Tune in weekly to our virtual series “Seventeen Minutes of Science” every Tuesday at 11am PST / 2pm ET where we go live on Facebook with a new guest each week to talk about how science and biotechnology is woven into their lives for (you guessed it) 17 minutes!
For episode 45 of 17 Minutes of Science we are joined by Dr. Goran Bozinovic of the Boz Institute to talk about their immersive research program for high schoolers.
Goran’s research expertise is in developmental and evolutionary biology, toxicology, and genomics. As a full time lecturer, he teaches genetics and biochemistry-related technical laboratory courses at the UCSD Division of Biology and serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at SDSU Graduate School of Public Health. Several main themes drive his current research interests including:
- Individual and natural population genomic responses and adaptive mechanisms to environmental stress during embryogenesis;
- Stress-induced, sex-specific metabolic gene expression in the brain;
- Ecological and human health risk assessment.
Goran’s goal is to help establish a modern and dynamic science research and learning program through the Boz Institute where future leaders ask important questions, collaborate on exciting projects, and innovate life science education.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:00:09] It is my pleasure to have our guest today, Dr. Goran Bozinovic, who is cultivating the next generation of scientists through an interesting organization that he runs, and he’s going to tell us about that in a minute. But let me give you a brief bio about Goran. His research expertise is in developmental and evolutionary biology, toxicology and genomics. So he’s really looking at problems from all different lenses. And he’s affiliated with UC San Diego, the division of Biology, as well as San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health. So he gets to bounce between institutions, but he is the mastermind, along with, I learned, some graduate students behind the Boz Institute, which is a nonprofit whose mission is to advance research, improve ecological and human health and cultivate future scientists and community leaders. So this exciting program is offered year round to free college students through a partnership with UCSD extension. So welcome, Goran. I’d love to have you say a few words and then we’ll just get going on the questions.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:01:19] Well, thanks for having me, Sarah. I appreciate the opportunity to share this vision a little bit and the way we do science, which is a little bit different than what students usually used to in their early kind of academic development. So this is a nice platform to share some of the thoughts and have a discussion about it.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:01:37] Well, great. We love this conversation. We’ve had other guests on the show that are very interested in developing future scientists so we love to hear everybody’s take on this and learn from each other. So can you tell us a bit about how the Boz institute got started?
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:01:54] Yeah, it’s a it’s a kind of an interesting story came from uh, a part frustration, part need to disrupt the system a little bit, I guess. I’ve been at UCSD for about 12 years now and my faculty biology department and I have a lot of students teaching technical laboratory courses and some lecture courses. And I realize that oftentimes when they plan A doesn’t work out, which is usually a medical school or graduate school, oftentimes they’re stuck and they don’t know how to proceed. And it started to really, kind of bother me that that students were not aware of other opportunities in science, which is very diverse. Right. And when it comes to opportunities, my wife at the time was also running a Biocom institute, a really large organization in San Diego that partners with the academia and industry and life science companies. And she was kind of nudging me to try to change the system. I had a vision of how I wanted to do the science education, but I didn’t really have the means. And then we started talking to people.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:03:05] So how long ago did you start?
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:03:07] We started about three years ago. The idea was to try to take a non-academic route, but I ended up, out of all places, in a meeting with UCSD’s extension, which is a little bit of a different operation than a main campus there, a little bit more business oriented and a little bit more nimble. And they listen to my kind of a broad vision and they said that this aligns to what they’re trying to do in their programs as well. And they became our biggest supporter. And this is how the partnership started. It took about a year to materialize it, to move into the lab space and start executing programs. But they have been a fantastic partner since we started. And, you know, it’s been three years going pretty strong. So we’re extremely fortunate.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:03:56] That is interesting. It’s great to hear when those public facing arms of the university embraced projects like this.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:04:03] Right.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:04:03] Community, yeah, building bridges. So tell us about how students are identified and selected to participate in the program and how many kids you have?
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:04:15] Sure. So, up to date we served about three hundred students in the program program is a little bit unusual because it doesn’t use the metrics that a traditional education system does, particularly sciences. We try to get students engaged in a – all aspects of research and have them participate in the authentic research so they can be authored on a manuscript, so we’re using a little bit more of a metrics that are used post, I guess, undergraduate academic experience, students right now come through mostly through UCSD pre-college program. The hypothesis is that you can take students at the very, very early age with very limited, if any, science fundamentals and if you put them in a different type of environment and motivate them to actually solve the problems when they are not pushed to acquire grades and work the system so they can just perform for the grades, but they are really solving problems as a team and support them throughout the process, that it is going to be a little bit more of a long term better outcome for everybody involved. So right now, they come from a UCSD extension program, however, Boz as a nonprofit has partnered with several local organizations and we’re making custom programs for underserved and underrepresented students as well.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:05:42] So is it predominantly later high school kids or are you capturing them earlier?
