As a Los Angeles Unified School District biotechnology instructor at Roosevelt High School, Rekha Prakash works two short miles from USC’s Health Sciences Campus, where she earned her master of science degree in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine in 2015.

“I teach biomedical sciences,” she said. “It’s not a regular biology class. This is totally career technical education. And when they finish it, they’re ready for college or a career.”

Prakash originally planned to become a physician or physician’s assistant, but discovered a passion for teaching while serving as an instructor in a cadaver lab at Sri Ramachandra University in Chennai, India, where she earned a master’s degree in medical anatomy.

In 2011, Prakash got married and moved to the United States. She decided to volunteer at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center in the laboratory of Preet Chaudhary, MD, PhD, who is a Professor of Medicine, the Bloom Family Chair in Lymphoma Research, Chief of the Nohl Division of Hematology and Center for Blood Diseases, and Director for Bone Marrow Transplant. She contributed to papers about cancer immunotherapy in the journals Scientific Reports and Blood, while earning her master of science degree in the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s stem cell biology and regenerative medicine program in its inaugural year.

After graduating from the master’s program at the Keck School, she accepted a job as a research associate at Cedars-Sinai. Before long, she was offered a position as a biotechnology instructor for LAUSD at Reseda High School, and she leapt at the opportunity to return to teaching. Currently, she works as a biotechnology instructor at Roosevelt High School, serving the Boyle Heights community. ­Roosevelt is one of 19 schools managed by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a non-profit organization serving 14,200 LA Unified students in Boyle Heights, Watts and South Los Angeles.

Both schools serve a predominantly low-income population with immigrant roots. Many of the students hold part-time jobs, while aspiring to excel academically and become the first in their families to attend college. Other students are in the foster system or are experiencing homelessness.

“It’s not just teaching,” Prakash said. “It’s addressing their social and emotional learning. So it feels more satisfying when you make a difference for these kids.”

Prakash teaches an innovative curriculum that not only imparts “hard skills” such as laboratory techniques and scientific reasoning, but also builds “soft skills” needed for interviewing and applying to jobs. To give the students hands-on experience, the curriculum integrates internships and invites educational partners from biotech companies such as Amgen.

“As a current undergraduate in UCLA majoring in Biochemistry, Ms. Prakash had an impact and continues to support me on my route to college and career readiness,” said Katy Castillo, an alumna of Roosevelt High School. “The opportunities she provided me with while in high school, such as earning the Career Technical Education (CTE) Student of the Year award and competing in an anatomy competition using a virtual Anatomage table, lighted my passion for science and helped develop my leadership skills.”

In 2020, Prakash created even more opportunities for her students through a new educational partnership with her alma mater: the USC Stem Cell Scholars Program, sponsored by the Amgen Foundation. The program provided an intense introduction to stem cell biology for 10 local high school juniors, nominated by LAUSD teachers including Prakash. The high school students received one-on-one mentorship from USC graduate students and postdocs, who kicked off the program at the USC’s stem cell research center, and then adapted it to an online format due to the pandemic.

“With Ms. Prakash’s continued encouragement and support, I was able to be selected as one of the students in the USC Stem Cell Scholars Program and learn so many things about stem cells and how they work,” said Zarina Osmani, who is now a senior at Roosevelt High School. “I am inspired by her, and I always appreciate her assistance for me and all of her students.”

During the pandemic, Prakash has adapted her curriculum to a remote learning environment, and she continues to feel inspired to teach and help her students achieve their highest potential.

“I love being with the students, especially,” said Prakash, who is also the mother of two children. “Some of the LA unified students don’t know anything about biotechnology or research, and I feel a satisfaction when these kids come back and say, ‘Yes, Ms., I got into UC Berkeley or UC Santa Cruz.’ And some of them are really successful as physician assistants, speech therapists, and what not. So I’m so glad to nurture that passion within these kids.”

— Cristy Lytal