Biotech program grows with MentorLinks

The MentorLinks cohort of eight colleges that began in October 2019 met in person for the last time in 2022. Applications are being accepted for the next cohort of MentorLinks colleges and mentors. (Photo: AACC)

Participating in MentorLinks helped Misty Wehling and her colleagues at Southeast Community College (SCC) in Nebraska build stackable credentials for a biotechnology degree program.

In the process of winning approval for the program with the guidance of MentorLinks mentor Bridgette Kirkpatrick, a biotechnology faculty member at Collin College in Texas, they developed robust industry partnerships and submitted a successful proposal for an Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant from the National Science Foundation.

The knowledge Wehling gained during MentorLinks-funded site visits to two well-established biotechnician programs became especially helpful after SCC leaders included a biotech lab in the $32.4 million Sandhills Global Technology Center that is under construction. This new building is scheduled to open in fall 2024.

Bringing the pieces together

“MentorLinks helped us bring all the pieces together,” Wehling said during a recent interview, adding, “Our college has definitely come alongside us and invested.” Wehling is a biology instructor, biotechnology program co-chair at SCC, and principal investigator of the ATE project that incorporates a course-based research experience into high school and community college courses.

MentorLinks is an American Association of Community College program that helps community colleges start or reinvigorate technician education programs.

MentorLinks is now accepting proposals for its 2024-2026 cohort until May 30.

Colleges selected for MentorLinks will receive mentoring October 1, 2024, to Nov. 30, 2026, from a community college educator who has successfully implemented a major change in a high-technology program; $30,000 for the two-year grant period; and travel support for the project director to attend three project meetings and make a site visit.

MentorLinks focuses on providing valuable networking and rich opportunities for technical assistance and professional development with the funding it receives from the National Science Foundation’s ATE program.

Expanding biotech education

The biotech certificate, diploma and associate degree that SCC now offers is quite a change from spring 2019 when Wehling applied to MentorLinks. At that time, SCC had five biotech courses that she said “nobody knew about.”

Misty Wehling is the biotechnology program co-chair at Southeast Community College, and principal investigator of the college’s ATE grant.

Over the past three academic years the biotech enrollment has grown from six to 33 SCC students and Career Academy students. The academy brings dual-enrolled high school juniors and seniors to SCC’s campus.  

Meanwhile, the $617,232 ATE grant has provided biotech professional development to eight SCC instructors, who have taught 551 biology majors and non-majors, and 18 high school teachers, who have introduced biotechnology basics to 1,254 high school and middle school students. 

Ten teachers have already signed up for the third professional development workshop that will be offered for one day in July on SCC’s campus and a half day at Neogen Corporation’s Lincoln facility.

Neogen personnel helped Wehling develop the research project that has students collect saliva samples from dogs and analyze the DNA in the samples for the genetic links to particular canine behaviors.

Convening part of the professional development at Neogen allows the professional development instructors to “talk about each of the parts of the experiment that we can kind of go see how it works,” Wehling said. The teachers decide how they want to incorporate biotechnology in their classroom lessons. Many choose to report their students’ results to the ongoing citizen science project that aims to spark students’ interest in biotech careers. The instructional resources developed by the teachers are available from the project’s website.

Representatives of Neogen and five other industry partners make presentations to give the teachers up-to-date information about biotech careers that they can share with their students. Many of these industry partners, who Kirkpatrick encouraged SCC personnel to meet during MentorLinks, also provided suggestions to the architect of the new technology center.

“When this new building was being built, industry was actually able to give input about what they would like to see,” Wehling said.

Wehling also told the architect about the biotech lab at Solano Community College in California that she visited as part of a MentorLinks site visit. Jim deKloe, professor of biological sciences and biotechnology and director of the industrial biotechnology program at Solano College, also provided suggestions for the lab’s design and equipment.

“That site visit at Solano and then Jim’s additional help after that made sure that this facility that we’re getting to build is going to be as close to industry as we can get it,” Wehling said.

About the Author

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