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:05:46] Yeah, that’s a – we wanted to do the proof of concept with the pre-college, with high school kids, mostly juniors, actually, because they’re still not as committed, I guess. And I find them very talented and open minded. So this was a good hypothesis testing for us. We would, we have plans and have experimented a little bit with the different cohorts as well with adults. We want to do the program with the teachers as well, with people transitioning from one career to another. But right now, the focus is mostly for pre-college with the pre-college kids, particularly the ones who don’t usually have opportunity to have access to these kind of programs.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:06:29] That is terrific. And so 300. Wow. So you are running year round, did I read that correctly off your your website?
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:06:39] Yes, this is a year round program that offers the diverse courses that are all project based or research based. And the idea is really to immerse students in all aspects of research from observation all the way down to biostatistics and bioinformatics and writing the manuscript and trying to submit a peer reviewed manuscript to a pretty competitive journal and have their name on a paper.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:07:06] Wow. So those are those are big goals.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:07:10] It’s sometimes a little too ambitious, I guess. You know, it’s a little bit of a trial and error. It’s luckily been a little more trial than error so far. But it’s a steep learning curve and we have a lot to learn. But it’s been, it’s been, the system has been working. It needs some adjustment, obviously, and sometimes we’re a little too ambitious and we’ll learn from it. But yes.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:07:34] Although that’s in my view, social entrepreneurship at its best. Right?
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:07:39] Thank you.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:07:40] You’re fine tuning as you’re going along, creating new things for the participants. So tell us the students, when they’re, when they’re selected to be in the program. And before we went live, you were telling me you’re in a room adjacent to the laboratory. Where where are you located? Are students coming to that lab or do you have partnerships with faculty at these other institutions? So how are they actually mentored?
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:08:04] Yeah, that’s a good question. So the lab is actually run mostly by graduate students. So each graduate student has a research program. I always – I was very privileged as a graduate student to work on a science that was really dear to me. I had a had a adviser who kind of let me loose, and she allowed me to pursue really the science that I wanted to do, which is not a very common scenario for a graduate student. And I really – that really changed my attitude about involving students into the work. So most of the projects here are student driven. I support them throughout it. And then the whole idea is to introduce our incoming students to four or five different diverse projects so they can intuitively engage into something that makes more sense to them. I notice that the students tend to take a lot more ownership of the project if they are, the project is not forced on them, but they actually have a choice. So we try to run a pretty diverse lab. It’s a very nontraditional lab where we use a lot of different species. We test different hypotheses the idea is to introduce students when they enter the program to three or four different projects so they can choose what they want to engage in. And then from there on, it becomes kind of a pretty elaborate process from the beginning, from observation, where students are part of the building hypotheses, designing the experiments, executing experiments, collecting data, analyzing and then working on both written and oral presentations informally, formally, and then working on a manuscript.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:09:44] It sounds like graduate school encapsulated.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:09:48] They do graduate level work as high schoolers without having a lot of conceptual knowledge how even to design a statistically responsible experiment. And that’s the hypothesis. That’s what we wanted to see. Can we start from scratch and actually kind of write the entire process if given enough time and different metrics? Right.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:10:10] Well, it sounds like you’re onto something. And can you tell us. You’ve mentioned you’ve had quite a few students in a short span of time, but are there a couple of stories that stand out in your mind as students you’ve worked with that have gone on and gone to college and seize this opportunity in science?
