It's Training Day for State's Growing Life Sciences Sector
The life sciences is one of the most important and fastest growing industries in the state. The industry is made up of nearly 2,000 companies that employ more than 354,000 statewide. The sector's growth in PA from 2001-08 outpaced the total private sector's growth by a 5-to-1 margin. There was nearly $2 billion in research funding awarded to PA institutions in 2009 and between 2004-09, the state ranked fourth nationally in venture capital for life sciences (nearly $3 billion).
One of the critical factors in supporting the industry is an educated, qualified workforce, not just in science, but also in manufacturing and quality control. It is often thought that this industry employs only highly-trained scientists with graduate level degrees. However, many of the faces of Pennsylvania's life science industry are receiving their training from the state’s community colleges, innovative bachelor’s programs, and industry partnerships. And they're not just training scientists -- they're providing diverse experience and course work to meet specific regional needs, offering programs such as biomanufacturing, food safety, and nanofabrication. Improving Manufacturing and Quality
"You can have the greatest product in the world, but if you aren’t making if effectively, then you don't have a product," says Colleen Hamilton, executive director of the Life Sciences Career Alliance
-- the program manager of the BioScience Partnership.
In March of this year, the BioScience Partnership, which is comprised of more than 100 employers in southeastern PA, conducted a needs assessment to identify regional issues and the types of training needed by industry. From this assessment, they are now focused on multiple new training initiatives including, among others, improving manufacturing and quality processes.
The BioScience Partnership has also developed curriculum -- the Biotechnology Certificate Program -- that community colleges use to standardize training and coursework. One of the area community colleges that participate in this program is Montgomery County Community College
(MCCC). Hands-on Practical Training
MCCC has had a biotechnology program since 2002, with students specializing in biotechnology, biomanufacturing, and molecular techniques. At MCCC, they teach their students, who represent all ages and career levels, cutting-edge laboratory techniques, cell culturing, aseptic processing, and other biomanufacturing techniques that they will need to know to produce biotech products.
So where do these students usually end up after graduating from schools such as MCCC? According to Kevin Lampe, assistant professor of biotechnology and biotechnology coordinator at MCCC, most of his students are working in the quality control space for smaller, start-up biotechnology companies. Lampe says that many of the larger pharmaceutical companies in the region are still reluctant to hire employees with only an Associate’s degree -- but this is something he is trying to change. "All of our biotech courses teach hands-on practical skills. Even with an Associate's degree, they are exceptionally well trained. They can go right into the lab and start work immediately."
From 2007 to 2010, Northampton Community College
(NCC) received a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to build a regional training facility and two specialized diploma programs
. Individuals from sanofi pasteur and other regional members of industry were instrumental in working on this grant and establishing the program at NCC.
"This program demonstrates the responsiveness of the community college to industry needs," says Carolyn Bortz, dean of Allied Health and Sciences at NCC.
Although the grant is complete, the biotech program is still going strong – with around 60 students in this year’s Associate's program. They have specialized programs in Automation Control -- training students to work on the automated lines used by larger manufacturers and Aseptic Processing -- providing entry level training to work in a clean room environment.
As part of their grant, they also created a learning lab clean room on campus, a "unique regional resource for training," as it is the only one in Eastern PA. This clean room can be contracted out by companies in the region for their own training needs. Says Bortz: "We believed this would be very attractive to business and industry." With access to this facility, companies don't have to compromise the cleanliness of their own facility for training.
While this is a great regional asset, many companies are still not taking advantage of the facility. Bortz thinks this is because they were not able to effectively market it as part of the grant process and they are now trying to get the word out to industry.From Clean Rooms to Sensory Labs
With its location not far from Hershey, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
(HUST) has a natural connection to the global chocolate manufacturer. As part of its Food Safety & Quality Assurance Program
, HUST conducts science-based food testing for Hershey Foods in their Sensory Lab -- testing new products, shelf life of products, and new suppliers to find out how this may change the product’s consistency, taste, or appearance.
"We do testing on Hershey’s behalf and in the process, educate students on the science of food testing," says Dr. Eric Darr, executive VP and provost of HUST.
HUST also has other biotech programs including nanobiotechnology, nanofabrication, and pharmaceutical design and they hold a leadership position in the Capital Area Bioscience Partnership
(CABP), working with other educators and industry leaders to develop courses to educate the next generation of life science workers.
As part of the CABP, they connect high school students with community colleges and universities to create an interest in biotech careers. Students are educated on DNA, genetic design, and even the chemistry of chocolate.
In all they do, HUST and CABP have "an eye toward trying to interest more students in a career that they may not otherwise think about.”" A career in one of the state's fastest growing industries.
Amber van Niekerk is a freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Send feedback here.
Kevin Lampe (center) works with students on a bioreactor
Biosamples are kept cold in a refrigerator
As the culture grows in the bio reactor, samples are removed aseptically, on a periodical basis
Students discuss the process
(from left) Paul McFadden, Nela
Martinovic and Dr. Barbara
Bielska in the biotech lab on the Monroe County Campus of Northampton Community College (photograph by Douglas Benedict)
All photographs, unless otherwise noted, by JEFF FUSCO