Biotech companies such as Genentech, Ambion, and Life Technologies rely on specially trained workers to keep their research and development (R&D) labs and manufacturing processes running smoothly. Biotechnologists can grow cells for use in drug development, analyze DNA, or monitor biofuel production. The unique equipment and techniques used in the field of biotechnology have often required companies to provide on-the-job training to new employees.
However, an innovative center at City College of San Francisco in California called Bio-Link has created a network of community college partners nationwide that tailor their biotech training programs to the needs of the local biotech industry. Students who successfully complete these two-year programs can access employment ready to perform essential techniques and operate state-of-the-art equipment.
This approach is key to the success of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Advanced Technology Education (ATE) program, now in its 20th year. The program funds community colleges, giving them a leadership role in building the skills of STEM technicians. Community colleges work in partnership with universities, high schools, businesses, industries, and government agencies to design and implement model workforce development initiatives in areas as diverse as cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing and aerospace, in addition to biotechnology.
Start from nothing
Bio-Link first received funding from the NSF in 1998 to create a structure to improve and expand biotechnology technician programs across the country. Lead researcher Elaine Johnson and her colleagues contacted every community college across the country to find out if they had a biotech program or were interested in starting one.
Although Austin Community College (ACC) in Texas did not have a program, “we knew there was someone in Austin with strong leadership skills and we could see a future in Texas for biotech” says Johnson, who sought advice from his network to find the right person to develop the Texas program. That person was Linnea Fletcher. Fletcher started the biotechnology department at ACC and in 1999 became a key partner in the Bio-Link network.
The program offers a range of degrees and certificates for students from high school through college and beyond. Through a series of strategic partnerships with local biotech companies, school districts, the state government of Texas, and national biotech consortia, Fletcher has established a dynamic program that addresses student and teacher development as well as industry needs.
Because the structure of education in Texas encourages collaboration, “Linnea is in a state where she can make a difference both locally and nationally,” says Johnson, who notes that the foundation laid by Fletcher “continues to be strong.” very important to all of us.”
Fletcher’s initial task was to develop a program that would become a model biotechnology training program. Initially, she designed and implemented a professional development program for secondary school teachers. With few resources to buy equipment, Fletcher held some of the classes in a friend’s lab at the University of Texas at night. But grants from the NSF and the Texas Education Agency allowed him to bring in area teachers and expand the program.
Together, this group formed an advisory committee made up of representatives from academia and industry who reviewed the course curriculum and made suggestions for keeping it current. They also launched a summer institute so that undergraduate students pursuing degrees in education can connect with new and veteran teachers to improve their teaching and laboratory skills.
These original program components are still an integral part of ACC’s biotechnology program, which now offers an associate’s degree in biotechnology, a post-baccalaureate degree for students with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and a certificate in biomanufacturing. Next fall, Fletcher will add an entry-level certificate that high school students can earn. Over the past 10 years, approximately 225 students have graduated from the program and approximately 10,000 students have completed the advanced high school biotechnology course.
As ACC’s biotechnology program has grown, Fletcher has cultivated relationships with local industry representatives as well as school districts. Through these relationships, she has created a dynamic internship program that complements classroom and laboratory learning.
“It’s a wonderful gateway to working with a company,” says Michael Douglas, executive director of the Texas Life-Sciences Collaboration Center. He notes that companies also benefit, as the internship provides an opportunity to see the students in action. In the three years since ACC Biotech began offering internships, all 20 students who participated have been hired.
A skilled biotech workforce is also becoming a calling card for the state as it attempts to recruit companies from other geographies. Douglas says a California company recently committed to moving to the Austin area because of the readily available pool of trained biotechs.
Two years ago, to expand its role within the business community, ACC Biotech established a Contract Research Organization (CRO). Local businesses can take advantage of ACC’s specialized equipment and faculty expertise to meet their R&D needs.
“It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” says Sulatha Dawarakanath who is leading the effort. With increased exposure among local businesses, Dawarakanath says CRO “took off”. The CRO also provides students with an additional opportunity for hands-on experience and industry interaction.
Extend the network
The ever-growing community of practice engendered by the ACC program has allowed Fletcher to reach out to all six other community colleges in the state. All biotechnology programs now follow the same competency standards and assessments and share programs and equipment through their own network.
The next step is to “turn these community colleges into mentoring centers for high school teachers,” Fletcher says. With a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Grant, Fletcher and his colleagues are developing a biotech mentorship network for this purpose. The mentorship component is crucial because three years ago the state changed the status of the introductory biotechnology course from an elective to one of the core courses students can take for credit. in science.
In ACC’s mentoring model, new teachers are paired with two mentors: one who has just completed the professional development program and a second who has several years out of the training program. During the three-year collaboration, teachers share equipment, pedagogical approaches and ways to master biotechnology laboratory techniques.
One teacher who has worked closely with the ACC program since its launch is Jennifer Lazare. Now an adjunct faculty member at ACC, Lazare first connected with the biotechnology program through a summer institute while in graduate school. For the past decade, she has taught a dual-credit advanced biotechnology course at Anderson High School in Austin.
Recently, with a grant from the Texas Education Agency, Lazare and Angela Wheeler, a former high school teacher and now an ACC Biotech Program Assistant, developed an online certification system for advanced biotechnology teachers. The site provides training information as well as biotechnology lesson plans and other resources for teachers across the state. Lazare points out that his relationship with the ACC gives him access to many resources that enhance his approach to teaching, such as workshops, conferences and curriculum development opportunities.
Make the difference
The development of a strong local biotech workforce has helped make the ACC Biotech program a highly valued program. But Fletcher also enjoys considering how the program is making a difference in the lives of her students.
“For many of them, it’s more than biotech. You see that you can make a real difference in their lives and you’re giving them more than just a job. That’s what gives you ‘energy.”