94.9 F
San Fernando
Saturday, Feb 24, 2024

Valley-Area Colleges Push Biotech Curriculum

In the San Fernando and Conejo valleys, there is an active interest in expanding the number of biotech companies in the area. One way to support existing biotech companies and lay the groundwork for the development of new ones is to provide a steady stable of workers qualified to contribute to the industry. Local colleges and universities are doing just that by offering students the research and laboratory experience they need to embark on the pathway to a career in biotech. California Lutheran University has a particular stake in prepping students for the biotech career field, as it is located in Thousand Oaks, where industry goliath Amgen is headquartered. In addition to sending students to Amgen, CLU has provided students with the educational and background experiences needed to go on to Baxter in nearby Westlake Village and Invitrogen in Camarillo. Popular majors for students who want to work in the biotech industry include biology, bioengineering and biochemistry, according to biology professor Dennis Revie. “Biology, of course, covers all areas of biology, including molecular and tissue engineering, in analyzing how tissues develop in bodies, like skin tissue,” Revie said. While biology provides students with a large swath of scientific knowledge, Revie believes that biochemistry is probably the most appropriate field of study for students bent on a career in biotechnology. “It’s the best biotech-related major,” he said. “They study things like cloning, recombinant DNA and genomics.” Some students, however, don’t directly enter the biotech field. Instead, they go to medical school or pursue various career pathways in the engineering field. To equip them with experience that will translate to biotechnology or related fields, students engage in various research projects throughout their undergraduate careers, Revie said. But he added that students aren’t trained specifically for any one career. “We teach them about subject areas and stuff, but they’re very well prepared to move into those kinds of jobs if they want to.” California State University, Northridge, is another four-year academic institution where students can take classes to prepare for a career in biotechnology. CSUN offers biology, biochemistry, physics and various studies in health and engineering that could lead to a career in biotechnology. Getting jobs Professor S.K. Ramesh is the dean of CSUN’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. He discussed how the department’s offerings translate into employment opportunities in the biotech field. “Very broadly, if you look at biotechnology as pharmaceuticals and chemicals and so forth, all of that would come under biotech, and, then you have biomedical engineering.” Ramesh said that the latter helps to improve people’s quality of life. Students pursuing that major may study electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science and manufacturing, to name a few. Knowledge gained in such courses of study could translate into an engineering career in medical device manufacturing for biotech companies, Ramesh said. “We certainly have a number of students here who major in electrical engineering and take elective courses that prepare them for a job in this field (biotechnology),” he said. According to CSUN spokeswoman Carmen Chandler, the physics department has a focus in nanotechnology that would directly relate to a future career in the biotech domain. There’s also the environmental and occupational health major. “We deal with the health and safety impact of any technology or any industrial operation,” said Professor Peter Bellin. “If you figure that some of the biotech companies, for example Amgen, would have fairly strong environmental and occupational safety departments because of the large public safety issues that might be encountered, the staff would be our majors.” Students in environmental and occupational health, who learn about disease prevention, including those borne by exposure to biochemical exposure, are required to complete internships. “We have an ongoing relationship with a number of companies,” Bellin said. “Amgen regularly accepts our interns.” Universities out of the Valley that will likely produce the workforce needed to maintain and expand the Biotech Corridor include the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering offers majors in biomedical and chemical engineering, whereas its College of Letters, Arts and Sciences offers majors in biochemistry and biophysics. Meanwhile, students of UCLA’s College of Letters and Science can major in life sciences, molecular, cell and developmental biology to prepare for a biotech career. Community colleges One needn’t obtain a four-year or advanced degree to venture into the biotech realm. Community colleges in the Valley are also preparing students for careers in the field. For the past six years, College of the Canyons has had a biotechnology certificate program. With the help of grants that total more than $3 million, COC has given the program’s enrollees a great deal of laboratory experience, according to Biotechnology Program Director Jim Wolf. “We’ve made workforce development an integral part of our mission,” Wolf said. “We’ve had students get into Baxter, students get into Amgen, handfuls of students get into small companies here and there, right in Santa Clarita.” Many students land jobs that involve biomedical devices, such as pacemakers, insulin pumps and crossover technology, according to Wolf. “They have to know a little about chemistry and engineering, but it’s also kind of practical knowledge,” he said. James Rikel, Life Science Department chair at Pierce College, firmly believes that students bent on a career in biotech don’t need to have a bachelor’s degree to make a foray into the field. Students who want to work as lab technicians may do just fine with a knowledge of basic science fundamentals, he said. The biotech company that employs them will then provide the appropriate training, he continued On the other hand, students who are interested in getting bachelor’s degrees or beyond would generally follow the biology major’s path at Pierce, “which is very similar to a person going into medicine or dentistry or something of that nature,” according to Rikel. “Here at Pierce, it involves traditional courses in chemistry, physics and biology.” Such students would also have to take math through calculus, he added. Students who are serious about mastering biotechnology can take advantage of partnerships and programs Pierce has with the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA and Caltech, Rikel said. One advantage Rikel believes that Pierce has over large universities, though, is that students are able to obtain direct experience with recombinant genetics because there is lab space to do so. “What’s different at a community college is we don’t have the burden of research. (In universities), a lot of the space in laboratories has to be looked at from a point of research. We don’t have labs competing against something else.” Rikel also said that Pierce’s offerings are strengthened by the school’s strong relationship with Amgen. Professor Marty Ikkanda is the director of the Amgen Bruce Wallace Biotechnology Lab Program at Pierce. The program began 15 years ago but was expanded five years ago. It’s designed to expose the world of biotechnology to high school students, as well as college students and middle school students, to a lesser degree. “The program mirrors what actually goes on in biotechnology,” Ikkanda said. “If you think of biotechnology in the traditional sense, biotechnology isolates a gene that codes for some useful protein or some kind of cell to produce that protein, and the gene is isolated in use by humans. What this program does is (allow) students to do a genetic manipulation with DNA. So, what the program does is that it really shows the complete story of biotechnology in the traditional sense.” Ikkanda wrote all of the curriculum and the science that’s used in the program. “I’m a firm believer that what gets students excited about science is actually doing hands-on science as opposed to reading about in the textbooks,” he said. “This is an opportunity that the Amgen Foundation presented to us that allows students to do all of this hands-on work.”

Featured Articles

Related Articles