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San Diego
Saturday, May 25, 2024

Illumina Supports Early STEM Education

Illumina, a San Diego stalwart since 1998, now has a high-profile presence at the McGrath Family JA BizTown in the Grantville community. Officials from the global leader in DNA sequencing and array-based technologies last week cut the ribbon on a new, hands-on educational site at the popular center run by Junior Achievement of San Diego County.

Illumina is now part of the mix of A-list companies at BizTown, which also include Cox, Jack in the Box and UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

BizTown, a sprawling 10,000-square-foot mini “city” with nearly two dozen real San Diego businesses, is an educational center where supervised local elementary school students – 18,000 every year – spend nearly five hours on a reserved day with JA personnel, teachers and volunteers exploring the bustling exhibits.

Before their visit, students are given instruction in the classroom centered around the companies at BizTown. Once there, they continue those lessons, including learning how to run a business, earn paychecks, open bank accounts, pay taxes, vote and make executive decisions, all while being challenged to turn a profit.

Illumina is the first biotech storefront at BizTown, and its importance cannot be underscored, JA officials say, as Illumina’s presence reflects the booming San Diego biotech industry that is helping to drive innovation around the world.

“BizTown introduces these students to the jobs of tomorrow and how to access them,” said Junior Achievement of San Diego County President and CEO Sidd Vivek.

On May 31, Vivek, local officials – including San Diego City Councilman Raul Campillo and San Diego Chamber of Commerce CEO Jerry Sanders – and representatives from Illumina, including CFO Sam Samad, talked about the importance of BizTown and together cut a red ribbon at the Illumina storefront, in a corner of BizTown’s upper floor.

“McGrath BizTown (allows us) to give back to our San Diego community by introducing elementary-age students to genomics and careers of the future,” Samad said.

Part of Illumina’s Push for STEM

Samad said Illumina is committed to equitable access to STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) education and empowering students to create a STEM identity for themselves, “envisioning themselves as future scientists, innovators, and trailblazers.”

He said Illumina has a goal to reach 5 million STEM learners by 2030.

Samad said Illumina wanted the BizTown shop’s aesthetic to mimic the labs at its headquarters and reflect the mission of its company – to improve human health by unlocking the power of the genome.

The storefront introduces students to some of the applications of genomics, including precision medicine to help diagnose a rare disease or using environmental DNA to help conserve and study endangered species.

The Illumina site at BizTown also includes stations for scientists to do their experiments, build a double helix, investigate Illumina sequencers and explore STEM careers.

Illumina’s Jobs at BizTown

Roles for students at the Illumina site include research associate/lab manager working with partners at Kaiser Permanente or Scripps Hospital to solve their challenges; field scientist, providing a tour of the shop and teaching visitors why genomics is important and what kinds of jobs are at Illumina; engineer, who learns about the structure and function of DNA; chief technology officer who leads the organization of the lab and helps to raise funds for grant requests.

Illumina had a soft launch of the site last November and since then thousands of students have visited BizTown, including Poway Unified School District’s Turtleback Elementary.

Turtleback fifth-grader Kyle Schwartz experienced being a scientist at Illumina’s BizTown site and after his visit this past February, Kyle wrote a letter to Illumina. In it, he told the company how excited he was to be a scientist.

“From the moment I heard of you, I was fascinated by all of the awesome stuff you do,” Kyle wrote. “I had the coolest experience ever as a scientist. I got to mix chemicals and then put the solution in a sequencer.”

In the letter, Kyle asked the company’s CFO to write him back, which Samad did. Samad then went a step further and invited Kyle and his parents to join Illumina at the official opening. Kyle read his letter out loud at the event.

Samad said Kyle’s letter “meant a lot” to him and showed the power of science.

Next Generation Sees Commitment

He said enabling students to see themselves as the next generation of scientists was a big part of Illumina’s push, which includes commitments “to innovation, to diversity and to educational opportunities like BizTown.”

“The decisions and innovations we make today will shape our personal and collective future,” Samad said.  “I couldn’t be more excited for that future, knowing that it will be led by kids like Kyle. We’re really proud to be part of this.”

Vivek said Junior Achievement first began the conversation with Illumina to add a storefront at BizTown in June 2021.

They started the build out in late October and began welcoming students in December. Vivek said the Illumina “jobs” that the students perform are discussed during weeks of curriculum in the classroom, prior to their arrival.

Campillo thanked Vivek and Junior Achievement for providing “an amazing venue” where young people can “to discover career paths through real-world, hands-on exploration… to understand how business works and how we interact with every other business in our economic environment.”

Campillo, who represents Grantville as part of his council district, said that as a former fifth grade-school teacher, he wished he had been given an opportunity to bring those students to BizTown.

Figuring Out All Sorts of Problems

He also thanked Illumina for coming on board, expressing appreciation for all the ways the company is helping with genomics sequencing to “stop the next form of cancer, the next pandemic, how we can change plants to produce bigger crops, how we can figure out all sorts of problems.”

“Illumina is leading the way by engaging students in creating opportunities for them to be our next pioneers, helping them to envision what is sometimes thought to be impossible, and realizing that it is possible,” Campillo said. “It’s possible right here in San Diego, preparing them for tomorrow’s workforce.”

Campillo championed a “home grown workforce,” in San Diego, calling it “economic development at its finest.” He told Kyle that after he was done with his education, to “be whatever you want to be… but bring it back to San Diego. Leaders like me are going to have your back.”


Founded: 1998

CEO: Francis deSouza

Employees: 9,100

Revenue: $4.5 billion (2021)


Headquarters: San Diego


Notable: The company was founded by David Walt, Larry Bock, John Stuelpnagel, Anthony Czarnick and Mark Chee.


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