January 18, 2024

Unveiling Our High School Mentorship Program

January 18, 2024

Unveiling Our High School Mentorship Program

Despite their capacity to make unique contributions, there remains under-representation of genders and minorities in science, technology, and engineering fields. We’re only a company of ~70 people, but we’re committed to acknowledging those contributions, trying to do our part to close the gap, and actively taking steps to create a more equitable and welcoming scientific community at Octant. 

Several years ago, two Octonauts founded a club called GEMS (Gender Equity Mentorship and Sponsorship) to provide a space to discuss bias, allyship, intersectionality, and other topics related to strengthening our community. One recurring topic of discussion in GEMS is the pervasive issue of a lack of diversity in STEM: 

Figure 1. Characteristics of the U.S. population ages 18-74, by labor force status: 2021. Image from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (Ref 1).

We’ve discussed where in the pipeline underrepresented genders and minorities stop participating in STEM and how a small biotech company could help. Although we can’t change the world immediately, we thought that focusing locally would be a great way to start making an impact. 

Figure 2. Participation in STEM drops off dramatically after high school across both genders (Ref 2).

Conveniently, one Octonaut had previously worked for Y-Scholars, a college readiness program for low-income high school students in the east bay that are first-generation college-bound. He proposed that Octant forge a partnership with Y-Scholars to nurture high school enthusiasm for pursuing STEM in college. He rallied a team of Octonauts passionate about the cause and from this the Octant Y-Scholars partnership was born. 

We started by providing Y-Scholars with the most immediate form of support needed– tutoring and help with college essay writing. With a wide range of academic backgrounds Octonauts tutored students across many subjects, from calculus to chemistry. We then decided to give students more exposure to “real life” biology and chemistry through a series of presentations delivered by Octonauts as part of the program’s Growth Mindset Workshops. We had our Pharmacology Team Lead present on “What is Drug Discovery?” and our Head of Functional Genomics present on “Careers in Research: Academia vs. Industry.” We’ve also hosted panels for the students on topics like “Women in STEM” and “STEM in College,” aimed at giving students– especially young women– the confidence to pursue science after high school.

Saagar (apprentice) helping a sophomore with her calculus homework.
Scientists Erin, Jessica, Liz, and Morgan with students after their panel on being a woman in STEM.

In January 2023, we launched a mentorship aspect of the program where we matched students with an Octonaut mentor whose career aligns with their academic interests. We ended up with 6 mentee-mentor pairs spanning all grades and STEM interests. Octonauts developed a drug discovery curriculum for mentees, which included lessons on our capabilities and workflows like high-throughput chemistry, synthetic biology, drug discovery strategy, and experimental design.

Then, in April mentees got to witness Octant’s technology in action as part of an onsite day. We started the day with a tour, followed by an overview of a standard luciferase assay we use for early drug programs. Students got to then shadow the experiment, watching our robots and scientists work their magic and then assist with data analysis. In addition to experiencing the way we do science at Octant, the students also spent some time meeting with key members of our leadership team, including Sri (CEO), Naomi (VP Platform), and Henry (Biology Team Lead), who shared stories about their educational and career  journeys and advice on how to have a meaningful career in scientific research. 

Mentees learning about our equipment as part of their onsite “experiment-athon.”

Our mentees had a great day, with comments like:

Through the past year, Octonauts and their mentees have forged meaningful bonds that have even continued on as mentees have gone off to college. This program is still ongoing, with mentors now continuing to support mentees through academic tutoring, college coaching, and customized curriculum. 

Overall, Octant’s partnership with the Y-scholars program has been a gratifying way to practice our values of inclusivity in STEM at a local level. It has also built community at Octant and grown our leadership skills. If you’re curious to start your own high school mentorship program and have any questions on how we did it, please reach out to ahoy@octant.bio and we’re happy to share more about our experience!

  1. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). 2023. Diversity and STEM: Women, Minorities, andPersons with Disabilities 2023. Special Report NSF 23-315. Alexandria, VA: National Science Foundation. Available athttps://ncses.nsf.gov/wmpd.
  2. Ellis J, Fosdick BK, Rasmussen C (2016) Women 1.5 Times More Likely to Leave STEM Pipeline after Calculus Compared to Men: Lack of Mathematical Confidence a Potential Culprit. PLoS ONE 11(7): e0157447. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0157447

Dominic Ky

Research Associate

Jordan Gewing-Mullins


Lizvette Ayala-Valdez

Automation Engineer

Zach Casey

Research Associate
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