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:10:28] Right. So, yeah. So quite a few stories. One is that when we started our first cohort in the summer of 2019, we had three different projects going on at the same time. And one of the – I think there were about maybe 30 students or so in the program, in person. And one of the projects was in a partnership with National Park Service looking at the endangered plants on their site. And there were three students in the project because it was a planned biology. The other one, the other two projects were a little bit more, I wouldn’t say popular, but one was a neurobiology project. So you had a little bit of a kind of a human health component to it. So we had only three students in this one project, one of them, uh out of three students. Two of them stayed with a lab as volunteers. One of them was an author, co-author on a paper in the Ecology and Evolution Journal. The other one just won the scholarship, National Scholarship for College. And then I made her perform, uh she’s accomplished violinists so I traded her for the letter of recommendation she had to play violin for everybody in the lab and we were really treated with a fantastic performance. So this was a lot of fun. So they’re both still here and both of them are authors in the second paper, which was submitted to scientific reports. And that paper is about prevalence and trends of ADHD pre-COVID. And it’s more of a statistical kind of a dry, dry data science. So we’re just happy to have them both in the stay with the lab.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:12:14] Wow. Sounds like lots of different avenues that they can go on, but I’m sure just the whole notion of opening their eyes to this possibility of a career doing these different types of science as opposed to, say, medicine, as you mentioned at the beginning. Actually, you saying that triggered a memory that I remember being one of the few biology majors who wasn’t going to medical school, like on purpose. But it struck a lot of my peers at the time as odd as to why I would be interested in biology if I wasn’t going to med school.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:12:49] Right.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:12:50] Yeah.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:12:50] Well, we still support, I mean, we support students, the graduate students who aspire to go to medical school after they finish their work, too. So we honor that. And we have a several projects that really cater to students interests. We have one volunteer just recently joined from UCSD who is working on a neurobiology project because she wants to continue and go to medical school focus focusing on neurobiology. But you’re right, we, one of the goals is to show students all the other possibilities that are out there besides a traditional path of going to medical school or vet school.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:13:27] Yes. And if the last year of of the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it takes all kinds of scientists and brains on a problem to present solutions.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:13:42] And students are becoming more and more aware from a, kind of an earlier age. And that’s, it’s been, you know, I don’t know if you can talk about any silver lining or anything like this, but I think people are becoming more aware of this systemic effort. How many people actually go into the process of simply just developing a vaccine. Right. So it’s, it’s been educational for a lot of us.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:14:05] I bet. And you’re doing it in real time. Pretty cool. So let’s see, in a couple of weeks, I believe we are going to have a guest from your program on on our show. So we’re looking forward to meeting that student. I believe her name is Natalie, who can tell us from her perspective about what it’s been like to be in the program. So we’ll get, we’ll get both voices, which is pretty cool to look forward to. I’d love your comments in our final minutes on how, how the present moment of living in pandemic times and access being limited to labs and that kind of thing has changed how you’re doing the program or the kinds of projects students are working on.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:14:43] It’s a, that’s a really interesting question. You know, we were a little bit concerned because our model pre-pandemic was impressive and it’s invaluable. We love having students here and there’s a different type of engagement in person versus virtual. So, once COVID hit, we started becoming a little bit more resourceful. We offer a virtual research immersion program that created some opportunities to reach students that we usually wouldn’t think of partnering with. We even did a an interesting international cohort with underserved students from San Diego combined with students from Ghana. And the reason for that was I wanted to test how well we can execute the program. But there is a cultural diversity, a little bit of a little bit of a language barrier, definitely some some Internet infrastructure and technical problems. And this is one of my favorite courses that we did. The students actually presented to a panel of professional scientists and academics at the, at the end of the program in a formal seminar. And we had mixed teams from people on a different continents working together and it ended up being one of the, probably most rewarding experiences at the institute.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:16:09] And I bet that’ll be an experience your students will never forget.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:16:12] That was a lot of fun for everybody. And my staff, when I told them what we were doing, there were there were a little bit, I wouldn’t say concern, but little you know, you can see the brain spinning. How are we going to execute it? But it worked really well. And then we had a lot of fun.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:16:27] Those are great stories to hear right now as to how digital technology has connected us during these times and made new friendships that perhaps the hardship wouldn’t have otherwise revealed. So I like that. We’ll go with silver lining. Well, we’re in our last few moments here before my timer goes off. I didn’t tell you I’d started it, but I did. So I’m going to tell our audience that I sincerely hope that you’ll take a minute to go look at the Boz Institute online. It’s B-o-z, as in Zebra, Boz Institute. They have a great website that explains the program in more detail. There’s some wonderful pictures of students doing the work and some shots in the lab. So – there goes the timer. Definitely encourage all our viewers to stop by your website, take a look and follow along. So I want to thank you very much for taking the time today to tell us the story of this. Wish you every success. And we look forward to talking to Natalie in a few weeks.
Dr. Goran Bozinovic (Guest): [00:17:24] Thank you for the opportunity. It was a pleasure to be with you today. Thanks.
Dr. Sarah Cheesman (Host): [00:17:27] All right, everybody, we will see you next time. Thanks for stopping by.