Blogging from Bio-Link

i-d336adebb31e5453376e5d20cec6c970-ck_yarrow.jpgBlogging from Bio-Link, part I
I am currently in Berkeley attending the 2006 Bio-Link summer fellows' workshop. It's hard to believe that it's been eight years since the first workshop was held. We're still meeting here in the same lovely Clark Kerr Center and I'm still, as every year, awed by the amount of initiative and drive that I see in the group of people that converge on this place from around the country.

Who would have thought that biotechnology education could inspire this kind of odd combination of family reunion and revival meeting?

Why would anyone hire your graduates?
When I first starting teaching biotechnology classes, in 1991 at Seattle Central Community College, we had people from local companies and some Universities questioning the need for a program like ours. Some industry scientists questioned where students would work with a community college biotech degree. What would they be qualified to do? Some thought we were delusional. "There aren't jobs in biotech," they said, "Companies start up and go out of business all the time. Your students will never be employed unless they have a bachelor's degree."

Of course, we never expected that such a large fraction of our students would come to us after completing their bachelor's degrees. Neither did we anticipate the tremendous growth that biotechnology would see in some parts of the country.

What is Bio-Link?
Bio-Link is one a few Advanced Technology Education (ATE) centers around the nation. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the ATE centers began as a result of a congressional mandate in 1992 to start taking advantage of community college expertise in preparing the workforce for emerging technologies. ATE centers and projects focus on educating students for the technology-intensive fields that drive the economy.

Bio-Link's mission is to strengthen and expand biotechnology technician education at community and technical colleges. As part of this mission, Bio-Link has worked to:

  1. Enlarge and diversify the technician workforce
  2. Meet industry's growing needs to trained technicians
  3. Make high quality training available to all students in all areas of biotechnology.

Lofty goals and ambitious ideas have been part of Bio-Link from day one.

I was skeptical

i-140ec8fdecc7f88ef2c453e4defee754-elaine.jpgWhen Elaine Johnson (our fearless leader)and Mabel Hohm first came to talk to me about Bio-Link, I was, well, skeptical. I knew we had a strong program at Seattle Central Community College, but I didn't know anything about the NSF, I didn't know anything about biotechnology in other parts of the country, and what I did know, wasn't really entirely good. I knew there were good things happening at local companies but I was also far too familiar with the story of another biotech company in my home state of Minnesota. This company, Endotronics, was notorious for fooling several investors, who saw their $38 a share stock become worthless when it turned out the company wasn't really selling all the machines that were claimed, they were hiding them in a warehouse. Needless to say, my attitude towards the industry and the stock market, too, was a bit tainted by that knowledge.

It's a revival meeting!
My most memorable night at Bio-Link eight years ago was the night the high school teachers spoke about their experiences with biotechnology. They viewed it as a god-send. Every talk made the point that biotechnology was a powerful means to get kids hooked on science (and school, for that matter). And the things those teachers would do!! I remember cringing in the back of the room, feeling guilty for having a bit of money to purchase supplies, and a Ph.D. in a molecular field so I didn't have to start from square one. These high school teachers would travel for miles so they could learn how to make buffers and pour gels. They practically dumpster-dived to get equipment for the their classes that companies were throwing away. It was eye-opening.

And there are more stories, too.

Over the next few days, I'll share some of the stories and write about some of the things I've learned at the workshops. My eyes aren't only the eyes that been opened.

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