San Francisco's New Bridge Leads to Biotechnology

Yet another Bio-Link blog post.


The San Francisco bay area has experienced phenomenal growth in both the number of biotech companies and the need to find employees. But, no matter how many attractions entice potential employees to move to the Bay Area, they still face the problem of finding a place to live. Housing prices are, well, a bit startling to anyone from just about any other part of the country. This presents a dilemma for local companies.

If there aren't enough trained people nearby, and you can't get people from elsewhere, what do you do?

The City College of San Francisco may have found an answer.

If you need to improve access to a freeway, you build an on-ramp. To cross other hurdles you can build a bridge.

CCSF has done both. They decided to look at building a work force by cultivating local talent. This enterprising group of faculty doesn't just skim the cream of the science students, they go out into parking lot and look under the weeds.

Through a combination of interlocked programs, the On-Ramp to Biotechnology, Bridge to Biotechnology, and three one-year certificates in Biomanufacturing, Biotechnology, and Stem cells; CCSF makes it possible for anyone to work towards a biotech position in about 2.5 years.

Does this sound like a pipe dream? Think again.

CCSF has over 600 students in the program! Their graduates are successfully employed at companies like Chiron, Bayer, and Genentech; in addition to research and government labs such as the University of San Francisco and the USDA.

Who's crossing the bridge?
Bridge students epitomize the phrase "non-traditional student." Equal numbers of men and women participate in the bridge program, with an average age of 35. Since any adult over the age of 18 can enroll in CCSF, many students lack high school diplomas, despite some notable exceptions- one student had a Ph.D. in computer science, and one, an M.D. And half list a first language other than English.

This is a very diverse group, but they share two common traits. Most of the students have had very little experience with math and/or science and they are afraid of it.

These are students that usually disappear during General Biology courses ....if they ever enroll in the first place.

These are the students that rarely come to office hours. They never ask questions in class. And they're not the students that you would pick as "most likely to succeed" in science.

Yet, they are.

How are students crossing that bridge?
Students aren't crossing the bridge by themselves, that's for certain. Neither did the bridge get built in a day. The instructors learned, through trial and error, what foundations were necessary to get students across that bridge. Fortunately, CCSF has a dedicated group of instructors who work together as team to help students get over their hurdles. They even schedule interventions with students who look like they're having trouble.

Bridge students begin the journey with a skills assessment. Since there are five levels to the program, the reading and math skills assessment helps students enter at the right place. The CCSF faculty found that self-assessment didn't work very well. Students would cut corners on pre-requisite classes, in order to save time and money, and end up floundering in courses like Chemistry and Biology and dropping out.

Now, students begin the journey with a better foundation. The CCSF program places a strong emphasis on practical skills for learning how to learn, working in a laboratory, and finding a job. Students get over a fear of math because they can't escape it. Lab math - solutions, dilutions, buffers, and media- is everywhere. Students also work in groups using math to analyze experimental data.

Students may spend a lot of time doing math, but the soft skills are covered, too. Surprisingly, even though half the students in the program speak English as a second language and half are native English speakers, they all need to be outfitted with study skills and job application skills.

i-2e21a2b3daa423e82d9bd5bebd370695-hills.jpgBridge students explicitly learn how to read a textbook, take notes, make notecards, identify important points in a lecture, and even how to study effectively with other students. These skills might be second nature to high school kids in college-prep classes but they're all new to students in the Bridge program.

The instructors report that some Bridge students had never even tried to read a textbook before, because the books all looked too hard.

Success in this program is defined as a finding a good job afterwards. To this end, students learn how to write a resume, how to interview, and how to speak the language of biotechnology.

Just how good are the architects of the bridge program?
Building bridges seems to come naturally in place like San Francisco. Time will tell if other community colleges, such as those in Santa Anna, CA, and Austin, TX; will be able to build bridges to biotech of their own. One things for certain, they have some excellent guides to lead them across.

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