UMAB is a training ground for biotech era

May 07, 1992|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Contributing Writer

Biotechnology, the new branch of science that introduced gene cloning, breakthroughs in ways to develop drugs and bacteria that eat oil spills, is on its way to becoming a cornerstone of Maryland's economy in the 21st century.

Since 1986, a collaboration between the University of Maryland system, private enterprise and the state has been positioning Maryland into the forefront of biotechnology research and development.

One part of that effort is in medical biotechnology, centered at the University of Maryland's 32-acre downtown Baltimore campus. Contrary to popular wisdom, however, the state's goal to become a world leader in this exciting field will depend on more than big research facilities and expensive laboratory equipment.

There's one more resource that's needed to make the plan a success.

People.

"If you don't have trained people, you won't be successful," said Denise Harmening, chairwoman of the Department of Medical and Research Technology in the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. "The lack of trained people is what hindered other states in their efforts to succeed in biotechnology. They hadn't thought to plan for the trained human resource."

To meet demand for highly trained laboratory personnel to staff medical biotechnology research and development labs, the University of Maryland School of Medicine instituted the Medical and Research Technology Department in 1990. The department now offers the nation's largest bachelor's degree program in Clinical Laboratory Sciences (Medical Technology).

Not only is the program large, admitting 60 students a year, i graduates students into the growing profession of medical technologist, a career that, the administrator says, offers secure employment, good pay and career flexibility.

"It's one of the most marketable of degrees," Ms. Harmenin said. "It also provides security. You can leave, raise a family and then come back. And all of our graduates are employed immediately after graduation."

And with attractive pay. Nationwide, the average entry-leve salary for medical technologists is about $30,000 a year, Ms. Harmening pointed out. "It's supply and demand, and the shortage is getting worse," she says. "Today, there's a 12- to 14-percent shortage in the Baltimore/Washington area. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 24 percent increase in demand for medical technologists by 2000. That's 57,000 new jobs."

Question: What is it, exactly, that medical technologists do?

"A medical technologist will analyze patient samples, usually blood or other fluids, in hospital labs, run instruments that perform tests and look at samples through a microscope," Ms. Harmening says. "They perform lab procedures ranging from identification of microorganisms to preparing blood for emergency transfusion. It's a job that requires good judgment."

And in-depth training. To provide the information used in diagnosing and preventing disease, students in the program receive an extensive education in an accredited curriculum. They are also exposed to a wide variety of work settings in clinical practice courses during the senior year. After earning their bachelor of science degree, graduates are eligible to take national certification exams given by professional organizations.

The program attracts students who are independent learners, Ms. Harmening said. "They like to learn on their own and like to work in a lab," she explained. "They're usually not as people-oriented as, say, a physical therapist. And they have to be meticulous with details. There's no room for error."

Not all graduates of the program are employed in large hospital laboratories, however. "There are many different opportunities," Ms. Harmening says. "Many become marketing reps for pharmaceutical firms or federal Food and Drug Administration inspectors. One graduate was hired by an accounting firm to handle reimbursements to hospitals. The only limit is your imagination."

Approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of graduates from the clinical laboratory sciences program go on to medical or dental school. "It's one of the best degrees to have for med school," Ms. Harmening says. "All the schools say if you have this degree and are accepted, you're guaranteed to succeed."

The University of Maryland clinical laboratory sciences major is academically tough. Students entering the two-year program must have completed 60 credit hours in a pre-professional curriculum, with heavy emphasis in chemistry, biology and math. The grade point average of the current entering class is 3.0.

For information on sciences majors at UMAB, call (410) 328-7663.

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