October 2013

Pulling back the curtain on biotech careers

Bio-Link website shows students that the scientific enterprise has the room — and the need — for workers of all sorts

For students with interests in science and technology but with limited knowledge of related professions, figuring out what steps to take toward those careers can be intimidating and deflating. This is especially true for students who could become the first in their families to go to college and for students who want to attend college but can’t afford the rising cost of four-year degrees.
To simplify the search for information about biotech careers, the organization Bio-Link, based at City College of San Francisco, established the online resource Biotech-Careers.org. The site provides a breakdown of which academic credentials typically are required for certain positions, how much those positions usually pay, what day-to-day life is like for workers with those jobs, how to network and find internships, and how to land permanent positions.
Sandra Porter, a microbiologist and former community college professor, is one of four co-principal investigators on the National Science Foundation grant supporting many of Bio-Link’s efforts, including the careers website. Porter says that, while many organizations and agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, have developed career sites dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM, most of those sites focus on paths requiring advanced degrees.
“For biology career sites, the job descriptions were limited to careers in medicine, health science and academic research,” Porter says. “Although these sites do provide information, the emphasis placed on higher-level jobs and advanced degrees might do more harm than good and keep minority students out of scientific fields by reinforcing their concerns about careers in science, technology, engineering or math.”

Cagney Coomer
After double-majoring in chemistry and biology at Virginia State University, Cagney Coomer decided to pursue an associate’s degree and certificate in biotechnology at the Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Kentucky. Her work at the University of Kentucky Advanced Genetic Technologies Center is featured on Biotech-Careers.org. | Image courtesy of Bio-Link

Elaine Johnson, Bio-Link’s executive director and principal investigator, notes that large numbers of high school students, in particular minorities, “who might use these jobs as a path to better opportunity, are either uninterested in STEM careers or see multiple reasons to stay away.” She explains: “When asked why they find these careers unappealing, students cite concerns about high education costs, insufficient preparation, difficult course work and a lack of information about STEM careers.”
Bio-Link is in a good position to help allay some of those concerns. Established in 1998, it is an NSF-funded National Advanced Technology Education Center of Excellence. Bio-Link collaborates with U.S. community colleges to improve programs preparing students for careers in the life sciences. Almost 200 companies, agencies and universities today employ grads from programs with Bio-Link ties.
Another co-PI at Bio-Link, Linnea Fletcher, director of the Austin Community College biotech program and a former NSF program officer, emphasizes that biotechnology “has become a mature industry with more jobs that do no require a Ph.D. or other advanced degree.” She points to the affordability of one-year certificates and two-year degrees offered by community colleges.
“Students may consider STEM programs more attractive if they know it’s possible to finish a community college degree in two years and enter the workforce,” Fletcher says. “An added advantage is that most community colleges work with local industry advisory boards to ensure that the skills they teach are aligned with the skills needed by local companies.”

Suchitra Ramani
After earning a bachelor’s in biochemistry and a master’s in bioinformatics in India, Suchitra Ramani went on to pursue an advanced certificate in biotechnology at Austin Community College. Her work as a research associate at Bioo Scientific Corp. in Austin is featured on the website.

Lisa Seidman, also a co-PI and a faculty member at Madison (Wis.) College, says that Bio-Link promotes teaching practices that help students come to understand scientific concepts and apply them when on the job. She says that learning certain subjects in context, such as mathematics, increases confidence and prepares students to perform laboratory calculations in workplace settings.
Indeed, Biotech-Careers.org has several videos showing students getting practical experience through internships while attending school. “Student concerns about the difficulty of science courses and their lack of confidence in their high-school preparation could be mitigated through biotech programs’ greater emphasis on hands-on skills and working in the lab,” Fletcher says.
Bart Gledhill, a longtime co-PI at Bio-Link and former veterinarian and researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, points out that the careers website doesn’t focus solely on workers with community college credentials. The testimonials from undergraduates, graduate students and adult students pursuing second careers prove there are positions out there for professionals of all sorts.
Most importantly, Gledhill says, the stories, photo diaries and videos show students “people like themselves — of varied ethnicities, histories and backgrounds — working in life science jobs.”

Angela HoppAngela Hopp (ahopp@asbmb.org) is editor of ASBMB Today. Follow her at www.twitter.com/angelahopp.

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