Three top executives from the giant Tokyo-based pharmaceutical company Takeda Pharmaceuticals visited Oak Park and River Forest High School on Jan. 7, because they were looking for help. Too many people aren’t taking the company’s prescribed drugs. The phenomenon, known as “medication nonadherence,” reduces the effectiveness of those drugs. 

“Medication adherence issues are across the board for [all diseases],” said Jenny Colombo, vice president of medical affairs for Takeda, during a classroom presentation for two dozen junior honors students, who are participating in the Research & Development STEM Learning Exchange.

The program, now in its third year, is designed to grease the pipeline to STEM [Science, Techology, Engineering and Math] careers for Illinois students. The exchange, an outreach effort of the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, partners with 29 high schools across the state — most concentrated in the Chicago area — to provide real-world challenges and corporate mentors for students with an interest in STEM subjects. 

Students who complete the program will receive a full year of honor’s credit and will visit Takeda’s Deerfield offices in order to exchange ideas with their three corporate mentors. The OPRF students are divided into three teams, each of which will compete to showcase their real-world solutions alongside student innovations from the program’s 28 other schools at an event in Chicago. 

Colombo, one of those mentors, illustrated the problem of medication nonadherence by sharing her personal struggles trying to get her mother take medications with regularity. Colombo’s testimony highlighted the pressing immediacy of a problem that students with good enough ideas might have a hand in mitigating.

“We’ve been working at all kinds of solutions [to the problem of medication nonadherence], but none of them stick,” she said.

That real-world urgency was what, in part, attracted students like Brendan Carew, 16, who noted that he’d been part of a similar program before that wasn’t so hands-on and practical.

“My freshman year, I did an independent research project and it wasn’t really structured,” said Carew. “With this, I’m excited because these people are professionals in this field, and we could actually do something to change someone’s life.”

“I actually did something similar to this freshman year,” said 16-year-old Noah Ross Jr. “It was working with missile defense. I definitely thought it was interesting, but because we were freshmen, we didn’t know what to do. It was difficult. So I thought this is kind of like trying it again, but now we’re older. Now all the teachers know what to do a little bit better and we collaborate better. 

Matt Kirkpatrick, the science and technology division head at OPRF, said the exchange program can jumpstart students’ innovative skills in a way that can’t be achieved through purely academic exercises. He said students will be required to research existing solutions that the industry has tried before. 

“Sometimes that’s hard to do on an everyday basis in our [class]. Sometimes we give you problems that you guys see through as teacher problems,” he said. “This wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, this would be nice for high school kids to do.’ It’s a real problem [to] deal with.” 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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