Biotech Day Returns to W.F. West High School


W.F. West High School saw the return of Biotech Day on Wednesday after a multi-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event was smaller than in pre-pandemic years, consisting of approximately 30 freshmen advanced biology students and about 15 chemistry, molecular genetics and advanced molecular genetics students. In the past, the event was held in a gymnasium and was attended by schools from around the area. This year, it included only Chehalis students.

According to Wendy Neal, who teaches advanced chemistry and molecular genetics at W.F. West High School and is the teacher who was in charge of running the event, this year’s Biotech Day was the schools 23rd.

According to Neal, the event centers around students trying to solve a fictional crime with a story developed by the advanced molecular genetics class. This year's advanced molecular genetics class, which consists of three seniors, made a video that the students watched in the morning before presenting them with the DNA of three individuals: a victim (played by Neal) and two suspects. The participating freshmen then attempted to solve the mystery of who committed the crime using genetics.

Ryan Witham, a senior in the advanced molecular genetics class, said he studied molecular genetics last year as a junior and wanted to continue on into the advanced class because he wanted to do a research project and help with Biotech Day this year.

“We had to restart from scratch. We got to create everything on our own. I think that was the biggest challenge but also part of the fun … It’s super easy to do a pie pet, but showing someone how to do it is very different,” said Witham, who will be attending Boise State next year to study sports medicine.

“I wish we had gotten to do Biotech Day (as younger students). It would have been fun,” said Claire Kuykendale, another senior in the advanced molecular genetics class who will be attending Gonzaga University next year to study physiology and hopes to become a physical therapist. “It’s been really cool using all the science stuff the Chehalis Foundation bought us. We got to be a lot more creative with it.

“Biotech Day has been helpful for getting better at explaining things. It’s definitely helped me get better at that,” added Kuykendale.

Amelia Etue, also a senior in the advanced molecular genetics class, said she’s always been interested in STEM — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and attending W.F. West has given her the opportunity to pursue that interest.

“The programs that we have at W.F. West are so, so cool. I’ve always been drawn to STEM. It’s a great opportunity,” said Etue, who also works with the school’s scanning electron microscope.

“I want to do non-research fields, I don’t want to be sitting in a lab and stuff, I want to be able to make a difference as soon as I can,” said Etue, who will be attending California Polytechnic State University next year and plans on earning a degree in biochemistry.

“For Biotech Day I was looking forward to putting on the event post-COVID. Especially with the kids having missed out on so much, especially with exciting STEM projects. We have been working for a couple solid months. I wrote the handbook and organized it. I made spreadsheets. It’s been a lot more organizing than it seems … It’s awesome. It’s really all over the place and exciting. Everyone is running all over the place. It’s been really great,” Etue added before she had to go back to helping another student.

Cameron Sheets, a junior in the main molecular genetics class who got to help a group of freshmen through figuring out how to run their tests, agreed with those sentiments.

“It’s been really fun,” Sheets said. “I’m enjoying showing everyone the tools. They caught on really fast and it was cool to watch them learn.”

Amit Rai,  a junior studying molecular genetics, also said he had fun.

“I’ve never done this before,” Rai said. “My cousin is in my group so it’s been pretty cool to work with him. … (As a molecular genetics student) I’ve been helping with the loading dye and helping them with how to prep for next year and the next Biotech Day.”

Madyson Alexander, a freshman in advanced biology, had a lot of fun at the event.

“We learned about genetics and DNA and then switched to another unit and then came back yesterday,” Alexander said. “About a month ago, a forensic scientist came and talked about this exact stuff to some of the students at the school, and I went to it with a few of my friends. That really helped get me more interested in this topic so it’s been really cool to actually do it (myself).”

The students also had the chance to hear from a professor from the University of Washington. Sarah Li, a fifth year PhD candidate from Canada, talked to the students about game theory and its applications to autonomous machines.

During her lecture in the W.F. West theater, Li discussed how game theory, a mathematical concept related to choice, correlated to innovations like self-driving cars and drones for companies such as Amazon. She also touched on the topics of traffic and fireflies.

“I really wish I had gotten to listen to that lecture. It would have been really interesting to learn about,” said Alyssa Howlett, a junior in the molecular genetics class who was helping with set up while the freshmen were at the lecture.

“It’s been very fun to have it (Biotech Day) again. I learned all this in molecular genetics and it’s been fun to see how others learn it. I got to be an elementary school teaching assistant first semester, which has been a big help in getting ready to help the younger students. I want to be a teacher, so this has been a really great experience … It’s been really fun. We’ve been going through the steps slow and steady and they got it after a little bit,” Howlett added.

Organizers hope BioTech Day can return to inviting students from other schools in the future.

“Biotech Day is a strong tradition and we know we want to bring that back. Though in what context, we don’t know yet,” said science teacher Krista Wilks. “We’re still figuring it out and building back up within our own school and department … These kids did a really good job for having never experienced it before. I think it’s been a really good day.”