Kickstarting a biotech program at Compton

The Introduction to Biotechnology course at Compton College covers fundamental biology concepts in asynchronous, online lectures and gives students hands-on experience with biotech techniques in the college’s lab. (Photo: Compton College)

The MentorLinks application requires faculty members to obtain their college president’s signature on their application.

That request led to a conversation between Compton College President Keith Curry and Katherine A. Marsh, an assistant professor of biology, about starting a biotechnology program at the urban college.  

“I wasn’t doing that work until the president signed off on it,” Marsh said.

Three years later, the California college has a biotech associate degree program that includes two stackable certificates. Marsh is now the biotechnology instructor and principal investigator of the Creating Equitable Pathways to Careers in Biotechnology project. The college received a $299,999 Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant for the project from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2021; it is the college’s first grant from the NSF program that focuses on technician education.

Marsh explains: “What kind of started it was the MentorLinks application. I needed the president’s signature, so that really got the dialogue going. The president got the [faculty] senate involved. He kind of signed off on us moving forward with a biotech degree program at that time.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series exploring how various community colleges have leveraged the National Science Foundation-funded MentorLinks program, which the American Association of Community Colleges manages, to strengthen their programming in STEM-related fields.

Tapping another professor’s advice

Compton’s selection for the 2019-2021 MentorLinks cohort meant Marsh received advice periodically from MentorLinks Mentor Linda Rehfuss while she was writing the curriculum for five new courses.  Rehfuss is professor emeritus from Bucks County Community College, one of two Pennsylvania community colleges where she led biomanufacturing programs prior to her retirement.

MentorLinks is a program that the American Association of Community Colleges offers with support from NSF’s ATE program to help two-year colleges develop or strengthen technician education programs in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

The $20,000 that Compton received as a mentee college was used in part to compensate Marsh for the course development work she did during semester intercessions. During MentorLinks, she also formed a biotech advisory board with employees of life sciences companies in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Their information about what entry-level technicians must be able to do at biomanufacturers and in biotech labs has been incorporated in the new courses.

Marsh said “it was just nice” to have Rehfuss to talk with as she planned the biotech courses and prepared the ATE grant proposal. She also said it was helpful for Rehfuss to attend the advisory board’s virtual meetings.

The dual-enrollment approach

The biotech program began with one course in spring 2022 and more courses in the fall. Twenty-three dual-enrolled high school students filled the introductory biotechnology course the first time it was offered. The intro course’s lectures are delivered asynchronously online. Public school buses brought the students to campus for the 4 p.m. labs one day each week.

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In addition to teaching the biotech courses, Marsh is devising an on-campus internship program for the Equitable Pathways project. It will provide students with real-work experiences creating buffers and solutions for the college’s labs. The project will also offer professional development to community college and secondary school educators; it will use industry case studies and externships.

Reaching other potential students

Marsh and Compton colleagues have also developed an informational brochure about the biotech program and are ramping up recruitment efforts.

Marsh hopes the biotech program will appeal to veterans, other career switchers and parents who have taken time out of the workforce to rear young children. Offering the introductory biotechnology labs on a weekday morning in addition to the late afternoon is one of the ways they are trying to reach more students.

She said Los Angeles area employers have jobs for people who earn the eight-unit biotechnology lab assistant certificate, the 16-unit biomanufacturing certificate or the associate degree. The degree requires completion of both certificates plus chemistry, statistics and general education courses.

“Even prior to the pandemic, life sciences jobs were kind of recession-proof, and now there’s even more money. So, they’re definitely looking to hire, which is a good chance for students to get into this high-paying and rewarding career,” Marsh said.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
Madeline Patton is an education writer based in Ohio.