'An elevator ride away' from work in biotech

BCCC's Life Sciences Institute brings people and jobs together

  • Valencia McLeod, Buddha Mali and Pauline Samuel, from left, all students at Baltimore City Community College, do a chemical analysis of sodium hydroxide at the college's new Life Sciences Institute at the University of Maryland's biotechnology research park.
Valencia McLeod, Buddha Mali and Pauline Samuel, from left,… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
November 11, 2009|Gus G. Sentementes | gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Wearing a white lab coat and focused on handling instruments in a gleaming new classroom, Pauline Samuel couldn't be further away from the world of West Baltimore.

Beyond this new lab where she intently studies biotechnology instrumentation techniques, Samuel works nights to support her five children. She still grieves for the two brothers she lost to Baltimore street violence in the past three years.

Yet Samuel is also optimistic about her future. She's received financial aid from Baltimore City Community College and she's taking classes at its new Life Sciences Institute, a program based in the University of Maryland's biotechnology research park. Frustrated that her brothers' homicide cases remain open, Samuel wants to work in forensic criminal investigations - to put bad guys away with science.

"I want to do CSI work," Samuel said, referring to crime scene investigation and the popular TV show. "No matter how many kids you've got, you can do anything."

While the University of Maryland's BioPark was being built over the past few years, many wanted to know how the project would benefit people who live in the depressed neighborhoods around the campus - people like Samuel. Business and economic leaders fretted that there were not enough technically trained workers to help support the state's growing biotech industry, which has more than 380 startups and established bioscience companies, plus government-funded labs that do research.

"From the very beginning, we wanted to create as many jobs as we could for Baltimore City residents, for the full range of people. Not just the Ph.D.s," said James L. Hughes, vice president of research and development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Hughes and others at UMB worked with the city's community college to make a new home for its associate degree program in biotechnology. No longer would students in BCCC's biotech program - the country's largest for a community college - have to take some classes at the Liberty Heights campus and others at the downtown campus.

UMB also closely integrated with BCCC's Life Sciences Institute. Biotech majors who graduate from the program automatically can enroll in UMB, to complete their four-year degrees.

The Life Sciences Institute opened its doors this semester, a single home on one large floor with 11 laboratories, 10 classrooms and a lecture hall. Its 100 students are now close to innovative biotech startup companies that are tenants in the building - and which are looking for interns and even workers.

"By moving here, our students are an elevator ride away" from potential employers, said Kathleen Kennedy Norris, director of the Life Sciences Institute and a coordinator and professor of BCCC's biotechnology program.

The number of people seeking associate degrees in biotechnology has grown significantly in the past 20 years. In 1989, there were six students in the community college's program; now there are around 100. Graduates are finding employment quickly, Norris said, in a field that currently employs, among private companies alone, around 34,000 in the state, according to the latest state work force figures. Biological technicians earned an average of $36,500 in the Baltimore area last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"We're still not putting out more students than the work force can absorb," Norris said.

The UMB BioPark currently has about 400 workers, and by next summer, it's expected to add 125 more jobs.

Norris said the institute will help the community by creating work-force training and certificate programs, so workers can quickly learn relevant skills that will make them more marketable as potential employees.

The institute also plans to work with the Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, a high school located a few blocks away from the campus, to arrange summer workshops in math and science.

"We plan to take them into the laboratories to show them why it's important for them to do their math all day," Norris said. "To make the connection."

In one lab during a recent visit, Norris was busy teaching 19 students, including Samuel, a lab exercise for a 100-level course called "Techniques in Instrumentation For Biotechnology." Samuel and her lab partner, Valencia McLeod, 42, were doing a chemical analysis of sodium hydroxide. McLeod, like Samuel, was taking biotech classes as part of a life change.

After years as an intelligence research specialist with the FBI, McLeod recently decided to go back to school to become a researcher in pharmacology.

"Science is my first love," McLeod said.

She already has a bachelor's degree in biology, but needs to strengthen her skills working in a lab environment. Her goal is to continue her studies at the University of Maryland, which should be easy to do as a graduate of the Life Sciences Institute.

Of the program, McLeod said: "It's awesome."

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