh Nelson, a high school teacher in Thousand Oaks, California, responded to their invitation. Nelson set about learning the procedures Amgen uses to develop biologics, and worked with an Amgen scientist to fine-tune a series of labs for high school students. Amgen agreed to provide equipment and chemicals to teach the lab procedures in area high schools.

Two years later, Amgen launched the official school program, with Nelson training teachers in Ventura County, California, schools. Within two years of the launch, 1,300 students from 12 local schools participated in the program.

“The labs put students in touch with the reality of modern science,” says Nelson. “It takes money to do experiments, and Amgen provided the funding for this important, transformative program. I’m no less in awe of the program [now] than I was in 1989." 

In 1999, Amgen enlisted Marty Ikkanda, a professor of biological sciences at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California, to revise the program’s curriculum to resemble his college classes, including giving students a chance to work with protein expression and purification. The revised program was rolled out to 20 schools the next school year, and had grown to 30 schools by the school year’s end.

“Teachers tell us they don’t have attendance problems when they’re doing the Amgen biotechnology labs,” says Ikkanda, who retired from the program in 2013. “It’s a fantastic way to interest students in science.”

To honor one of the program’s founders who has since passed away, the program was named the Amgen-Bruce Wallace Biotechnology Lab Program in 2003. Wallace wanted all students to experience the joy of discovery and the excitement of having science at their fingertips.

In 2005, with interest building from biology teachers in other communities, the Amgen Foundation, the main philanthropic arm of Amgen, partnered with Professor Ikkanda to expand training outside of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties in Southern California. Over several years, schools in San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Rhode Island, Colorado, Puerto Rico, Massachusetts, Washington DC, Ireland, and the United Kingdom were added. In 2013, the program was renamed the Amgen Biotech Experience to reflect its evolution. Additionally, the Amgen Foundation has joined forces with Education Development Center, Inc., a global nonprofit organization with deep experience and expertise in science education, to establish a Program Office to support and strengthen the program.

A collaboration that began 25 years ago inspired the ongoing commitment of scientists and teachers to share their knowledge of and passion for science. The Amgen Foundation is proud to continue its support of a program that is stronger than ever—and poised to bring real-world biotechnology to a new generation of teachers and students. “That pioneering spirit distinguishes Amgen,” says Eduardo Cetlin, president of the Amgen Foundation. “We’re forever grateful to those early collaborators for the roots of this powerful program.”


To learn more about the Amgen Biotech Experience, please visit our website and check out the #BiotechExperience hashtag on Twitter. Visit and follow @AmgenFoundation to stay up to date with all STEM-related news from the Amgen Foundation.