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Bioinformatics, Mandarin on tap for Buffalo private school

Daniel Robison
Guinea pigs of sorts: Students at Bishop Timon High School are enrolled in bioinformatics and Chinese courses to prepare for entry into the globalized workforce.

Between classes at Bishop Timon St. Jude High School, hundreds of adolescent boys in shirts and ties are rushing through the halls to get to their next class.

But lately, they’ve been taking a moment to grab a second look at something they don’t see every day.

“During passing period, they’re like, ‘Girl? Girl?’ Like they’re seeing a different species or something!” says Stephanie Newman, a senior at nearby Mt. Mercy Academy.

Newman travels to this all-boys school a few times a week, because they offer something not available at her school - or most other schools, for that matter: bioinformatics.

Global trends

Newman admits that when her principal first approached her with the idea of taking the class at Timon, it was “a little scary.” But she’d already expressed an interest in the field, so she took the leap, joining the bioinformatics class in its first semester.

The course, along with a Mandarin Chinese class added last year, is part of an effort to link this Catholic school in a blue collar South Buffalo neighborhood, with global trends and new career paths, according to bioinformatics teacher Jennifer Putnam.

“If they want to get into this in the future as a career, then this is a good start, because they’re going to be ahead of the game,” she says. “Most college kids have never even heard of bioinformatics. So they’re going to have a leg up.”

Instead of dissecting frogs like their peers in biology class, students in the bioinformatics class spend most of their time combing through data on computers. They use a graduate level textbook, and are expected to keep up when the subject matter climbs into tough territory.

“And they are actually given DNA - real DNA - and they actually have to sequence it, manipulate it,” says Putnam. “They use a whole bunch of lab techniques.”

Keeping students here

Each of Putnam’s college-bound students has expressed a desire to study medicine or the life sciences. That’s the bulls eye for Timon Principal Tom Sullivan. He’s watched the push to invest the community’s human and venture capital in these areas, especially at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Over the last decade, that’s yielded hundreds of jobs and millions in research projects.

Sullivan wants his students to be a part of it.

“We wanted young people to stay in western New York. So many of them are leaving our community for other parts of the country and other parts of the world,” Sullivan says, “because the good paying jobs are not here.”

But this is also about marketing. Sullivan claims Timon is one of the only high schools in the country offering these courses. For this private school with limited resources, he’s hoping it’s a way to become an application - and tuition - magnet.

“We wanted prospective parents to look at us in a different light than other schools,” Sullivan says. “We have heard from alumni how pleased they are to see these offerings.”

But so far, enrollment for both Mandarin Chinese and bioinformatics has been low. Administrators credit that a long list of pre-requisites needed to sign up, and a lack of awareness among students.

Sullivan says he hopes that the school can create a pipeline of students a few years down the road, to constantly feed into the classes, and then into local life sciences careers.

Whether or not bioinformatics student Stephanie Newman fits that mold isn’t yet determined.  She’s in the process of applying to colleges, many which are far from home. And she says it’s way too early to say if her career path in the sciences will eventually lead her back to Buffalo.

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.