Get them to do the research

1st May 2009 at 01:00
A four-year project at LifeScan Scotland in Inverness is pioneering work placements for 600 third-year pupils and their teachers

Lifescan's research facilities in Inverness resemble a state-of-the- art hospital - spotless laboratories with staff dressed like the cast from ER.

Several pupils visiting today have ambitions to walk corridors like these in their own white coats. But for the moment they're in borrowed whites, witnessing the work of scientists at the forefront of health-care research and getting hands-on experience.

LifeScan Scotland is part of the American corporation Johnson amp; Johnson, which has 250 companies world-wide and is best known for its baby-care products. At this Highland factory and research centre, the company designs and manufactures 10 million glucose test strips daily for diabetics around the world.

Now, in a pioneering four-year project, 600 third-year pupils and some of their teachers will be given an insight into the job opportunities this global enterprise offers during a range of placements and learning opportunities.

Treating diabetes and the complications that arise from it costs the NHS pound;1 million an hour in this country, with more than 2.3 million diagnosed cases and an estimated 750,000 undiagnosed. These numbers are on the increase and, according to recent figures, some 4 million people are expected to be affected by 2025.

"Unfortunately, it is now classed as an epidemic," says LifeScan's principal scientist, Marco Cardosi. "There are a lot of ideas and theories as to why it's on the increase. Lifestyle and diet are certainly important - sugar tends to be much more prevalent in our diet than it used to be."

Scientists in this research-and-development department are always investigating new ways to improve life for diabetics. Designers are constantly modernising the electronic meters used with their test strips, so patients can monitor blood-glucose levels regularly with minimum fuss.

It's more than a job for people who work here. Most will know someone who is diabetic; like scientist Leanne Mills. "I had an elderly uncle who had diabetes and he lost his limbs through amputation, so it's nice to know I am doing something that's helping somebody," says the 30-year-old chemistry graduate.

Not everyone here is a scientist. There are a variety of jobs en- compassing a huge range of tech-nical and business support roles - electronic and software engineers, industrial designers, patent attorneys, human resources and public relations staff. Teachers and pupils will be able to experience some of these roles across the company's activities.

The 1,250 staff embarked on this project last September, to encourage pupils into health-care careers and, perhaps, onto LifeScan's future workforce. Bridge to Employment is what Johnson amp; Johnson describes as a signature strategy: first launched in 1992, the programmes are tailored for individual communities and run at 10 international locations. Studies have shown pupils become better learners and more go on to higher education, following the experience.

This particular programme is delivered in partnership with the Scottish Community Foundation, UHI Millennium Institute, Highland Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Inverness College; a third party will evaluate its success.

Today, third-year pupils from Millburn Academy in Inverness are seeing how products are made here and finding out how they work. It looks complicated, but this lot are intellectual "A-listers" and once they've put on the white suits and latex gloves they blend in very well.

Catherine MacDonald, 14, wants to be a surgeon: "This gives you proper insight into what it's like, rather than people just telling you," says Catherine, hair scooped neatly back into a cap as she tests out the meters.

Classmate Ryan Christie is keen on chemistry. "From the outside, this looks like a bunch of offices, but it's much more exciting from the inside. It would be quite good if I got the opportunity to come here and work like this," he says.

Another third-year, Harry Newman, also wants to be a doctor: "I'm hoping to study medicine and, hopefully, this will help me get an idea of the working environment."

As well as Millburn Academy, five other schools are signed up for Bridge to Employment - Fortrose, Invergordon, Alness and Inverness Royal academies and Grantown Grammar.

"Highland Council is delighted to be working with LifeScan Scotland, the largest private employer in Highland, on the programme," says Moira Forsyth, the council's business development officer, who helps schools link with companies.

"This will provide exciting opportunities for pupils to discover at first hand the enormous range of career opportunities available in the life sciences sector. It will also help them to see the real-life relevance of science subjects, and support them in their studies."

Millburn history teacher and PT guidance Donald Watson is looking on in the lab as his pupils try out the electronic meters. "When Bridge to Employment was publicised, I grabbed at the opportunity immediately and got the school involved," he says.

"They tend to think of LifeScan as a factory - it's not just that; it's a very important research facility. So there's a huge range of opportunities for them to be involved in a programme through the Bridge to Employment.

"Initially, the whole of third year will be involved and then the focus will drop to a smaller number of pupils as they move through into fourth and fifth year. With the mentoring that LifeScan is offering to pupils, and the advice and support, we are hoping that will encourage them to think more about science, technology, engineering and maths subjects."

Another of Mr Watson's students, 14-year-old Saliu Giwa-Osagie, is thinking of a career in medicine and is finding today's visit illuminating. "It's interesting - science is the explanation for everything in the world really," he says.

What is also infectious for visitors is the enthusiasm of people who work here, like Leanne Mills. "I really love my job," says the young scientist, who is working on the next generation of test strips for diabetics. "I love that I tend not to do the same things every day. I've gained experience in engineering projects, in operations projects; I do cost- modelling finance work. So it's not just my science degree I use; I've expanded my understanding of a business, not just the science part of it."

Leanne is one of the speakers at a workshop for teachers from the six participating schools this afternoon. There is a mix of teachers - science and technical, guidance and economics - reflecting the cross-curricular applications of this project in line with A Curriculum for Excellence.

"We want to let pupils understand that the world is their oyster and a career in health is for everybody and if they want it to be, they can choose that," explains Life-Scan's community relations adviser Lorraine Dick, one of the driving forces behind the project.

Science was not one of her strongest subjects at school and she is determined these pupils will become more confident and effective learners as a result of this project. It is being devised with input from pupils, teachers and the research facility, to ensure everyone gets the most out of it.

"When I was in school and studied science, I found it quite boring because I couldn't see the connection with the wider world," says Ms Dick.

"If these pupils can understand how the people who developed this strip are making people with diabetes able to live their life; and that without this strip they wouldn't be able to test their blood-sugar level and know if they had to eat something or inject with insulin - so this is something that can control somebody's life - this will let them understand that science is not boring."


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