A group of students at MiraCosta College (MCC) in California will soon earn bachelor’s degrees in a relatively new field – biomanufacturing – and move on to specialized jobs, such as creating proteins, at biotechnology companies.
The program fulfills a huge need in the local biotech sector, said MCC President Sunita Cooke, a member of the American Association of Community Colleges board of directors, at an Innovators Lab panel hosted by The Atlantic magazine on how to attract talent for San Diego’s growing biotechnology industry.
Because most of those companies require a bachelor’s degree and none of the higher education institutions in the region had an advanced program in biomanufacturing, companies had to provide extensive in-house education, Cooke said.
MCC is one of just 15 community colleges in the state selected by the California Colleges Board of Governors in 2015 to establish baccalaureate programs. The college decide to expand on its existing research-based biotech program and create a bachelor’s degree in biomanufacturing. (Solano Community College in Northern California also established a bachelor’s degree in biomanufacturing.)
The first cohort of 23 MCC students will graduate with bachelor’s degrees in May. Sixteen of them already have jobs in the industry, and MCC is helping the others find placements, said Barbara Juncosa, chair of the college’s biotechnology department.
They are qualified for lab jobs involved in the creation of complex proteins produced from living cells. As an example, labs are creating therapeutic proteins derived from Chinese hamster ovary cells, known as CHO cells, that can be used to treat cancer and autoimmune disorders, Juncosa said. Students with biomanufacturing degrees are also qualified for jobs purifying protein products, ensuring quality control in labs, testing products to ensure they are uncontaminated and safe for patients, and making sure everything their company does is safe, effective and in compliance with FDA rules.
“The program is unique,” Juncosa said. “We not only educate students on the science side of things – how to grow and engineer cells and work with proteins – we also educate them on quality control, supply chain issues, and regulatory affairs.”
One of MCC’s campuses is across the street from Genentch, the largest biotech company in the world, which makes therapeutic proteins among other things. The college also has a partnership with Beckman Coulter, a biomedical testing company. Employees provide one-on-one mentoring to MCC students.
Other companies in San Diego that hire people with training in biomanufacturing are Thermo Fisher Scientific, which makes products for research labs; Gilead Science, a research-based biopharmaceutical company; and Illumina, company that makes DNA sequencers.
To get into the bachelor’s degree program, students must first complete their general education courses along with certain prerequisites, such as chemistry, biotechnology and lab work. In one big difference from traditional science degrees, biomanufacturing students take statistics rather than calculus.
Opening paths to success
One major benefit of earning a bachelor’s degree at a community college is the relatively low cost. Students can complete a four-year degree in biomanufacturing at MCC for just $10,000, Juncosa said.
Starting salaries for those who complete the program are about $30 an hour, while the average salary at San Diego biotech companies is $118,000, Juncosa said.
About 78 percent of students in the program are economically disadvantaged, half are women, and 30 percent are Hispanic, she said.
Cooke believes it’s important to reach out to underserved populations that might not have considered a career in science. When students are in the classroom, “we try to have people in the front of the room who look like them to inspire them to be successful,” she said at The Atlantic forum last month.
“For us, it’s important to tap people on the shoulder and say they have great potential and mentor them,” Cooke said.
Soft skills, which Cooke prefers to call “power skills,” are embedded within the curriculum.
“These skills are needed to not only be good employees but good people,” she said.