The learning process implies change. Once we’ve learned something, we aren’t quite the same person anymore, whether we’ve learned how to solve an equation, play tennis, make a vinaigrette, change a flat tire, or speak a second language.

A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer tells the story of immigrant Yaya Dia, who now plays a supporting role in developing a vaccine against COVID-19 at the Wistar Institute, a major biomedical research center in Philadelphia. Having experienced significant turning points in his life, he is a great example of a someone changed by learning.

Tom Avril’s October 1, 2020 piece reveals that this one-time disengaged student “went to an automotive vocational school, considered a career in the military, then was most of the way through a two-year business degree at Community College of Philadelphia before, on a whim, he took a course in biology. A passion for medicine was born.”  

The article shows how different Yaya Dia’s life is now. He thinks differently about his future now and is equipped with valuable experience and a whole network of professional work associates. Taking that bio course certainly proved to be a valuable turning point for him. Subsequently enrolling in the Wistar Institute-Community College of Philadelphia program became another turning point—one that might never have happened were it not for Wistar’s Dr. William Wunner, who saw benefit in creating a “pipe-line” for students to Wistar’s labs with Community College of Philadelphia.

Dr. Wunner had experienced his own turning point years before in Scotland, where “it was common for labs to hire research assistants who had yet to earn a college degree…By offering rigorous on-the-job training and supplemental classes to promising candidates, Wunner argued, Wistar could ensure a steady stream of homegrown research assistants. And it would yield another benefit in the bargain: boosting the number of minorities in the sciences.”

“But 20 years later, there is no question it works.” Half of the program’s grads have acquired science-related jobs within a year, and well over that number pursued further education in science or medicine.

Philadelphia Business Journal photo

In many research labs, the kind of work that Wistar program participants perform is often done on a volunteer basis by college students intent on acquiring needed lab experience, but students from low-income families cannot easily afford to volunteer their time. The Wistar-CCP program gives first-generation and low-income students this valuable experience—and access to science professionals. Working alongside top people in the field offers intangible benefits to program students like Yaya Dia.

Another Wistar-CCP student, who now has come full-circle and teaches biology at CCP, observed that the Wistar scientists were “welcoming, eager to answer questions or lend career advice.”  

The students in the Wistar program learn more than lab skills and content knowledge. They learn from the inside how science professionals operate, what matters to them, how they think. It’s enculturation of the best kind.  

Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.